All posts by Charles West

The doubting monk: atheism in the Middle Ages

Earlier this week I attended a workshop in Glasgow on atheism, organised by Callum Brown. Present were a number of modernists and early modernists, but also several medievalists too, because the idea behind the workshop was to examine the traditional grand narrative about the ‘rise of unbelief’. Was atheism really an invention of the Enlightenment; or were there sceptics around beforehand, hidden by the nature of the sources, all preserved by the Church? Or is an attempt to find such people, as John Arnold warned it might be, a kind of ‘heroic history’, seizing on rare, ambiguous and marginal references in the hope of identifying a few individuals who were ‘ahead of their time’?

It is often remarked upon that there was no word for atheism in the Latin Middle Ages. In fact, there is perhaps just one first-person account expressing doubt in the existence of God from the entire period (at any rate, it is the only one known to me). It comes in the work of a late eleventh-century monk, Otloh of St-Emmeram in southern Germany. In this work, written in the 1070s, Otloh explains how he was ‘tempted’ by the Devil, who whispered increasingly awful thoughts into his ears. Otloh should not have become a monk; Otloh was not a very good monk; God was severe and unkind.  Finally came the worst devilish thought of all: si vel ulla in scripturis sacris veritas sit ac profectus, vel si deus omnipotens constet prorsus dubitavi (“I wholly doubted whether there was any truth or usefulness in the holy Scriptures, or if Almighty God existed”).

Reading this passage after the Glasgow workshop, several thoughts come to mind. The first is that Otloh’s doubts were apparently not provoked by anything he had read, or any conversations he had had: they were purely the product of inward reflection. Otloh could not have read an atheist tract, for the good reason that none existed at this time. He worked out his doubts for himself. The second is that this moment of doubt in God – Otloh describes it as lasting for several hours –  clearly represented a crisis for Otloh, because he was a monk who had dedicated his life to serving God. For thinking doubters outside the monastery, the issue may well have been much less urgent, less in need of definite, definitive resolution.

A third thought relates to an aside of Otloh’s, that he did not dare tell anyone about his doubts: propter inauditam ipsius impugnationis qualitatem ulli fratrum aperte indicare vererer (‘because of the unheard of nature of this attack, I feared to mention it to any of the brethren’). This doubting monk had, it seems, never heard anyone questioning the existence of God before, so he did not talk about it either. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways: either such doubt was indeed incredibly rare, and Otloh was a very odd person; or it was quite widespread (even within monasteries), but taboo. The fact that Otloh wrote an account of his experience, in order to benefit future monks, strongly suggests that he at any rate suspected the latter. Perhaps many monks were afflicted by doubt at some point; perhaps every monk was.  But there was no possibility of forming a community of doubt; it was not a topic that could be discussed.

That might be an important pointer for those interested in histories of unbelief (heroic or otherwise). What seems to have changed in later periods was not that people became more sceptical, questioning or rational. It’s quite clear that people were all these things before the year 1700. The change was sociological rather than psychological, in the formation of a subculture that allowed doubters to talk to each other, to create and to confirm self-narratives of de-conversion. Had Otloh stumbled across or remembered a bootleg copy of some atheist pamphlet at the moment of his crisis, or found some doubting confidant, then events could have taken a very different turn. Instead, Otloh prayed to God, found renewed certainty and purpose, and wrote a narrative of reconversion to demonstrate his confidence to others – and perhaps also to himself.

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Further reading
Otloh’s work is not currently available in English, though a translation is apparently in hand for Broadview. The best edition, with German translation, is by Sabine Gäbe, Otloh von St Emmeram: Liber de Temptatione cuiusdam monachi. Untersuchung, kritische Edition und Übersetzung (1999).  Hannah Williams has recently written a number of sophisticated studies of Otloh’s  text, for instance here (£).

The best general guide to these issues is unquestionably John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005), esp. pp. 216-229. As always, Susan Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series 1 (1991), repays reading.

“Secular power” in early medieval Bavaria

Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…

Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works.  This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune.[1] Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.

The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.

The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.

Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.

His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated.  That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.

Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…

Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)

Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.

Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.

God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.

[1] J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.


Religious Exemption and the State 400-1300, 14th-16th April 2016: call for papers

*** For the conference programme and other relevant information, see the conference website ***

Call for Papers (deadline Friday 19th September 2015)

Throughout history, religious groups across the world have claimed exemption from their rulers’ demands, with a considerable degree of success. Such exemptions were prevalent in the pre-modern world, from Buddhist monks’ accumulation of tax-free lands to Latin clerics’ assertion of ‘benefit of clergy’ and Islamic charitable waqf. Although the particular forms of exemption varied according to religious practices and the nature of the political systems in which they operated, a common set of core similarities is apparent.

A full appreciation of these exemptions’ significance in the pre-modern world has however been impeded, on the one hand by their embedding in traditional narratives such as the rise of the modern (Western) state, to which they are often represented as obstacles, and on the other by the conceptual difficulties posed by the categories at the historian’s disposal, such as ‘religion’, ‘secular’, and indeed ‘state’, when applied to the pre-modern period.

This conference, supported by the AHRC, seeks to engage with these problems as a contribution to developing a comparative global historical understanding of religious exemption from state demands in the pre-modern world. Confirmed participants include R.I. Moore (Newcastle), Naomi Standen (Birmingham), and Andrew Wareham (Roehampton).

The conference, held at the Department of History in Sheffield from Thursday evening  (14th April 2016) through to Saturday morning (16th April 2016), will address three key questions. Firstly, how common were these exemptions on a global scale, and what kind of commonalities did they share? Secondly, what kind of structural role did these exemptions play: did they weaken the states that conceded them, or did they rather – as some recent research has suggested – strengthen them, whether by providing legitimacy or by supporting the informal networks underpinning the formal exercise of power? Thirdly, how should the demarcation they created best be conceptualised in an age thought not to have been structured by the modern secular/religious distinction?

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers addressing these questions, whether on the basis of case studies or through critical engagement with specialist historiography, with a preference for studies concentrating on the period 400-1300 CE. Speakers will be requested to pre-circulate their papers in March 2016 in a form accessible to non-specialists, and we are in discussions with a  journal for post-conference publication. Limited travel funds are available, and accommodation for the duration of the conference will be provided for speakers.

Paper proposals and all other queries to, by Friday 19 September.

Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate

When historians point out that something familiar in later periods was attested, and maybe quite normal, in the period they study too, they can find themselves accused of ‘precursorism’ – that is, the mechanical assertion that the antecedents of something really lie in a more distant past, in an anachronistic way (e.g. claiming that the Middle Ages were ‘democratic’, etc.). Sometimes the charge may be justified, but we should be careful that it isn’t being used simply as a means of discounting awkward evidence, evidence that poses a healthy challenge to conventional historical orthodoxies: that it’s not just policing periodisation, so to speak.

Here’s a case in point. Christianity was ambivalent about personal wealth from the very earliest days (as recently discussed by Peter Brown), but it’s generally agreed that calls for the medieval Church as an institution to return to a state of poverty only came somewhat later. The conventional chronology would suggest that this began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with various heretical movements, developed in the Franciscan poverty debates of the thirteenth century, and culminated in the critiques expressed in the Reformation. That chronology implies these calls were a response to the growth in wealth, autonomy and self-consciousness of the post-Gregorian Church of the eleventh century. After all, as a thousand textbooks repeat, “there was no separation of State and Church in Charlemagne’s empire”, and so criticism of this kind wasn’t really thinkable earlier.[1]

However, a text in a manuscript from Auxerre suggests that it’d be worth rethinking some of these assumptions. I make no claim to have discovered this text myself (alas), which was edited by Guy Lobrichon in 2012, but it seems to me to be interesting enough to bring to the attention of a wider anglophone audience. It’s a treatise written in response to unnamed critics who were apparently pointing out that there is no biblical justification for a property-owning Church. At 30 pages long, it’s much too long to translate here in its entirety, but here’s a sample in English.

