Sharia Law and Contemporary British Society

How do Sharia councils in the UK operate now – and how should they operate in the future? In the week the long-awaited UK parliamentary inquiry into Sharia Councils began,  the fifth speaker in the Religion & Law series, Imam Sheikh Mohammed Ismail, provided an introduction to Sharia Law and its implementation in Britain today. His talk showed how the question of the right relation between religion and law is still, in this respect, very much alive and kicking in the UK.

Sharia is the body of Islamic law that works within the public and private aspects of Muslims’ lives, or those who live in a legal system based on Islam. The implementation of Sharia Law varies from place to place, and is not always fully applied even in those countries where it operates as the main legal system.

Sharia is based upon five sources in the Islamic tradition.

  • The Quran is the core text for moral and judicial laws within Islam, and is understood as being the word of Allah. It is split into two sections: the first, from when the Prophet Muhammad was in Mecca, is mainly about beliefs; the second is from when the Prophet was in Medina and is about laws and the organisation of a society of believers.
  • The Sunnah, also known as the Hadith, details the sayings, deeds and silent approval of the Prophet. Where the Quran lays out beliefs and morals, the Hadith explains how they can be put into practice.
  • The three remaining sources that come together to create Sharia Law are the Ijma, which means the collective consensus of scholars or the community on a point of law that is not clarified or explained in the Quran or the Hadith; the Qiyas or analogical judgement,  when a case emerges that is not in the Quran or the Hadith but a judgement is made based on an understanding of these two sources (an example is the prohibition of alcohol in general on the basis of the Quran’s prohibition on drinking wine); and finally the ljtihad, analogical judgement used when the Quran, Hadith and Qiyas have not already provided an answer to a case.

So Sharia Law derives from key holy texts and traditions within Islam and is then translated into four main areas: beliefs and rituals, business and finance law, social and marital law, and penal law.

In the UK, there are currently around 30 Sharia Councils, which mainly deal with marital and financial disputes. Those who sit on them are predominantly male scholars who are experts in Islamic law. These councils have no clear standing in UK law, but in practice their decisions are viewed as binding by many within the Muslim communities they serve.

The ongoing parliamentary inquiry is seeking to address the role of the councils, considering whether either to include Sharia advisors in British family courts, or to formally acknowledge the role that Sharia Councils play in Islamic British society. That would in effect make these courts legally recognised arbitration tribunals – in which case the government would regulate how they work, for instance by requiring at least one woman to be on each council, and setting minimum standards of training in UK law as well as Islamic law.

Over the course of previous talks, we’ve seen how accommodations between religion and law can work to increase separation (for instance, separating Jews from gentiles) or alternatively can enhance community cohesion (for example, inadvertently creating networks of exiled clerics in the Roman Empire) – and sometimes both at the same time, as when the separate legal treatment of clerics and laymen ultimately served to strengthen the overarching integration-through-difference worked by the medieval Church.

So when parliamentarians wonder over the coming weeks about how best to integrate religiously-based difference into legal frameworks in the UK in the case of Sharia law, they’re dealing with an issue that’s absolutely contemporary – yet one that also has a very long history behind it.

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The next and final talk in the series is on Wednesday 9th December at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Prof. David McClean will be discussing ‘Church Establishment in a Global Context’.

Image: Wikicommons – Central London Mosque.

Religion, Law, and Confusion in Early Modern England

Indecision, compromise: both seem to be the order of the day in British politics. From indecision over the triggering of the EU’s ‘Article 50’ to the decade-long discussions over Heathrow’s third runway that seem to run and run: in the realm of politics, clear and definite decisions just don’t seem to be forthcoming.

This though is nothing new for the English political system. In the fourth talk in the Religion and Law series, Prof Anthony Milton took us back to Early Modern England and the arrival of Protestantism – and to a remarkable political, legal and religious fudge.

King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine and Rome, and the subsequent creation of the Church of England, led not to a complete abandoning of Catholicism and its influences, but rather to a compromise. The Henrician Compromise allowed the existing Catholic canon laws to remain valid until such time as new law could be made, provided only they didn’t go against the law of the realm and the prerogative of the King.

