All posts by Charles West

Teaching with Wikipedia

I’ve just finished teaching my module on Wikipedia and medieval history. It’s a short course for MA students, taught through five two-hour seminars. I started this module in early 2018, as I think the first of its kind in the UK; it’s now run three times, with the support and advice of the brilliant Wikimedia UK team.

It’s evolved quite a lot from where it started: from what was basically a ‘normal’ medieval MA course with a Wikipedia dimension, to a course that’s more squarely focused on Wikipedia itself, and its implications for those concerned with the (medieval) past.

There’s quite a lot of interest these days in teaching with Wikipedia, so in case it’s useful for anyone thinking of running such a module, I’ve attached my course guide. Comments and suggestions for improvement would be very welcome!

Wikipedia and Medieval History (pdf)

image: Andrea Caprez (via
https://twitter.com/staatsarchiv_zh/status/1147521814563872768 )

Reflections on the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate

It’s with some hesitation that I write this blog. It’s not really my field, and the topic is angrily contested; many historians have chosen to keep their heads down and concentrate on their teaching and research at a busy time of year. But the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate raises important questions for those who study the medieval past, and for historians more broadly.

At its simplest, the debate concerns the value of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a label for the culture, society and politics of southern and eastern Britain before the Norman Conquest. It has been argued by scholars such as Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm (for instance, here) that the label is irredeemably racist and must therefore be abandoned, not just because of its modern appropriation by far-right groups, but because of its history since the Reformation. Proponents of this view add that its continued use actively discourages BAME scholars from entering and remaining in the field; some hold moreover that its abandonment should be merely the beginning of reforms required to dismantle a structurally racist system of knowledge production in the modern university.

Those making these arguments have met with awful racist abuse online, and I applaud the courage of Dr Rambaran-Olm and others in facing it.

Others in the debate have pointed out that the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was abundantly attested in sources from the time (especially those written on the continent) and so cannot easily be dismissed or ignored, have called for more thorough assessment of the term’s early modern and nineteenth-century use by specialists of these periods, and have raised concerns about abandoning commonly-used labels to extremists. (There’s a useful summary by Michael Wood here.)

One of the issues is a significant UK/US dissonance. In America and other English-speaking countries, the term ‘Anglo’ or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often used as an ethnic label – indeed, that is apparently its normal usage outside the academy. In the UK, this usage can certainly be found; but it is a marginal one, and for the most part the label today is used with reference to the historical period, whose traces remain evident in place-names and even standing buildings. In standard UK usage, Hadrian the African, for instance, who came from North Africa and became abbot in Canterbury (d. 709), is just as much part of Anglo-Saxon history as the Venerable Bede.

To be clear, this does not mean that the UK is less racist than America, just that different countries with different histories are differently racist. Where the far right in America uses a language of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, the far right in the UK, and especially in England (the largest of the four nations of the UK), primarily employs a language of exclusionary Englishness (e.g. the English Defence League). It’s maybe partly for that reason that BAME people living in England are much less likely to consider themselves English than white people living in England, often preferring instead the label British. To talk about the ‘early English’ or the ‘Old English’ instead of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, as has been mooted, might help combat racism in the US, but might inadvertently feed it in England.

There is a wider issue here, which is about the best way for historians to combat fascism in all its forms: an acute question in 2019. For me, the key is to write good, accurate and engaging history that does not oversimplify past complexities, that respects the integrity of the historical sources in the search to understand the past as best as possible for its own sake – and that challenges both the distant past’s direct relevance to contemporary politics, and anyone’s claim exclusively to own it.

When extremist groups appeal to the early Middle Ages in their efforts to reshape the contemporary world, historians should point out where they are wilfully and grotesquely misreading the evidence: after all, the appropriate and sensitive use of evidence is what historical training and historical ethics are all about.

But historians should also, and I would argue above all, point out that the past is not an instruction manual or a model for the present. Whatever your reading of it, early medieval history was a very long time ago: it is or ought to be largely irrelevant for contemporary political issues, whether in England or America or anywhere else. The main problem with 21st-century fascists pretending to be medieval Anglo-Saxons or Vikings is not that they have misread Bede or Gildas: it is that they are fascists.

