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:


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?

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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


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.

How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century

What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.

The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.

That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation  (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).

In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.

Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.

Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.[1]

However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.

Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)

[1] See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here

Religion and Law – historical and contemporary perspectives

A series of lunchtime talks in the autumn, 2016: Wednesdays at 1.15pm (45 mins), Sheffield Cathedral (St George’s Chapel).  

The relationship between religion and law is a topic that seems particularly pressing in 21st-century Britain. It is at the heart of discussions about the disestablishment of the Church of England, about the ‘right to die’, and about the place of sharia law in UK courts, to name just a few current debates.

This series of talks, a collaboration between the Cathedral and the University of Sheffield, explores different aspects of this important question, offering historical as well as contemporary perspectives. How have religion and law co-existed in the past, and what shape will this relationship take in the future?

Open to all, free entry. To reserve your place, please visit the EventBrite page.

Missed one of the talks? Don’t worry! Each one is the subject of a weekly blog, available here


5th October. Dr Mark Finney –  Religion and the Law in early Christian Traditions

12th October. Dr Julia Hillner – Religion and Exile in the Roman Empire

19th October. Dr Charles West – Getting off the hook? Clerical exemption from the law in the Middle Ages

26th October. Prof. Anthony Milton – ‘An unholy mess’: religion and law in early modern England

2nd November. Imam Sheikh Mohammed Ismail –  Sharia councils in contemporary British society: conflict or not?

9th November. Prof. David McClean – Church Establishment in a Global Context

Under the Angel’s Gaze: The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga

Today sees the publication of a book that we’ve been working on for almost a decade, The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga. It’s an annotated translation of a long ninth-century Latin treatise written by Hincmar, the archbishop of Rheims in France. That might seem a rather obscure topic, but when we explain that the treatise is about a royal divorce scandal, and that it discusses  witchcraft, kingship, incest and trial by ordeal, we hope you’ll see the interest. This blog is to explain our book’s cover picture – and why the author we’ve translated would have loved it, and the king he wrote about would have hated it.

The picture comes from the Stuttgart Psalter, a marvellously-illuminated ninth-century book that is now (as its name suggests) in Stuttgart, but that was originally made in Paris, at the monastery of St-Germain-des-Pres (you can see the whole manuscript here). The picture accompanies Psalm 45 (Psalm 44 in the Vulgate), and shows a king and queen embracing. The king and queen are both mentioned in the psalm, but the quizzical angel standing on the right (our favourite bit) is the illustrator’s artistic licence.

Because our text is about a royal divorce – King Lothar II’s scandalous attempt to rid himself of Queen Theutberga – this image of a royal couple obviously resonates. But we also chose this picture because the manuscript it comes from has some connections to our translation. The abbot of the monastery when it was made was a man called Hilduin: as it happens, Hilduin was the teacher and mentor of Archbishop Hincmar, the author of the treatise. Perhaps Hilduin might even have proudly showed the freshly painted manuscript to the young Hincmar.

In any case, we like to think that a thin smile might have played across the lips of the austere archbishop of Rheims if he could see our book cover, mainly because of the watching angel. As Hincmar explains in his treatise, King Lothar’s divorce case affected everyone, both because marriage was fundamental to society and because kings were supposed to set a moral example to their subjects. That meant that they were constantly being watched, both by their subjects and by God, who would condemn them more harshly for their lapses than mere ordinary sinners. And as the illustration shows, you can’t hide from God or his angels – who might not be very impressed by what they saw.

As for King Lothar II, the subject of the treatise, it’s just possible that he might have seen this image too. In the course of the Frankish civil wars of the 840s, it seems Abbot Hilduin left Paris to join Emperor Lothar I, whose kingdom was around Aachen. Perhaps he took the Stuttgart Psalter with him, which would explain how it ended up in Germany. We can’t of course prove that Emperor Lothar’s son, King Lothar II, saw the manuscript at some point during his reign (855-869), but it can’t be ruled out.