During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, new laws were actually drafted. In 1552-1553, Thomas Cranmer created a body of Protestant laws, called the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, as part of a plan for a radical overhaul of the Church. But due to Edward’s early death, the Reformatio was never implemented. And his eventual successor Elizabeth I adopted a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’.

That meant the old laws stayed on the books. And the result was a religious law system in a state of confusion that competed with and clashed with the common law courts. Confusion over what could be discussed in what court led to abuses and delays within the legal system. The Reformatio was re-published several times in an attempt to clean up this ‘unholy mess’, but it was never implemented.

But what if it had been? What would the Church of England have looked like if the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum had been given the force of law? England would have looked very different.

For instance, a key aspect of the Reformatio concerned moral discipline. Anyone found guilty of adultery or of committing serious cruelty towards their wife could be punished with perpetual banishment and excommunication. This excommunication was to be enforced not just by the bishop, but by the local community as a form of social exclusion.

The excommunicate could be reconciled to the Church, but such a process would also have involved the local parish community. Under the Reformatio, the hierarchy of the Church would have been more flexible, with the bishop working alongside the clergy. In short, the implementation of the Reformatio would have changed the way that religion and law worked, devolving power to the local community, rather than to the law courts.

The confusion in Early Modern England due to the inability to define what was meant by Protestantism and Protestant law can still be seen today, as Catholic canon laws are still – remarkably – an element of the English legal system. But such confusion also provides interesting parallels with the political situation of the present, and the position that England once more finds itself in.

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The next talk in the series is held on Wednesday 2nd November at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Imam Sheikh Mohammad Ismail will discuss ‘Sharia Councils in Contemporary British Society: Conflict or not?’ For the full programme of talks see here.

Image: Archive.org (the Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum  Londini, Impensis Societatis Stationariorum, Thomas Fisher Collection, University of Toronto)

 

Getting off the Hook

This month, debates over the UK government’s  plans to make troops exempt from human rights laws whilst on service have highlighted how not all groups are treated the same under the law in modern society.  But who has immunity from the law, and where does the concept come from?

In last week’s talk in the Religion and Law series, Dr Charles West discussed how clerics in the Middle Ages were exempted from the conventional laws which bound society.

The reign of King Henry II of England in the twelfth century led to the extension of royal power deep into the counties and shires. A key expression of this authority was the bringing of royal justice within reach of the English people. However, an impediment to this extension was the exemption, on paper anyway, of clerics from the king’s laws.  Rather than being treated by the kings’ judges for their crimes, they were to be tried by other clerics.

Henry II’s desire to remove clerical exemption led to arguments with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket argued for clerical exemption, stressing that it was the right of clerics, going back to the Roman Empire, to be tried by their own peers and not by the judges of the royal court.

The disagreement between the two contributed to Becket’s long exile. A tentative reconciliation was short-lived, for in 1170 Becket was assassinated by over-zealous royal followers. It was Becket’s death that forced Henry to make the compromise that allowed for clerical exemption from his laws.

The exemption of clerics from royal law had implications for the clerics who committed the crimes, but also for the system which ruled the land. The separation of the Church from the judicial system marked out the latter as secular, separate from ecclesiastical affairs – though twelfth-century government and kings could hardly be described as not being religious. The twelfth-century ‘benefit of the clergy’ then saw the institutionalisation of two separate systems – one for the laity and one for the clergy.

The ratifying of clerical exemption into English law was to remain influential until the nineteenth century, though by this point the ‘benefit of the clergy’ had come to be applied to many first time offenders rather than the clergy alone. Today the calls to prevent soldiers being accountable to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would place them in a parallel system to that of conventional law. Exemption from the law still has implications in the present.

However,  ‘benefit of clergy’ shouldn’t just be thought of as a dry legal principle. It had real consequences for people in the Middle Ages,  as one woman in Lincoln in 1202 was to discover. Mabel was an ordinary woman who wanted justice for the murder of her husband, Godwin. However, with the disappearance of the murderer, Alred, Mabel was left to accuse Alred’s family (whom she was then forced to admit had nothing to do with her husband’s murder), and the cleric William, who had held her husband down as he was killed.