Notes:
Edited 11.11.19 to remove ‘if one looks hard enough’ after ‘this usage can certainly be found’, to avoid any unintended implication that racists need to be sought out.


No mercy for the simoniacs

In 1059, the campaign to rid the church of the evil of simony moved up a gear. Simony was the sin – contemporaries said heresy – of acquiring ecclesiastical office in exchange for gifts, or promises of favour. At a council in Rome, Pope Nicholas II declared that all priests who had secured their position in this way were now deposed.

But Nicholas went further than that. He not only deposed priests who had paid for their offices, he also targeted priests who had been ordained by such priests, even if their own ordination had been carried out for free (gratis). This was a radical and controversial measure, reminiscent, as Conrad Leyser has pointed out, of the Donatist schism in the fifth century, because it implied that the sacraments of simoniac priests were invalid. Its practical implications were so great that Nicholas accepted that priests already freely ordained by simoniacs might stay in their offices – but by merciful concession, not by the letter of the law.

Nicholas’s decree also dealt with matters of papal election, so it might be tempting to read its far-reaching statements about simony as primarily an act of dramatic rhetoric, aimed at a local, Roman audience. Was it really intended to have an impact in the Latin church as a whole?

Actually, the answer might be yes. There’s a clue in the manuscript transmission – ie, how the text was preserved in the Middle Ages. Nicholas’s decree was copied not in manuscripts written in Rome, but in manuscripts based on a compilation of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury – and quite separately, in a manuscript now preserved in Vic in Catalonia. As Rudolf Schieffer pointed out, this suggests that Nicholas II took care to promulgate his decisions beyond Rome, sending out not only this decree, but also related material such as an oath sworn by the recanting heretic Berengar of Tours, which accompanies the 1059 decree in all manuscripts.

The Vic manuscript is especially interesting, however, since it also contains a copy of Humbert of Moyenmoutier’s 1058 treatise Three Books Against the Simoniacs. It’s long been debated how much this radical text spread, since not many copies of it now survive. But its proximity to the 1059 decree about simony in the Vic manuscript suggests not only that it might have spread more than we might think, but that it might even have been actively disseminated by the papacy as part of its anti-simony campaigns.

The mid-eleventh-century papacy is often overshadowed by Pope Gregory VII, but it’s becoming ever clearer how much he was the product, and not the cause, of ‘reform’.

Pope Nicholas II’s 1059 decree (PDF)

“I am not at all able to endure without any conjugal union” – king Lothar II and the Council of aachen 862

In the year 862, King Lothar II appeared before a group of bishops gathered in Aachen, in a state of high anxiety. Barefoot, and with quavering voice, the king asked for mercy, forgiveness – and a new wife. A previous council in 860 had separated him from Queen Theutberga. But it had not given permission for him to remarry, and Lothar declared this put him in an unbearable position. He was not permitted to take a concubine, but nor, he stated, was he ‘able to bear the ardour of his youth without conjugal union’.

The king’s speech can be read as a remarkably bold act of passive-aggression. By publicly emphasising the king’s human frailty, it compelled the king’s bishops, for reasons of pastoral care, to accede to his demand. As they observed, ‘we are not able to forbid him from marrying a wife and procreating children, lest he slip into worse things’.

Lothar hoped that a public display of royal weakness could be turned into royal strength – a king acting the part of the humble and penitent Christian, setting a moral example for his subjects. It’d worked for Emperor Louis the Pious in 822, after all. And at first sight, it worked again in 862. The bishops agreed that Lothar II could remarry, and his ‘concubine’ Waldrada was soon after formally accepted as his wife.

But the plans soon began to fall apart. To win over sceptics, Lothar was forced to hold yet another council in 863, where in a dramatic and rather unconvincing twist, he revealed that ‘actually’ he had been married to Waldrada all along. And even in 862, his court was so divided that the bishops could not agree on a single version of the Aachen meeting (something I’ve discussed at greater length elsewhere). No wonder that Pope Nicholas I was able to make Lothar yield.

And so in 865, Lothar was obliged to receive back his ex-wife, Theutberga, with all due ceremony. 862 may have been a sham humiliation, but it laid the foundations for 865, which was a very real one.