  1. There are many within the holy Church who assert in different ways but with a single aim that it [the Church] ought not to have accepted property or slaves or other gifts from the faithful, or if accepted, that it ought not to keep them. And they look in the holy scriptures for an authority justifying that the faithful should rationally have given these things, or the leaders of the churches should have accepted them, or their successors should have kept them without guilt. They say that the Church ought to be content with the poverty of apostolic times. But if that is so, then it will have the same small size [of those times] too. And just as the religious order has grown through the accumulation of time, so gradually the scarcity of the starting point will return …
  2. It is clear to all those considering it carefully, how in the Old and the New Testament the status religionis grew according to the words of the holy lesson. For Abel is read to have taken gifts to the Lord, but not to have put them on an altar. However Noah, growing a little further in religion, built an altar and made a sacrifice to the Lord from all his unstained flock…
  3. And whoever thinks that he can usurp church property consecrated to God and keep it and turn it to his own uses with impunity, let him be warned by the punishment of Achan who brought about a great disturbance of the people of Israel and a terrible fate for himself and his household, because he usurped things that had been consecrated to the Lord….”

As Lobrichon says in his excellent discussion, we might believe that we are reading a polemicist attacking the Waldensians or Francis of Assisi: were it not that the manuscript is from the ninth century.

Now, it can be doubtless be argued that the treatise is exceptional and unrepresentative. So it may be. Still, somebody (probably in Burgundy) put a great deal of effort into it, and painstakingly trawled through the Bible to find passages that supported his point (unless he relied on an already existing compendium, which is also possible). Perhaps he made up a debate with non-existent people – even so, the question of institutional poverty had crossed his mind.

To suggest on the basis of this text alone that there was a ‘Carolingian poverty debate’ comparable to that of the Franciscans would be precursorism, to be sure. Yet it surely also matters that people were thinking about what poverty meant, and whether the institutional church should own property, of what kind and how much, long before St Francis stripped off in Assisi, and even long before Pope Gregory VII started firing off his remarkable letters. If that poses a problem to conventional chronologies, then that’s something we need to think about, and not ignore.

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[1] This quotation is in fact drawn from Hoppenbrouwers and Blockmans’ Introduction to Medieval Europe, but it’s a typical sentiment to be found in many general textbooks of medieval Europe (especially those written by later medievalists!).

The Ostrogoth, the Pope and the Scholar

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that most of what we know about the Ostrogothic kingdom, we owe in one way or another to the indefatigable royal servant, bureaucrat and statesman Cassiodorus. Pride of place is taken by Cassiodorus’s remarkable letter collection, the Variae – letters mostly written on behalf of Ostrogothic kings. Cassiodorus’s Latin isn’t easy, so most students (and not just them) approach the Variae in translation.

Unfortunately, published English translations are either partial (Barnish) or ‘condensed’ (Hodgkin), and the same’s true of translations into other modern languages. Useful though of course they are, in some ways partial translations are worse than none – they discourage anyone from undertaking a full version, and they condemn whatever they miss out to relative obscurity (just think of the damage done by the admittedly handy selective translation of Alcuin’s letters by Allott).

For that reason, here’s a draft translation of one of the Variae letters that hasn’t (I think) been fully translated into English before, but that’s very relevant to what I’m currently working on. It’s from King Athalaric to ‘the Roman clergy’, and its main point is that in future, anyone making an accusation against a (Roman) cleric has to go to the Pope first.  What it certainly isn’t is a blanket grant of clerical immunity, because Athalaric confirms that the plaintiff can subsequently turn to “secular courts” if he feels the Pope wrongly decided against him. So, no “privilege of clergy” here – though Athalaric does declare that if the plaintiff is proven wrong again in the secular court, he will face a double punishment.