But we suspect that unlike Archbishop Hincmar, the king would not have been remotely amused by our use of this particular image for a text about his divorce. The psalm that the picture illustrates in the manuscript is a song of triumph to accompany a magnificent royal wedding. It promises the king a happy and glorious reign, and that his sons will succeed him as rulers. Unfortunately, this is more or less the opposite of what actually happened to King Lothar II, with enormous consequences for himself, his family (including his wives Theutberga and Waldrada), his kingdom, and indeed for Europe as whole – consequences that our new book explores.

Rachel Stone is a Visiting Research Fellow at KCL, and Charles West is a Reader in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga, published by Manchester University Press, is available online for just £10 as part of the MUP sale,  and at all good bookshops for £19.99.

Revenants revisited

Last week, the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre at Sheffield held an event marking the Norman Conquest.[1] I offered to speak about a peculiar case of vampires or revenants in the Derbyshire villages of Stapenhill and Drakelow (which I’ve touched on before elsewhere in a different format), and to explore its connection to the Norman Conquest. As I started to put the talk together, I briefly regretted my decision. After all, what can a ghost story about events in the 1090s, as told in the 1130s, have to do with 1066 and all that? Happily enough, a little preliminary research has showed that it’s rather more than one might imagine, shedding fresh light on this very mysterious episode.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story goes something like this (you can read a translation of the original text here). Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill, owned by the abbey of Burton, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his men were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

…. The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, though Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement.

So much for the story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of what the two villagers had been running away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the dues of the peasants in Stapenhill around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton. This raises all kinds of methodological questions (which I hope to explore in greater detail on another occasion).

But what has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before as after 1066 (as John Blair, for instance, has explored).

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest,  Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the monastery of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, owned a parcel of land there as well. He may well have been a retainer of the monastery, or linked in some way, since his lands intersected with the monastery elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however,  a Norman named Nigel de Stafford somehow ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, there was in 1090 a very powerful aristocrat whose rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow: something our story doesn’t itself explain. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a plausible patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off (who knows, maybe they really were Roger’s tenants).

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: in this specific case, they are associated with stress caused by the face-off between two powerful landowners, stress that was an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings, which had created a tenurial shake-up. This makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top” could trickle-down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more integrated than it might sometimes seem.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? The answer is that it was proof of the power of Saint Modwenna, whose relics Burton housed. Saint Modwenna is a shadowy figure, about whom we know very little (though we assume that she was an obscure Anglo-Saxon saint).  But not much more was known in the twelfth century either. When Geoffrey arrived as abbot at Burton c. 1114, no one seems to have known anything about these relics. That was why Geoffrey set about establishing Modwenna’s cult, not least by writing down her life – in reality mostly copied from an Irish text (!) – and including some more recent miracles.

It seems to have bothered Abbot Geoffrey, in other words, that his monastery’s Modwenna was so mysterious. This doesn’t however seem to have bothered earlier Burton abbots.  Maybe information about her had been lost as the monastery “Normanised”. More likely, Modwenna had always been fairly shadowy, but this was more of a problem for “incomers” than it had been for incumbents, for whom the relics had always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were in some way linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the changes the Normans imposed on the Church, at least in personnel terms.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely ominous place name. [2] The peasants themselves would surely have known this – they were after all English-speakers – so we may imagine that their own interpretation of events might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this fact because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t realise – or did he simply prefer a different spin on things? Further research will help to elucidate this and other puzzles.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Update: you can see a page of the British Library’s copy of the Modwenna text here

The text itself is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). For further work on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see M. Innes and C. West, ‘Saints and Demons in the Carolingian Countryside’, in Steffen Patzold and Bernhard Zeller (eds.), Kleine Welten. Ländliche Gesellschaften im Karolingerreich (forthcoming).

[1] Impeccably organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood.

[2] Thanks to Matt Innes for pointing this out to me.  See http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/ for the details.

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