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.

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

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.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...


[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.

Scandalous priests and bishops

In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.

The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.

Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.

And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.

Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.

Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.

Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).

In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?

The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.

Image credit

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.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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…

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

[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.

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