Here’s a translation of the three main documents from the Council of Aachen 862 – a glimpse of a desperately inventive early medieval royal court.

TRANSLATION (PDF)

The Carolingian military-religious complex & the fate of the Middle Kingdom

Since at least the early tenth century, the failure of the Middle Kingdom – the kingdom of Lothar II, Lotharingia – has been tied to the failure of the Carolingian empire, whose wider history has almost always been dominated by the trope of decline: the inability of Charlemagne’s successors to measure up. That’s lent the kingdom’s eventual fate – divvied up by rival kings in 870 – an air of inevitability.

But for all that a combination of bad luck and poor judgement landed King Lothar II into a very deep hole in the 860s,  we must beware the historian’s besetting vice of teleology. Dramatic reversals in fortune were par for the course in ninth-century politics. Lothar was admittedly in a pickle from 863 onwards thanks to his marital problems, but had it been his uncle King Charles the Bald who’d succumbed to unexpected illness in 869, events would have taken a rather different turn. And this blog is about some evidence that, up to his death, Lothar’s embattled kingdom seemed to remain in working order.

Like other Carolingian kingdoms, Lothar II’s had been afflicted by Viking raids, though the absence of a Lotharingian equivalent of the Annals of St Bertin or Annals of Fulda mean that we’re generally less informed about them. Viking raids could be dangerous and destabilising, but they also offered rulers a chance to demonstrate their martial vigour against an unproblematically ‘othered’ enemy. The Franks had mixed feelings about “civil” war – i.e. killing other Franks – but fighting Vikings was a different matter.

That’s demonstrated by a letter that chances to survive from Bishop Adventius of Metz, one of King Lothar’s most important supporters, and which probably dates from the year 867. In it, Bishop Adventius gives notice that the ‘whole people’ in his diocese is to undertake a three-day fast to beseech God for Lothar’s victory in an upcoming confrontation with the Vikings (see translation below). This is, in a way, the staging for a holy war.

Without doubt there were genuine religious motives at work here. But Lothar II’s kingdom was under enormous external pressure, which had not been relieved by Lothar’s decision under compulsion to readmit Theutberga as his wife in 865. So the opportunity to bring everyone together in a set of religious ceremonies against a common enemy would have been a welcome fillip to the king and his supporters. Here everyone could see the God-given, traditional order being rehearsed by the Carolingian military-religious complex: bishops praying for kings to triumph in war, with the common people (vulgaris populus) doing as they were told by their local priests.

In 867, Lothar II could, then, still present himself as a traditional king doing traditional kingly things, despite all the problems he and his supporters were facing. Ironically, though, hewing to tradition was actually one of the causes of those problems, since his disastrous marriage politics can be read as an attempt to behave just as his predecessors had, without realising that the ground had moved beneath his feet. In the end, maybe Lothar II was just too traditional for his own good?

Translation of Adventius’s letter about the Vikings (pdf) 

Image – oh just some manuscript or other (w. thanks to Anna Dorofeeva)

Bishop Altfrid’s Report, summer 862

Much of what we know of early medieval high politics is based on texts written for public consumption: the final version of agreed charters, crafted formal records of meetings, or commemorative (or subtly critical) histories. It’s perhaps this slant of the evidence which has led some historians to emphasise the ritualised quality of those politics. Amidst the records of choreographed assemblies and ceremonies, the actual workings of political process are hard to discern: the surviving evidence appears all highly polished surface, with little indication of whirring cogs beneath.

But just occasionally a text survives, usually by the skin of its teeth, that seems to let us see (to mix metaphors) under the bonnet of the spluttering engine of Carolingian dynastic political manoeuvring. The text presented in this blog in translation for the first time, thanks to one of my former students, Hayley Harrison, is a good example.

It’s a letter sent in the summer of 862 by Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim (†874) to his king, Louis the German (of East Francia). Altfrid had travelled to West Francia on his king’s behalf, to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the king’s brother, King Charles the Bald (of West Francia). He wrote this letter to let King Louis know how things were going. Although Altfrid was from a Saxon family, he had probably been educated in West Francia (perhaps at Corbie), and already had some experience of acting as an envoy between Louis and his royal relatives, so he was a natural choice for this embassy. His predecessor as bishop of Hildesheim was moreover the exiled Ebbo of Reims, so we can assume that Altfrid was quite well informed about wider Frankish politics.

