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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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).
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.
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). 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.
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:
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.
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.
[Updated Jan 2018]
 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.
 Marc Bloch, La société féodale, 2 vols., (Paris, 1939-1940)
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. 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.
 Rudolf Sohm, ‘Die Geistliche Gerichtsbarkeit im fränkischen Reich’, Zeitschrift für Kirchenrecht 9 (1870), 193-271
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.
In 860, an archbishop of Rheims called Hincmar was asked whether a king, Lothar II, could divorce his wife, Theutberga, and marry someone else. Hincmar wrote an extremely long treatise in reply, which Rachel Stone and I have been steadily translating for the last few years for Manchester University Press, that dealt with all the aspects of the case. Amongst these was a hint from the king that if the answer was no, then he might choose what we would call the ‘Henry VIII solution’ – have Theutberga executed, then remarry.
Hincmar tackled this hint by quoting St Augustine of Hippo’s book, On adulterous marriages. He quoted Augustine to explain that the law of the Roman Empire and of the Old Testament both permitted a husband to execute his adulterous wife, while Christian morals taught that a husband could not marry again while his wife was still alive. It would obviously be best for a husband neither to kill his wife nor to marry again while she was alive: but if necessary, he could do what was permitted, which was execution. If he didn’t, then he could not remarry.
That all seems perfectly clear. The only problem is that this isn’t quite what Augustine said. Augustine thought in paragraphs, not sentences, and Hincmar ended his quotation before Augustine had concluded that in fact, it would be better to marry again than to spill blood, no matter what the law said (see below for the full Augustine text).
What’s more, in the bit that Hincmar does quote, there’s a slight but significant change in the text: the Latin ‘si licet’ (= if it is permitted) has become ‘scilicet’ (=that is to say, certainly). Augustine had reservations about the secular law’s permission to execute, a tone of doubt – “If it is permitted”. Hincmar’s version of Augustine had neither doubt nor reservation. (See the picture above for the text).
This tiny textual variant isn’t common in the transmission of Augustine’s work. It might be scribal error, but it does seem a rather convenient one. Wherever this extra letter ‘c’ came from, the Frankish prelate was evidently a little more relaxed about uxoricide than the African bishop had been. Hincmar had a different attitude to how Christian law and ‘secular’ law could fit together, which wasn’t too great for Theutberga.
In the end, though, the queen escaped execution. What happened next? Well, you’ll have to wait till the book’s out…
Hincmar, De Divortio, Appendix 5 ‘As Saint Augustine says (…), “Finally I ask of you, whether it is licit for a Christian husband, according either to the old law of God or by Roman laws, to kill an adulteress. That is to say [Augustine: If it is permitted], it is better that he should restrain himself from both, that is the permitted punishment for she who has sinned, and from an illicit marriage while she is alive. But if he insists on choosing one, it is better for him to do what is allowed, so that the adulteress may be punished, than to do that which is not allowed, that while she is alive he commits adultery. But if, as is truly said, it is not allowed for a Christian man to kill his adulterous wife, but only to send her away…”
Hincmar continues: ‘…it is on this condition, that he may either live in continence or be reconciled to her, since if while she is alive he marries another, he too will without doubt be guilty of adultery’.
Original Augustine continues: ‘… who is so mad who would say to him, “Do what is not permitted, so that what is not permitted to you will be permissible”? For since both things are illicit according to the law of Christ, that is to kill an adulterous wife or to marry someone else while she is still alive, both should be refrained from, rather than doing the illicit for the illicit. But if he must do what is not allowed, let him commit adultery and not murder, so that he shall marry someone else while his wife is still alive and not shed human blood. Yet if two things are nefarious, he ought not to perpetrate one for the sake of the other, but avoid both’. [Augustine, Adulterous Marriages, II, ch. 15, Wilcox trans.]
Today I visited the departmental archive of the Haute Marne, in the quiet eastern French town of Chaumont. I’m interested in how monastic communities dealt with ‘secular justice’ – building on my earlier research into Carolingian advocacy – and I was chasing up a few leads. Archives are places of wonder, though, and you never know what you’ll stumble across, even when the material’s been carefully catalogued. And this piece made me pause.