William did not deny having played a role in Godwin’s murder. But he did not have to, as because of Becket’s death some thirty years before, he was exempt from the laws of the secular royal court. The worst punishment he faced for his crime was being defrocked – that is, losing his clerical status. So, William was passed over to the bishop’s officials,  and that is the last we hear of him (the records for clerical trials have not survived).

Mabel’s situation was tragic, but not unusual. The summer of 1202 in Lincoln saw well over 500 cases brought before the king’s judicial envoys. Many of the cases brought before the court were violent in nature – 75 of them being murders. This violence was not simply carried out by the laity but by clerics as well – it was only the law that treated them as separate, not society.

So Mabel and William’s story reminds us of how the law and its relationship with religion can have an effect upon everyday people. The development of religion and law in the last three talks has shown us the pathways that religion and law have taken in different ways, but Mabel, the murder of her husband, and the favourable treatment of one of his murderers reminds us of the very human impact of law’s intersection with religion.

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The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 26th October at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Prof. Anthony Milton will discuss Religion and Law in Early Modern England. For the full programme of talks see here.

Exile: Creating Orthodoxy in the Roman Empire

Exile: the banishment of a person or group from their home country, typically those who pose a threat to government and/or society. Exile has often been used by successive leaders and states to remove those who contradict their authority through words and actions. For the Roman Emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries, the use of exile was no different.

Following on from last week’s Religion & Law talk, on Weds 12th October Dr Julia Hillner traced the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire, and how the use of Imperial Law had unintended consequences for the establishment of Christian orthodoxy.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperors exiled hundred of Christian clerics to far-flung and remote regions of the Empire (including the Isles of Scilly). The intention was to bring about their cultural alienation. But because their exile was within the Empire itself, many clerics were able to continue to spread the opinions for which they had been exiled.

A good example of this is provided by Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius had led the fight against a cleric named Arius, who argued that Christ was subordinate to God the Father.  Athanasius succeeded in having the Council of Nicaea in 325, called by the Emperor Constantine, condemn Arius’s beliefs as heretical.

Many people remained however attracted by Arius’s beliefs, and indeed Athanasius himself ended up being exiled. But Athanasius, and others like him, were able to make use of their exile to create new networks of support, particularly in the West of the Roman Empire. So when Arius’s beliefs were discussed again some sixty years later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, there were far fewer people willing to speak up for them. Athanasius’s exile had led to the spread of ideas, an unintended consequence of a law that was supposed to stop ideas from travelling, not promote them.

In the fifth century, however, the imperial government and Church Councils were able to wield more control over exiled clerics, as the example of Nestorius of Constantinople demonstrates. Nestorius argued that Jesus had two natures: one divine and one human, and that it was his human nature that was represented in his life on earth.

His arguments tapped into a great debate within Christianity, but because of disagreements with Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, he was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and initially exiled to his monastery at Antioch. But continued accusations against him led him to be exiled to numerous other places in Egypt, under ever closer surveillance by the Bishop of Alexandria, throughout the East until his death in circa 450. Unlike Athanasius, Nestorius was less able to use his exile to spread his ideas beyond his core supporters located in Syria. As a result, Athanasius’s theology is now fundamental to western Christianity, whereas Nestorius’s isn’t.

Exile then was a way for the Church and the Roman Emperor to attempt to create a Christian space and exclude anyone who did not agree. The exiling of clerics helped to shape the nature of Christian orthodoxy; an orthodoxy that would continue to define Christianity up to the present day.

For more information on Dr Julia Hillner’s work,  you can read about her project here.

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The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 19th October at 1:15pm at Sheffield Cathedral, where Dr Charles West will discuss Clerical Exemption from the Law in the Middle Ages. For the full programme of talks, see here.

Early Christian Traditions: Creating a Place in the World

Over the next six weeks a series of lunchtime talks, a collaboration between Sheffield Cathedral and the University of Sheffield, is taking place at the Cathedral. The talks discuss the co-existence of religion and law, offering historical and contemporary perspectives on their relationship and its development.

The Cathedral considers itself as ‘A Place for all People’, where members of all denominations and faiths can come together. It aims to create a communal space of worship, breaking down the boundaries between religious groups. Those boundaries and tensions between religious groups often originate from the laws they create. Religious law has been, and is, a way of creating a community based on a regulated set of beliefs.