I couldn’t help but notice that Hodgkin’s ‘condensed’ translation omits the bit about criminal accusations against a priest. That makes it easier for him state that Athalaric’s/Cassiodorus’s letter “relates to civil, not criminal procedure”, something that I think isn’t at all clear from the text. Hodgkin also argued that such an appeal from the pope’s decision could be carried out only with “immense difficulty” – a statement that again I’m not sure is warranted. Hodgkin (d. 1913) was a prodigiously talented and industrious historian, but he was also a writer of his time, and I suspect this may be another case of 19th-century assumptions about “clerical privilege” spilling over into scholarship – something I’ll be talking about again at the upcoming IMC in Leeds.


Draft Translation: Letter of King Athalaric to the Roman Clergy, c.527 (Variae, VIII 24)

As much we have received more than other mortals, so we owe more to the Divinity: for what can he who has received rulership repay to God that is comparable? But although for such a gift nothing can be suitably repaid, at least thanks are returned when He is honoured in His servants.

And so: in a tearful request, you complained that that this was instituted by long custom: that if anyone believes that a servant of the holy Roman Church should be accused of anything (aliqua actione pulsandum), then he should go to the bishop of that city to declare his business, lest your cleric, profaned by external  lawsuits, should spend his time in secular (saecularibus) matters. And you added that your deacon had been compelled by such bitterness of action, to the insult of religion, in that a saius [an Ostrogothic official] had dared to hand him over to his own custody. And you asserted that a priest of the Roman church had been accused of crime (criminaliter impetitum) for trivial matters [sentence omitted by Hodgkin].

We declare that this greatly displeased us, on account of the instilled reverence we owe to our Maker: that those who previously had deserved to serve the sacred mysteries should now be exposed to courts, and irreverently subjected to nefarious injuries. But this deception of others, which is to be punished, brings us the outcome of the greatest praise, the opportunity of providing assistance, which commends us to divine aid.

And so, considering both the honour of the apostolic see and listening to the wish of the supplicants, we define in the moderated order of this decree that, if anyone believes that someone pertaining to the Roman clergy should be accused in no matter what likely matter, then let him first go to be heard at the judgement of the holy pope, so that he [the pope] shall either decide between the two after the fashion of his sanctity, or delegate the matter to be settled by the zeal of equity. And if perhaps – it is awful to believe it – the worthy desire of the plaintiff shall have been evaded, then let him hasten to swear at the secular courts (saecularia fora), when he can prove that his petitions have been ignored by the already mentioned holy See.

If such a wicked litigator should exist, condemned by everyone’s judgement for sacrilege [?], who scorns to show reverence to such a see, and believes that something can be obtained by our decrees, then let be struck with a penalty of 10 pounds of gold before the outcome of any assembly, which shall be taken at once by the officers of the Sacred Largess and given to the poor through the hands of the above mentioned bishop, so that losing the business he was seeking, he might also be punished by a loss. For it is appropriate for him to be struck by a double penalty, who has dared go against both divine reverence and  our orders.

But you, whom our judgments venerate: live by church decrees. For it is a great wickedness for those to commit crime who ought not to have a secular way of life. For your profession is heavenly life. So do not descend to the errors of mortals and mean promises. Let earthly men be compelled by human law, while you obey holy traditions.

The Irish Referendum: What Would Augustine Say?

What would the fifth-century writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo have said if consulted for his opinion on the results of Ireland’s recent same-sex marriage referendum? Augustine was seldom short of opinions, and given his known views on marriage, which helped shape the institution for centuries, we might suppose that he would have been shocked, vehement, and strongly condemnatory.

Little wonder then that the airwaves and newsprint have been full of commentary on how the referendum shows that Ireland is now  rapidly secularising, breaking away from the grip of a Catholic Church whose official position remains in many ways still faithful to that set out so influentially by St Augustine over a millennium ago.  The result has even been described as a ‘Copernican revolution’. Yet as so often with debates that revolve, implicitly or explicitly, around a concept of secularisation marking a break with tradition, things are not quite so clear-cut on closer inspection.

Marriage, for St Augustine, was defined by three things: children, loyalty between the spouses, and the sacramental bond that reflected Christ’s union with the Church. People on both sides of the Irish referendum seemed to take positions which reflected these concepts. Everyone accepted that marriage creates a family unit ideal for bringing up children, that it is designed to allow two people to commit to one another indefinitely, and that the institution says something about Irish society as a whole: that in other words, marriage represents a bigger reality.