It’s a charter that records how Geoffrey IV of Joinville, ancestor of the famous Jean de Joinville, gave up certain rights over an estate formally owned by the monastery of St-Urbain.
It’s not much to look at, admittedly. In fact, it’s a singularly scrappy piece of parchment, no more than 10cm high. Geoffrey, it seems, was letting standards slip.
But that’s understandable when we take into account how and when the charter was produced. When he made it, Geoffrey was taking part in the long siege of Acre (1189-1191), part of the so-called ‘Third Crusade’. Geoffrey promised that the grant would be valid whether he lived or died. He was presumably hoping for the former, but it turned out to be the latter. His brother Geoffrey V nevertheless later dutifully confirmed the grant, this time with a much nicer piece of parchment, with a surviving seal. Geoffrey V also brought back his brother’s remains for burial.
And by the looks of it, he (or someone) also brought back this slip of parchment, too, which gives every impression of having been hastily drafted in a tent outside the city. Unimpressive though it may seem, it was carefully preserved by the monks of St-Urbain, along with his brother’s more formal confirmation.
As it happens, the charter hasn’t been edited (at least as far as I know) – but a normal edition of the text alone couldn’t, I think, transmit the fascination exerted by the original. Not in spite of its scrappiness, but because of it.
In whimsical moments, I sometimes think how fun it would be to write a book that explored the major lineaments of the European early Middle Ages through animal-human interaction. It could start with the ponies of the nomads who helped bring down the Empire, then consider the diminishing size of post-Roman livestock. There’d be a chapter on Merovingian sea-monsters, another on Charlemagne’s elephant, and inevitably there’d be one on how the boundaries between human and animal were ‘negotiated’ through bestiality, a matter of concern in some penitential texts (and occasionally outside them). It would have to consider microbes – do they count? – and a final chapter would emphasise that so much of what we know depends on animal skin (ie, parchment).
But there’d also be a chapter on an animal that I encountered in the course of my current research: Pope Leo IX’s parrot.
The pope received his parrot as a gift from the king of Dalamarcie, probably around 1050. There’s some debate as to where Dalamarcie was, but the most likely guess is Denmark. That would make the king in question Swein (who contemplated conquering England like his Viking ancestors). It’s not clear where Swein had sourced the bird, but most medieval parrots came ultimately from India.
This was not just any old parrot, though – this was a miraculous parrot. On the way to Rome, it kept on saying ‘I am going to the pope’. And when it was presented, it spontaneously (?) exclaimed ‘Pope Leo!’. [For the full story, see the extract below].
Pope Leo IX is a celebrated figure in medieval history, famous for his role in church reform – attacking clerical marriage and simony, and strongly asserting the superiority of St Peter’s see within the church. He had also been deeply affected by the attack of a demonic toad (!) during his childhood, which one might imagine would encourage a degree of circumspection about animals.
Yet the Toul Life of Pope Leo IX, from which this information comes, makes it clear that this deeply serious man was thrilled by the gift of a bird that talked (presumably in Latin). Whenever implementing Church Reform and papal primacy just got a bit much, Leo would go to his rooms, and be cheered up by listening to his parrot saying ‘Pope Leo’, over and over again.
It’s revealing that the bird was not taught to say ‘Libertas Ecclesiae!’, or ‘Simoniaca haeresis!’, or other church reform catch-phrases. Perhaps it was enough for the embattled Pope to hear someone, at least, providing unconditional recognition of his status, unlike all the troublesome bishops or kings who wouldn’t do as they were told (some of whom were, unlike the parrot, miraculously struck dumb). It’s also interesting that this odd anecdote reached the ears of a writer in far-off Toul, hundreds of miles away from Rome. Evidently it was widely discussed.