Last Wednesday,  Dr Mark Finney began this series of talks by discussing the complex development of Christian law up to the first and second centuries, and highlighting how Christian law has its roots in early Jewish and Mesopotamian traditions.

Beginning with the story of Abraham, and tracing the creation of the 613 laws contained in the Old Testament, Dr Finney sought to illustrate how laws, such as the requirement of circumcision, were a way for the Israelites to define themselves against those who believed in a plurality of gods. Law helped to define their new community and create a barrier between them and polytheism, which reigned supreme during the Old Testament period.

The laws they created guided the Jews through key aspects of their lives, but with exile from their land (the ‘Babylonian Captivity’) came questions as to whether these laws had helped or hindered their relationship with God. One response was a revitalised prophetic tradition. Jeremiah and Micah in particular called into question the value of the Jewish religious code as it then was.

This was an important context for the later teaching of Jesus, who viewed the old laws with ambivalence. He advocated instead just one law: love. The Apostle Paul took this to its most abstract form, arguing that no other law was needed except that of Jesus, and with him the Holy Spirit. This abstract concept of law however proved to be hard to follow, and thus the early Christian Church fathers gradually created their own laws to guide believers through life.

The early Church fathers continued to debate Christian law throughout the second and into the third century. They were constantly trying to understand the teachings of Jesus and incorporate them into a workable law that could help to define what was a minority community within the Roman Empire. Early Christian law, like the early Jewish law before it, was thus an attempt to find a place in a world that was at the time defined by polytheism.

Christianity is still trying to work out its place in the world today through such issues as female ministry and same sex marriage. Laws today define the Christian community and continue to exist and change in an attempt to place the Christian community in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world, where boundaries are more porous and tensions between groups often high.

The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 12th October at 1:15pm, where Dr Julia Hillner will discuss ‘Religion and Exile in the Roman Empire.’ For the full programme of talks see here.

Emily Bowes, an MA student at the Department of History, is co-ordinating the cathedral talks along with Charles West. 

In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s one that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to this gobbet? Well, a good response might explain that 9th-century Frankish clerics increasingly claimed their churches had been founded by St Peter’s express request, hence the ‘mother of all churches’ phrase; might further observe that this, the opening line of the treatise, signals Hincmar’s caution in carefully avoiding a definitive conclusion for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar’s marriage; might then link this to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in fact he advised holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope); might pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole; and could end by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage. The strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extracts in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today. No wonder they’re a jewel in the crown of final year examinations (alongside of course other examination forms such as dissertations): they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

‘May this water be a test for you’: trial by cold water in 9th-century Francia

One of the distinctively post-Roman things about post-Roman Europe was the emergence of a new kind of legal procedure, the trial by ordeal. In its various different forms – the main ones were hot iron, boiling water, cold water, and trial by battle – the ordeal comes particularly into view in the ninth century, when there was something of a debate about its ethics and efficacy. One of its staunchest defenders was Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, who in his De Divortio (available in all good bookshops etc) justified it at some length.

Practical instructions on how to carry out an ordeal are quite common in ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts, often inserted as aide-memoires. Below is an English translation of one of these texts, associated with ninth-century Rheims – so, the kind of text that priests in Hincmar’s diocese might have come across. It gives instructions on how to carry out the ordeal by water on a group of men suspected of theft.

There are several interesting things about this text. First, although the role of the priest is essential, the text doesn’t seem to be addressed to the priest himself. Perhaps it was meant for a count or other judicial officer. Secondly, it’s a very elaborate procedure: throwing the suspects into the water is merely the last stage in a whole string of actions, designed to pile the pressure on the guilty/guarantee God’s intervention (depending on your point of view). These include public communion, blessing with holy water, holy incantations, and the fasting of the immediate participants.

Finally, the text has a notably defensive tone. The possibility that witchcraft could distort the outcome is acknowledged (this was something that bothered Hincmar too). And the text ends with the assertion that the ordeal was devised by God, had been confirmed by papal sanction, and was to be used instead of alternative procedures, such as swearing an oath on the high altar. Clearly whoever wrote down this text was aware of contemporary criticisms – and that attack is the best form of defence!