All this suggests that the debate was conducted essentially within a Christian tradition: no one, for example, suggested that marriages should be possible between numerous people, or that it should be open to brothers and sisters,  or that it should be time-limited, or that it should be abolished altogether.

As a result, the referendum’s outcome could be seen as an updating of that Christian tradition as much as a rejection of it. That a fifth-century Augustine would have been opposed to same-sex marriage seems quite clear: but which side of the referendum a twenty-first century Augustine would have stood is not quite so obvious.

The erased history of Queen Waldrada

Today is the anniversary of the death of Queen Waldrada, 9 April.

Now, let me be the first to admit that hers is hardly a household name. At the time of writing, she does not even have an English Wikipedia page, a sure sign of the historical B-list (she does have a short one in German, and an inaccurate one in French). But her passage into obscurity was considerably pre-internet. Though we know the day of her death, no one recorded the year (presumably around 900). And in one document concerning her, some later medieval scribe even took the trouble literally to write her out of history, erasing her name and replacing it with a made-up ‘Rotrude’.

unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
Yet in her own time, Waldrada was a powerful woman, who led an exciting and eventful life. The concubine of a Frankish king, Lothar II, she became his wife in 862, and participated for a while in the full theatre of medieval queenship. But in 863 the pope forbade the marriage, and forced them to separate. Even so, he thought that she was still holding the reins of power, and accused her of plotting the death of her rival, the king’s ‘other’ wife Theutberga. In the face of this papal onslaught (which included excommunication), King Lothar stuck by Waldrada so doggedly that some observers concluded that she was practising witchcraft, capable of inflaming him to lust merely by showing him enchanted clothing.

Though Waldrada ended her life peacefully in a convent high up in the Vosges above the Rhine, her children too led adventurous lives. One (Hugh) led a major rebellion before he was blinded, ending his life as a reluctant monk; another (Gisela) married a Viking, and witnessed her Scandinavian husband’s assassination, before becoming an abbess; a third (Berta) started a royal dynasty in Italy and (possibly) corresponded with the caliphs of Baghdad.

What, then, does it take to get a Wikipedia page? Why is Waldrada so little remembered today? It’s not a lack of sources as such. Waldrada was at the heart of continental politics in the 860s, and was much discussed by contemporaries like Hincmar of Rheims. Though we don’t have anything that she herself wrote, and despite efforts like those of the scribe mentioned above to remove traces of her, we have plenty of information about her role and activities (including this letter written to her by a pope).

At one level, the issue is simply that Waldrada was a woman. Despite decades of research, women are still less commemorated than men on public historical fora – one of the reasons for the emergence of various internet ‘edit-a-thons’ to give people like Waldrada the recognition they deserve.

But there’s a bigger problem too, one that’s more specific to Waldrada. Largely because of Lothar II’s failed efforts to have Waldrada publicly acknowledged as his queen, their kingdom, Lotharingia, died with him in 869. That failure was in fact a crucial factor in the emergence and stabilisation of the kingdoms to the west and the east: what would eventually become the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The territory that had lain in-between, Lotharingia, became a ‘shadow kingdom’: remembered when it was helpful for political purposes – Lorraine has a claim to be the premier European battlefield – and forgotten when it was not.[1]

Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)
Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)

Paradoxically, then, the very thing which made Queen Waldrada notorious in her day – her perceived relevance to royal politics – condemned her to obscurity thereafter. She lost her ‘relevance’ back in 869, along with her husband and the kingdom they had ruled together. As a result, no modern country claims to be the political heir of Lotharingia: so there were no 19th-century institutions whose task it was to order and represent Lotharingian history. And modern knowledge about the Middle Ages is based on 19th-century historical research to a degree that’s surprising (including Wikipedia –  in fact especially Wikipedia: just see how many entries are based on out-of-copyright encyclopedias).