Pope Leo died in 1054. One might wonder whether his successor, Victor II, would have found the parrot’s constant repetition of ‘Pope Leo!’ quite as endlessly entertaining. Luckily for him, he did not have to put up with it. For according to a number of manuscripts, the parrot fell into Leo’s grave and died ‘from excessive grief’, ‘as if it were unwilling to live without him’. Leo’s affection for his divinely-inspired pet was, apparently, reciprocated.
Extract from the Life of Pope Leo IX, tr. Robinson (The Papal Reform of the 11th Century, Manchester, 2004)
Among the many who strove to visit his [Leo’s] presence, the king of Denmark sent him a parrot as a gift, in which divine grace appeared through an admirable virtue. Certain birds can indeed be mastered by hunger and taught to pronounce human words; but it is said that this bird without compulsion throughout the journey on which he was brought to the lord pontiff continued to say, ‘I am going to the pope.’ Immediately on being presented to him, without being taught, the bird exclaimed in a sweet voice, ‘Pope Leo!’ Whenever this venerable pastor, fatigued by the conduct of business, retired to his private room or when some sadness chanced to oppress his mind, afflicted by excessive cares, this bird often alleviated his distress and, by sweetly and succinctly repeating ‘Pope Leo’, he restored his mental vigour.
Cover image: a 15th-century parrot, from a manuscript in Denmark (!): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast235.htm
This blog is primarily about the Turbulent Priests project, but between now and December 2014, I’m based in Tübingen, courtesy of the Humboldt Foundation, and working on something rather different, which I think of as Project Humbert (it’s about an 11th-century reformer of that name). It’s this that took me to the Royal Library in Brussels to look at a 12th-century manuscript, known as Brussels BR 9706-25.
You might be forgiven for wondering whether it’s really justifiable for medieval historians to make such visits these days. In this case as in many others, the manuscript’s constituent texts have long been edited (since the 1970s). And even if they hadn’t been, I could just have contacted the library, and, for a fee, have requested a black and white microfilm to scroll through at my leisure. I didn’t know that there was anything specifically interesting about this manuscript – I just felt I ought to go and see it, because I was interested in its contents (which are only found in a handful of manuscripts). For those controlling research fund purse-strings, arguments like this might not seem terribly compelling.
And as the train chugged through the flat Belgian landscape, I wondered whether this was really just an elaborate form of procrastination, or a ritual that medieval historians still dutifully carry out in imitation of the great Studienreisen of the 19th-century when these manuscript collections were first catalogued properly. No wonder that in an era of digitised reproductions, the death of the travel grant is frequently predicted. Maybe we should all just stay in our offices, and get on with some screen-work like everyone else.
Still, I went anyway – and I’m glad I did. It turned out that the manuscript in question has nota marks in the margin: basically NBs, drawing attention to particular sections. That hadn’t been mentioned by any of the editions – understandably, since the goal of most editions is to reconstruct the original ‘pure’ text, not to track readers’ responses. And in themselves, such marks are hardly unusual in medieval manuscripts. Then as now, readers annotated what they were reading. Unless these marks can be dated, though, it’s difficult to make much of them; and most of the time, they can’t be.
In this manuscript, however, I noticed that the nota marks had been decorated with red ink – the same red ink used to decorate other bits of the manuscript (what’s known technically as rubrication). I know what you’re thinking. “Wow! That suggests that the marks had been written *along with* the text – that they had been added not by some later reader, but by the scribes who conscientiously copied out both the text and marginal notes: in other words, they probably came from the exemplar that this manuscript was based on.”
And that makes them altogether more interesting. The annotated texts in question are 11th-century ones, from the era of the papal reform, and were probably put together in southern Italy – so the nota marks are potentially evidence for how 11th-century people read these texts, quite soon after their compilation. And that raises all kinds of interesting questions, not least because the sections annotated seem to chime with key themes of 11th-century church reform. So, suddenly, I was looking at fresh evidence.