The letter doesn’t explain the specific purpose of Bishop Altfrid’s mission to King Charles, but we do know it touched on the affairs (so to speak) of King Lothar II, Louis and Charles’s nephew, who had just recently divorced his wife Theutberga at the Council of Aachen in April 862, and was now gearing up to marry Waldrada. Indeed this was probably the embassy’s main focus: Louis wanted to reconcile Lothar and Charles, and to help draw a line under his nephew’s recent political difficulties. That was not, however, how things turned out.

As the letter explains, Bishop Altfrid first travelled to Lotharingia, picking up envoys from the young Lothar, before they all proceeded to King Charles’s court, at his grandest ceremonial centre, Compiègne. There, as Altfrid reported to Louis, the two embassies met with very different receptions. To Altfrid, Charles was gracious and cordial; to Lothar’s envoys, he was conspicuously cold and peremptory. Lothar was a king mired in sin, and Charles would have no dealings with him until he mended his ways. Charles did want to talk about Lothar’s case – but with Louis, privately, and in Lothar’s absence.

As Stuart Airlie has argued (1), we see in Charles’s public behaviour a message as clear as the words that were spoken (or written, if as seems possible the ‘Capitulary of Savonnières’ represents an echo of this meeting, perhaps even the ‘other record’ the letter mentions). Until Lothar had resolved his marital problems, his followers and clients were not welcome in Charles’s kingdom. And a king who could not ensure his followers were treated with public respect was a king seriously failing in his responsibilities.

If Lothar II had not yet grasped that the Aachen Council of 862 would not simply extricate him from the crisis engendered by his attempted divorce, he ought to have begun to realise it now.

Translation of Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim’s letter (pdf)

Image: Nordrhein-Westfalen Landesarchiv in Münster, Kindlingersche Sammlung vol. 40, fol. 210v-211r

1: Stuart Airlie, ‘Unreal Kingdom: Francia Media under the shadow of Lothar II’. In: Gaillard, M.Margue, M.Dierkens, A. and Pettiau, H. (eds.) De la mer du Nord a la Mediterranee: Francia Media, une Region au Coeur de l’Europe (c.840-c.1050). Centre luxembourgeois de documentation et d’etudes medievales, pp. 339-356

The Carolingian 1%

As the Carolingian empire grew in size, so its ‘stakeholders’ grew richer – kings, churches, and the highest-ranked Frankish aristocrats above all.

Few if any Carolingian aristocrats were higher-ranking than the couple who issued this will around 863, presented below in draft English translation for the first time (primarily to help students). Count Eberhard came from a well-established noble kinship group labelled by modern historians as the ‘Unruochings’, because many men associated with it were named Unruoch. Eberhard’s wife Gisela was the daughter of Emperor Louis the Pious and Empress Judith, no less. This was a family at the very top of the tree.

That position is evident from the document itself, in which Eberhard and Gisela distributed their possessions amongst their sons and daughters. A large part of the will reads like a treasure list: immense quantities of golden, silver and ivory objects, from swords to drinking vessels. Some of these were probably of recent manufacture, others may have been antiques already.  The will is also famous for its dozens of books, which are individually divided up amongst the children too. Eberhard and Gisela had evidently built up a very considerable library.

Nevertheless, the bulk of their wealth was in land. The will does not give a precise value or acreage, but it is apparent that Eberhard and Gisela were seriously wealthy, with property in what is now Germany,  Italy, Belgium and France. They were certainly part of the Carolingian 1%, busy with Piketty and Scheidel’s ‘capital accumulation’, and keen to pass it on to their heirs.

But the more you have, the more you have to lose, and Eberhard and Gisela clearly worried about that. Their will accounts for the possibility that a future king of the Franks, Lombards or Alemans will seize property from one of their heirs ‘by violence or without cause’.  The Carolingian world of the 860s was one of kingdoms ruled by rival kings, which posed problems for those aristocrats whose property stretched over the old empire as a whole.