Like Lotharingia itself, then, Queen Waldrada has slipped between the cracks, and is largely forgotten today. It’s hardly novel to point out that commemoration is a political act, since choices have to be made (we can’t remember everybody and everything, least until someone finds a way of automating commemoration). But it’s worth considering the extent to which modern public commemorative activity, whether in museums, on Wikipedia, or indeed as ‘On this day in history’ blogs, is silently reproducing the political agendas of the past, whether medieval or Victorian. So on this day, spare a thought for Waldrada – or even better, go and write her a Wikipedia entry.

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Charles West will be giving a talk about the case of Waldrada and Lothar II to the University of the Third Age, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, Friday 17th April 2015, 10.30am. With Rachel Stone, he is translating a key source for the text, Hincmar of Rheims’s De Divortio, for Manchester University Press, due for publication in July 2016.

A version of this post was also published on History Matters

[1] See the useful article by Simon MacLean, ‘Shadow Kingdom: Lotharingia and the Frankish World, C.850–C.1050’, History Compass 11:6 (2013), 443-457 (£)

Image credits
Cover:Stuttgart Psalter
Marburger Lichtbildarchiv

The forms of feudalism

I’ve had a few conversations over the past couple of weeks which have persuaded me it might be worth writing a short post about feudalism as a historiographical concept.

I say write, but really I mean summarise, because this blog is based squarely on Chris Wickham’s excellent article on the issue.[1] Unfortunately a) this article is not available online, and b) it’s in Italian – and that justifies, I think, putting the ideas out there in this format. Though if you’re interested, you should definitely go and read the original. Anyway, here goes:

‘Feudalism’ is a concept that has been used in three different historiographical traditions (these are often complicated by national traditions in practice, but they can be separated in principle nevertheless).

  1. For Marxists, it defines an economic system in which surplus production is extracted from peasant families by coercion. It’s a system in which elites control exchange more than production, which distinguishes it from slavery, or wage labour, or societies where there’s very little surplus extraction at all. There are debates about whether this definition ought to include the privatisation of justice, and whether it should distinguish between tax and rent, since some purists would argue that including these elements makes it too much about the state, and not enough about the economy.
  1. For those working within a tradition that we might call Annaliste, feudalism refers to a social structure characterised by a number of factors. These usually include a militarised elite that was rewarded by grants of land rather than salary, a dependant peasantry, merely vestigial tax, and a widespread emphasis on loyality and obedience (these characteristics are taken from Marc Bloch’s famous list, in a classic book published in 1939 which still repays reading).[2] This is pretty close to what lots of people would think of as ‘medieval Europe’, but in principle it’s an ideal type that can also be (and has been) applied to different areas and times.
  1. Finally, there’s the legal tradition, often identified with the great Belgian historian F.-L. Ganshof in the mid 20th century, though actually it’s the oldest of the traditions, reaching back into the 17th century. In this reading, feudalism is used to describe a society dominated by the fief: that is, the grant of land from a lord to a vassal in exchange for service, often closely defined. The implicit comparison here is with societies that are dominated instead by state sovereignty.

It’s sometimes suggested that all this is too complex and confusing, and too wedded to outdated historiographical assumptions, and so that we ought to cut the Gordian knot by simply dropping the word feudalism altogether. People in the Middle Ages, after all, didn’t use the term , so maybe nor should we – it’s a model (or rather a set of models) that we’re imposing on the period.

But though this is an appealing argument at first sight, it’s not quite as compelling as it seems. It’s true that feudalism has baggage, and can mean different things to different people. But so do too lots of other words, like the ‘Middle Ages’, or ‘Europe’, or ‘lordship’, or ‘society’. Some of these words may prove not to be helpful, but not to use abstract words simply on principle would be impede both generalisation and comparison, and it’s almost impossible in practice anyway.  The only real question is whether feudalism can highlight certain important aspects of medieval society in ways that are useful: for instance, the contingent nature of property rights, or the relative absence of salaried officials.