Translation: Instructions for the ordeal of cold water*
*Please don’t try this at home

Update 17.1.17: I still haven’t located the manuscript from which this text comes (the edition isn’t clear). But a very similar ordeal text was present in a manuscript that was almost certainly made by Hincmar c. 874. This manuscript is now lost BUT the ordeal text happily survives in an early modern transcription in Duchesne 64, at f.49v (or so it seems: I’ll check the next time I’m in Paris,  since it doesn’t seem to be online). For all the details, see R. Pokorny, ‘Sirmonds verlorener Luetticher Codex der Hinkmar-Schriften’, Deutsches Archiv 66 (2010), esp. p. 532.

Image: Lambach, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 73: a 12th-century liturgical manuscript (Wikipedia)

How (not) to edit a medieval chronicle

The medieval chronicler Hugh of Flavigny has recently been in the UK news, after Marc Morris suggested that some biographers of William the Conqueror have been misreading his chronicle. A passage which has been taken as describing King William as ‘jovial’ in fact refers to someone else entirely.

How important this is for our knowledge of William the Conqueror I shall leave to others to decide – you can read Marc Morris’s new popular biography of the king for yourselves. But the issue brings back into focus a rather neglected chronicler – and also raises interesting questions about how we re-present texts that were written centuries ago.

It’s true that Hugh of Flavigny isn’t much read outside a fairly narrow circle today. But he ought to be! He observed at close quarters the struggles between pope and emperor in the late eleventh century, for which he’s a very important source. And while he didn’t describe King William as ‘jovial’, Hugh did visit England in the 1090s as part of a diplomatic mission

In fact he recounts some lurid stories about the country. For instance, he recalls how the archbishop of York Gerard was caught in secret conversation with the devil, planning to feed his guests with bewitched pork as part of a satanical ritual; and how Gerard’s brother, a cleric at the king’s chapel named Peter, confessed to becoming pregnant after intercourse with a man, and died from the resulting growth (no, I’m not making it up! Here’s the Latin).

With this sort of content, you might think the time is ripe for a translation of Hugh (to my knowledge, there isn’t one, in any language). And you’d be right. But first of all, what we actually need is a new edition of the original Latin. We currently rely on the edition of Georg Pertz, produced in 1848. For its time, this was an excellent piece of work. But as has recently been pointed out by Mathias Lawo, it doesn’t really do justice to Hugh’s chronicle, which survives in just one copy – in fact what seems to be Hugh’s own personal manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1870).

Here’s a picture of a page from Pertz’s 19th-century edition:

HF p. 354

Now, compare that with a picture of the original 11th-century manuscript, courtesy of the Berlin State Library,  on which that same page was based:

.Untitled1

As is clear just by looking at the original with all its marginal insertions, Hugh added to his chronicle as he wrote it – as he found new sources, or as his personal priorities changed over his eventful career. It seems that his purpose in writing changed as time went on: his chronicle went from being mostly about his own monastery in Verdun, to being about wider questions of church reform – and then to being about his new monastery, Flavigny. But this is obscured by the 1848 edition, which squeezes Hugh’s messy text into the neat format of a printed book.

In some cases, it’s not even clear where in his text Hugh meant to insert his additions. But the edition had to put the text somewhere in the linear flow, so Georg Pertz had to make decisions. Those decisions weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they’re invisible to the reader encountering the text in this way. As a result, Pertz’s edition in a way creates a text that never existed. It’s hardly going too far to say that when we read Pertz’s edition, what we’re reading is a 19th-century interpretation of Hugh’s chronicle.

A stop-gap revised edition has been made available by the MGH (thanks to Ed Roberts for pointing this out to me), which ‘highlights’ all of Hugh’s later additions. But what’s really required is a new edition as a type-face facsimile of the original – not technically possible in Pertz’s day, but perfectly practical nowadays.  Then we could read not only the words that Hugh wrote: but read them in the right order, too. Any volunteers?