Indeed the will can be read as indicating that the couple were beginning to create separate ‘kernels’ of land, with, for instance, all their Italian estates passing as a bloc to their eldest son, Unroch. While kings were still aiming for the ultimate prize – to reconstitute the empire of Charlemagne – were their aristocrats already quietly but surely accommodating themselves to a new, more fragmented reality?

Translation: The Will of Count Eberhard and Gisela (pdf)

Image: the “Reliquiary of Pippin”, a 9th-c. reliquiary now in Conques (France), perhaps like those mentioned in the will.

Simony, the Latin West and Byzantium

It’s long been emphasised by historians of the European Middle Ages that their subjects did not think of themselves as medieval, a periodisation that was only invented and imposed later. Less often discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that they would not usually have thought of themselves as ‘European’ either. There certainly was a medieval concept of Europe (Europa). But as Klaus Oschema and Marie-Céline Isaia have suggested, that itself means that we should be cautious about using the term when the people we are studying did not.

To avoid the risk of anachronism that the language of “medieval Europe” might bring with it, historians have sometimes instead talked of the Latin West to describe their focus of study. In many ways this is both understandable and justifiable. People living in Carolingian Francia, for instance, did think of themselves as western, and the widespread use of Latin in liturgical and learned contexts – no matter what the vernacular – eased cultural transfer across wide areas, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Iceland to Sicily. There is a real cultural network here to be studied.

However, this cultural network was not strictly bounded or contained, and in fact many of its most central ideas developed in and through dialogue with those living elsewhere. As Saba Mahmood has put it when talking of European encounters with the wider world, ‘These encounters did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within…’[1]

The text presented here in English translation is a case in point. It is a letter written on the theme of simony, that it is to say the purchase (or, according to this treatise, attempted purchase) of ecclesiastical office: paying to become a priest or bishop. Very likely this letter was written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier, since it seems in some ways a first draft of his much longer (and more celebrated) Three books against the simonists. This letter was therefore an important step in the elaboration of a key concept in medieval history.

Significantly, however, this “early draft” was written to a Byzantine governor in southern Italy – a representative of another socio-political complex, in which Greek, not Latin played the role of lingua franca, and in which ancient ideas of the state (and of office holding) seemed better preserved. In other words, we can see Humbert developing his ideas – ideas that proved central in the history of the Latin West – in dialogue with people located in overlapping but distinct cultural networks.

Encounters such as these were not marginal to the development of the cultural network we might label the Latin West: they were baked in.

‘On the heresy of simony’: translation (opens pdf)

[1] Saba Mahmood, ‘Can secularism be other-wise? (A critique of Charles Taylor’s A secular age)’, available via http://www.academia.edu/916047/Can_Secularism_be_Other-wise_A_Critique_of_Charles_Taylors_A_Secular_Age_

What is a History lecture for?

Once upon a time, a typical History degree in the UK would be taught through a combination of lectures and small-group teaching. The small-group teaching would be based on discussion of reading done in advance. To enable all the students to do the reading, libraries would stock multiple copies of relevant books, next to little cardboard boxes of offprints – authorised photocopies – for reading in the library, not for borrowing.

This all sounds rather quaint in the era of digital reproducibility. When JSTOR first appeared, lecturers publicly lamented that students no longer learned how to use library catalogues, but they privately welcomed the way it abolished the old access problems. Every student could read the same chapter or article in preparation for the small-group discussion, and a course could be easily updated if something new and brilliant came out.

Now, though, reproduction technologies are being applied not just to the reading but to the lectures, through lecture capture.

UK students and university administration alike often see lecture capture as progress with no downsides. You can listen to your lecture again and again, at your leisure, whenever and however suits you. Staff concern about dropping attendance is countered by the benefit the technology clearly offers to students who unavoidably miss a lecture through illness, family emergency, or other commitments, quite apart from university ‘business continuity’ if a lecturer falls ill or is otherwise unavailable.

But these debates, though important, are missing a key point: reproducing something inevitably changes the original in some way.