Debates about feudalism link us back to older historiographies. But simply to drop the term wouldn’t remove the influence that those historiographies have upon us – it’d just make that influence harder to detect. Much better then to engage with those historiographical legacies rather than to pretend that they don’t exist. All historiographical models (or approaches) themselves have a history – that doesn’t automatically invalidate them, it makes them more interesting. And ultimately we do need some kind of “model” to make sense of the mass of fragmented evidence that survives from this distant past, otherwise we’re just doing antiquarianism.

That said, there are two caveats:

  1. Feudalism shouldn’t be thought to be a real thing – it’s a label, not an entity. Feudalism never ‘did’ anything, or made something happen. So if your argument depends on ‘because of feudalism’, then you should think again.
  2. If you do want to talk about feudalism – if it’s a useful concept for you in any of its forms – then go ahead. Just make sure you avoid confusion by being clear what you mean by it: otherwise the feudalism police will hunt you down, wherever you are…

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[Updated Jan 2018]

[1] Chris Wickham, ‘Le forme del feudalesimo’, Settimane di Studio 47, (2000)15-46. The article also tackles the feudal revolution, but there’s lots in English on this, including a little book published by CUP in 2013 (ahem), so I’m won’t cover that now.

[2] Marc Bloch, La société féodale, 2 vols., (Paris, 1939-1940)

Kulturkampf and the Edict of Paris; or Francia’s Clause 4 Moment

One of the things that modern medieval historians have begun in recent years to appreciate is just how much their work is still shaped by the pioneers of the discipline, especially those of the nineteenth century. This is partly a question of source editions – most of us rely at some point, if not indeed routinely, on 19th-century foundations in this respect – but it goes further than that, spilling into questions of interpretation and approach. And nowhere is that truer than for the topic I’m currently researching, jurisdiction over clerics in the earlier Middle Ages.

This topic was dear to many late nineteenth-century historians, above all in Germany though across the rest of Europe too, because it seemed relevant to the fierce debates about the place of the Church in the liberal state which were taking place at the time (the so-called Kulturkampf). Several historians who worked on this were also active in contemporary politics. But ‘relevance’ in history, when it takes the shape of reading the past in the light of the present, can exact a heavy price.

The famous Edict of Paris in 614 is an interesting example of this. The fourth clause (the clauses are all editorial, but helpful) of this royal decree issued by King Chlothar II apparently followed recent Church councils in acknowledging that ordained clerics were exempt from secular jurisdiction – but crucially, unlike those councils, it made an exception for criminal matters.

To nineteenth-century historians, the edict marked a milestone in kings’ efforts to stem the rising tide of Church claims to a kind of political sovereignty, because it maintained the subjection of clerics to royal courts. For the legal historian Rudolf Sohm (who was a key inspiration for Max Weber), that showed that the Merovingian rulers knew how to keep the Church in its place.[1] This was important for Sohm, because he thought it demonstrated that political reforms concerning the place of the Church in 19th-century Germany were really not an innovation, but a return to a better time: a time when, thanks to the efforts of Merovingian kings, the Church and the State co-existed in different spheres without overlapping, as was proper. For Sohm the real Middle Ages came later, when the Church overstepped the mark and betrayed its own nature by becoming a rival to the State.

So keen was Sohm to make this point that he ignored a little problem. Unfortunately, clause 4 of the Edict of Paris does not straightforwardly state that judges cannot condemn clerics. The text is preserved in just one surviving manuscript (Berlin SB Phillips 1743) from the late 8th century. And rather awkwardly, according to this manuscript, it seems that it is clerics who cannot condemn judges, and not other other way round:

Vt nullum iudicum de qualibet ordine clerecus de civilibus causis, praeter criminale negucia, per se distringere aut damnare praesumat, nisi conuicitur manefestus, excepto presbytero aut diacono.

Now, I must admit that the text as it stands does not make a lot of sense (which is why I won’t attempt to translate it here – the important point is that clerecus is the subject, and nullum iudicum the object). So perhaps we shouldn’t criticise the earliest editors (starting with Sirmond in the 17th century), who silently corrected the Latin to make judges, not clerics, the subjects of the sentence.