I haven’t fully worked through the implications of this yet. But I’m struck that the detail of the rubrication simply wouldn’t have been visible in a black and white reproduction. True, a full colour digital image would have shown it up (if one were available – and they’re often expensive). But with no particular reason to suppose that the marginalia would prove so interesting, I would have been much less likely to leaf through every page, staring at every detail, had I not travelled for four hours to get there, grimly determined to make the trip worthwhile.
Granted, this was a serendipitious outcome. But isn’t serendipity important in most fields of research? So, next time you see a historian of medieval Europe patiently sitting on a train or plane to some library or archive, don’t ask whether she’s wasting her time, or her department’s budget, or even public funds, and why she didn’t just go on line like everyone else, and anyway isn’t all her evidence well-known? Wish her luck – who knows what she might be about to find.
One of the things it can be hard to explain to the wider public is quite how fragmented History is as a field. To be sure, TV historians will cover anything and everything, but those carrying out research tend, inevitably, to be specialists in particular periods and particular places, and quite often, in particular methodologies or approaches. So, historians who focus on the earlier Middle Ages don’t tend to read later sources much.
There are of course sound reasons for this, but there are costs too. And the project I’m working on at the moment, which is taking me well into the twelfth and even thirteenth centuries, is a powerful reminder of just how much we early medievalists are missing out on as result. For those adjusted to the peculiar pleasures of making the most of scraps of evidence, looking at post-1200 records can be a disorienting experience.
This week, I was looking at early assize rolls from Lincolnshire. Assize rolls are records of English court judgements, initially kept so the king’s agents could know how much revenues they were owed in fines and penalties. From around 1200, these documents are preserved in ever-increasing volume, representing the precocity of English royal government (there’s not really anything comparable on the continent at this time). The two rolls I was looking at were made during a visit by the king’s judges to Lincoln Castle in June 1202, where they dealt with a large number of cases, including, which is what interests me, a few cases involving clerics.
Here’s one of the cases they dealt with. A woman named Mabel (latin: Mabilia) lived near Sleaford with her husband Godwin. At some point before June 1202, a carpenter named Alured killed Godwin. Alured had then fled into the church, which probably saved his own life, but he had to go into exile, and all his property was confiscated. The newly widowed Mabel, though, wasn’t satisfied. She accused a man called William of having held down her husband while Alured murdered him. However, William was a subdeacon, and as such, was able to claim ‘benefit of clergy’: so he was allowed to leave the courtroom, and handed over to the ecclesiastical court, or ‘court christian’. What happened to him afterwards isn’t known, but he was probably defrocked.
Mabel didn’t give up though on getting justice for poor Godwin: she next accused Alured’s wife and daughter, Juliana and Isabelle, of having advised Alured to kill him. But because Mabel wasn’t able to prove their involvement, she ended up with a fine for a false accusation, though the judges let her off – out of pity, or maybe because she couldn’t pay.
For the historian acclimatised to the wealth of legal thirteenth-century sources, much of this is fairly hum-drum. But for the early medievalist used to reading between the lines, this is a remarkable account in every way. It demonstrates that wives and daughters were plausibly involved in driving male relatives to commit murder, that women could make use of the royal court system, that practices of sanctuary actually worked, and that goods could be valued and confiscated. And to top it all, it’s specific: we know that this was all discussed in Lincoln Castle one summer, eight hundred years ago.
For my purposes, what’s particularly significant though is that William, the cleric, was able to pull the clerical card. Historians of English law have tended to play down the extent and effectiveness of ‘benefit of clergy’, arguing that it was a fairly marginal affair, more honoured in the breach than the observance. If one works primarily from the normative sources (what ought, or ought not, to have happened), that’s not surprising. Actually, just a couple of decades later, the bishop of Lincoln was writing letters complaining about royal judges putting clerics on trial. So clearly claims of exemption didn’t always work, and maybe weren’t even always made.
Yet in this particular instance, it probably saved someone’s life. And – though here I’m speculating – it made a difference to Mabel too, denying her what she would probably have seen as justice. Historians, then, might say that clerical exemption wasn’t a major issue in medieval England. I suspect Mabel would have strongly disagreed.