This year, a number of engaged students have politely emailed me, weeks after a lecture, to ask for references to things I referred to in passing in a lecture – and not just book titles (which I naturally provided), but for page numbers. In essence, they are asking for my lecture’s footnotes. And that’s perfectly understandable. Digital reproduction means the lecture has become a resource, not an event. Now that students can listen to it again and again, their expectations of the lecture have changed. It is now effectively a recited text.

Does this matter? As it happens, most of my lectures are texts, since I tend unfashionably to write them out in full. Is there any reason I shouldn’t simply upload them as texts, so all the students can read them for themselves? Why not treat undergraduate lecture series as oral textbooks?

That might be where we’re going. But there are two issues. The first is that if we expect lectures to receive the kind of scrutiny that published texts come under (especially if they end up on the internet, which these days is more likely than not), lecturers will have to spend rather longer on writing them, and changing their nature: polishing them up, equipping them with footnotes, and removing those wry quips that might sound awkward taken out of context.

The second is deeper-rooted. I think most History lecturers don’t want their students to ‘learn’ their lectures by dint of repetition: these lectures aren’t e-How videos, teaching a historical data-set to be repeated back in an exam. That’s because a History degree, at heart, isn’t primarily about rote learning lots of details about the past – it’s about learning how to construct, for yourself, reasoned and persuasive arguments on the basis of incomplete evidence. Undergraduate lectures are generally intended to introduce students to a wider body of historical literature, to help guide them through it; they are not supposed to stand in for that literature in itself, or to give the answer for the exam. But that is what uniform lecture capture presents their role to be.

In other words, as lecture capture becomes ever more prevalent and normal, there is the risk that undergraduate lectures become obstacles to the kind of learning that History degrees are intended to inculcate. It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. Ironically, rather than bringing lectures into the 21st century, could lecture capture end up killing them off?

*Update* 13.11.2018
To my slight surprise, a few people have read this blog as just an(other) attack on lecture capture. But I wasn’t arguing straightforwardly for or against (and I specified the advantages of LC for many students, though I accept I ought to have mentioned disabled students explicitly).

My focus was rather on how LC changes the nature of a lecture – in disciplinary terms, it effectively makes it into a secondary source – and how this has pedagogical (as well as workload) implications. Actually, I suspect many students have long considered lectures to be secondary sources, rather than guides to them, so in that sense LC is just bringing a latent issue to the fore,  but in a way that merits reflection.

Making use of LC technology in an imaginative and properly thought-through way could improve teaching, but perhaps not in a way which leaves the standard lecture-based teaching model intact (whether that’s a good or a bad thing).

translations

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been putting up draft translations of early medieval texts online, mostly produced in support of teaching. 

Here’s an index (not including very short partial translations and excerpts), in case these translations are useful for anyone. I’ll update this page as and when I put fresh material online. These aren’t polished pieces of work, so please do let me know if you have comments or suggestions, or spot any errors. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

804: the Rizana placitum 

835: Florus of Lyon’s On the Appointment of bishops

840?: the Capitulare in pago cenomannico datum

847: the Courtisols judgement

c. 850: the Apparition of St Vaast

852: Hincmar’s first episcopal capitulary (on the Hincmar.blogspot)

856: Judith ordo (and 866 Ermentrude ordo), by Hincmar

858: the Quierzy letter to Louis the German

c. 860?  Ordeal of cold water

862: The Aachen Council of 862 

862: Embassy of Bishop Altfrid to King Charles the Bald 

863: A charter by Lothar II mentioning Waldrada

c. 863: The will of Eberhard and Gisela

864: Bishop Adventius of Metz writes to Pope Nicholas I (on the Hincmar blogspot)

867: Ratramnus of Corbie’s Contra Graecorum opposita (extract)

867: Bishop Adventius of Metz’s letter about the Vikings 

871: Letter of Louis II to Basil I

876: De noviliaco villa/About the estate of Neuilly,  by Hincmar

877: the Capitulary of Quierzy

893: Hatto of Verdun’s Memoriale

c.900: a Carolingian sermon on the Vikings

c. 1050: A treatise on simony

1059: Pope Nicholas II’s decree on simony

c.1090: the visit of Joseph the Englishman to Constantinople