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The Transformation of the Carolingian World – a comparative workshop

With the support of the Humboldt Foundation and SFB 923, ‘Threatened Orders’, Professor Steffen Patzold and I are organising an international workshop in Tübingen on Friday 2nd – Saturday 3rd September.

The workshop aims to shed fresh light on the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’ by taking a discrete set of issues and comparing them in the ninth and eleventh centuries. Married priests, the place of the papacy, the role of bishops, and heresy and peace movements: how should we best plot the changes in social order between the Carolingian and the Gregorian ‘reforms’? The workshop will explore this question through a series of short, informal presentations.

Venue: Tübingen, Hegelbau, Room 228

Programme

FRIDAY 2nd September

2pm introduction – Steffen Patzold/Charles West

Session 1. 2.30pm – 3.30pm. The Papacy
Clara Harder (Cologne) and Kriston Rennie (Dresden/Queensland)

3.30pm – 4pm coffee break

Session 2: 4pm–5pm Nicolaitism
Marco Stoffella (Tübingen/Verona) and Steffen Patzold

SATURDAY 3rd September

Session 3. 9.30am – 10.30am Bishops and the World
Charles West and Fraser McNair (Brussels)

1030am – 11am coffee

Session 4: 1100am – 12noon Peace and Heretics
Miriam Czock (Duisburg-Essen) and Warren Pezé (Tübingen)

12 noon: Conclusion.

In defence of Campus Galli

A couple of days ago I visited Campus Galli. Located in south-western Germany, it’s a new, eccentric and almost insanely ambitious project to build an entire Carolingian monastery, from scratch, using early medieval techniques, over the next 20 years or so. You can see smiths, potters and stonemasons at work, and eat a ‘Carolingian sausage’ in a bun. I had great fun. But on my return home I learned that the site has been bitterly criticised by ‘living history’ specialists. Why?

At the root of most of the criticism is the claim that the site isn’t sufficiently ‘authentic’. For example, a well-known blogger who goes by the name of Hiltibold, and who clearly dislikes the project quite intensely, has posted a set of photographs with anachronisms angrily circled in red: volunteers eating chocolate, wearing modern shoes, and so forth. For him, it’s a ‘Disneyland in disguise’.

These criticisms seem to me fundamentally to miss the point. Whatever the marketing rhetoric, sites like this are infotainment. There’s no point striving for perfect accuracy in ‘reconstructing the past’ in this way, it’s just a question of making a reasonable effort. Imagination can fill out the rest. After all, the most dedicated enthusiast might wear the clothes of a 10th-century Scandinavian with every last detail perfected, but he would still be a 21st-century man pretending to be an early medieval one.

And that’s of course OK. There are different ways to engage with the past: empathetically, to imagine what it might have been like, and intellectually, to try to understand it. Both are important in different ways. Sites like Campus Galli can be truly inspiring, encouraging visitors to find out more about a distant past. Many a future historian might have her interest first piqued by such a visit. Some might buy a book from the (very respectable) set on offer in the shop.

What makes the Campus Galli particularly valuable is the fact that it’s an ecclesiastical site. Most living history tends – with some very honourable exceptions  like Bede’s World, though its future is now unclear – to focus on the non-Christian aspects of the European Middle Ages. Even if it gets some of the details wrong, it’s good that Campus Galli is redressing the balance, and getting the wider public interested in the medieval church. Maybe that’s why a few enthusiasts dislike it so.

What makes the nitpicking all the more out of place is the nature of the Campus Galli project. For the workers and volunteers are not rebuilding a monastery, they are building one. The monastery in question never actually existed. The site is based instead on the marvellous Plan of St-Gall, an idealised Carolingian monastery sketched out on parchment c. 830, but never constructed, and maybe never really intended to be. Campus Galli is thus delightfully a modern fantasy overlaid on a medieval one.

As a result, the inevitable intrusion of the modern world isn’t really a problem. In fact, in some ways it’s to be welcomed. Germany has led Europe in offering shelter to refugees fleeing from the wars in the Middle East: and according to our tour guide, there were some Syrian refugees working at the site when we visited. Nothing could be more 21st century than that: but nothing could fit better with the optimistic idealism, and the dream of a better society, that underpinned the original Plan of St Gall, too.

A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)