But we might be more critical of Rudolf Sohm, who without any hesitation provided a German translation of, and a lengthy commentary on, what was essentially an imaginary text: the one that historians wanted to see, not the one that was actually there. In a way, Sohm was acting like the contemporary of his who applied chemical reagents to the manuscript to try to make things clearer, but in doing so, obscured what it actually said.

At the very least, the extant wording of the Edict raises questions about how (or if) the scribe understood the clause, and whether his ‘alteration’ was perhaps deliberate (and what else might have been changed). But there are also broader issues here, about how far we are still privileging the interpretative and methodological stance of Sohm and others over and above the evidence – for although the most recent edition of the Edict gives the right Latin text for clause 4, the most recent translations of and commentaries on it all share Sohm’s preference for what the scribe ought to have written, not what he did (which is not discussed).

Really, we should count ourselves lucky that the surviving manuscript evidence lets us see the Edict of Paris through late 8th-century spectacles. But to do justice to our sources, rather than riding rough-shod over them, we might need first to take off at least some of the 19th-century spectacles we have inherited.

[1] Rudolf Sohm, ‘Die Geistliche Gerichtsbarkeit im fränkischen Reich’, Zeitschrift für Kirchenrecht 9 (1870), 193-271

Secularism and the medieval past

Much of the commentary on the terrible events in Paris a fortnight ago, and even more of the abundant commentary on the commentary that followed, has pivoted around the distinction between religion and the secular that is typically ascribed to the European Enlightenment. Arguments have usually boiled down to how this legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be fiercely guarded at all costs (‘European values’), or, more controversially, how it perhaps needs to be reassessed to adjust to contemporary realities (‘globalisation’).

These are of course primarily political arguments, keyed to current political positions. But they are also historical arguments, in that they both rest on a general, widely-shared view of the shape of (European) history, which for all useful purposes apparently begins with the 18th century.

In point of fact, however, the general consensus that the distinction between religion and the secular originated in the early modern period is, quite simply, not true. Doubtless it took on important new forms at that time. But most historians realise these days that supposed turning points are more historiographical than historical: that very little comes out of nowhere. A recent strand of German research, bringing together sociologists (notably Detlef Pollack) and historians, has profitably discussed whether a process of ‘differentiation’ between religion and the political sphere really began in the 11th century, with the so-called Investiture Quarrel. A similar suggestion has been made, albeit in passing, by the eminent Canadian theorist of ‘secularisation’, Charles Taylor.

Moreover, there is a venerable line of research that explores how the very concept of the ‘secular’, meaning something that is not anti-religious but rather non-religious, was honed in quite specific circumstances by 4th-century Christians as they made sense of the religious and political realities around them, as proposed by R.A. Markus and, more recently, Kate Cooper. As a consequence, modern secularism can be said to derive from a Christian worldview (not a ‘European’ one, though, since a dominant contributor to these early debates was a North African). Arguably that makes the modern concept itself inherently Christian.

Much could be written about these and other ideas. In fact, much already has been written about them in specialist circles, where they are the subjects of often heated controversy. Yet these debates have hardly registered in the copious reflections on the meaning and implications of the Paris attacks. That is not the fault of media-shy medieval historians, nor of lazy journalists content to rehash triumphalist narratives they learned at school (perhaps the most authentically long-lived product of the Enlightenment). It simply reflects the peculiar importance of the Middle Ages in the modern (European) political imaginary. It is an importance that consists, paradoxically, in not mattering at all – thereby authorising political arguments based solely on more recent history. The medieval period is never more crucial than when it acts as a foil to the present day (as pointed out by Julia McClure), and never more present than when it’s silently passed over or peremptorily dismissed.

That’s naturally aggravating for those studying these distant centuries, who find themselves condemned to a highly relevant irrelevance in wider public discourse. But isn’t this politicised depoliticisation also a pity for that public discourse, too? If we don’t realise that ‘modern values’ aren’t quite as straightforwardly modern as seems to be assumed, then the terms of debate will be hugely impoverished, even before anything has been said.