The skin and bones of history

Chris Wickham
Chris Wickham a number of years pre-retirement

Last month I was at a conference on political culture in the earlier Middle Ages. I’ll talk about that in future posts, but for now I want to think about it in combination with another event I went to recently: a celebration of Chris Wickham’s work to mark his retirement. Rachel Moss has written appreciatively  of Chris as a colleague; the short papers on the day had much to say about different aspects of his research. One recurrent theme was Chris’ determination to get inside national historiographies and understand them fully, rather than merely cherry-pick from them. (His review-article, Marx, Sherlock Holmes and Late Roman Culture got particular mention).

I want to talk about the most important insight I got from Chris’ work, especially from Framing the Early Middle Ages. This was his use of explicit models and ideal types to pin down specific components of what we are trying to compare over time and space. Such a move may be seen as reductionist or too schematic, but it’s a powerful tool if well-used. Several of my more recent projects have started from this idea of comparing underlying structures, even if they’ve been on topics a long way from Chris’ own interests.

Chris’ focus has been on underlying social and economic structures, what you might call the bones of history. A review of The Inheritance of Rome complained it didn’t have enough about kings in it. It was quite a mental stretch to go from that to the conference that Katy Dutton organised in Manchester on “Political Culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins”. That was full of kings, as well as dukes, counts and countesses and a surprising number of archdeacons. Ever since I read Mayke de Jong’s Penitential State I’ve become interested in Carolingian political culture, because Mayke emphasized its dynamic nature. Many previous studies of Carolingian ideology had focused on royal image-making as relatively untroubled process, whether it’s Charlemagne’s followers sneering at the Merovingians or Charles the Bald’s creation of an imperial image. Penitential State, in contrast, showed political tactics being contested and how metaphors and discourses allowed actions (such as deposing a king) that were unthinkable otherwise.

How does this political culture relate to the kind of structural history that Chris favours? I’m starting to see it as the skin over the bones. In the keynote speech at the Manchester conference, Martin Aurell talked about the conflicts of Henry II and his sons in 1173. Although there were important underlying economic and social issues beneath the conflict, the chroniclers discussed it largely in terms of personalities and individuals.

In the same way, the Brexit result, which inevitably haunted the conference, combined deep underlying structural issues (such as the depressed state of the economy in some regions) with important roles for spectacular personalities, such as Boris Johnson and a campaign marked by the successful use of sometimes horrifying propaganda. To understand what happened, here, as with other political events, you need skin and bones – political culture combined with socio-economic structures.

How we carry out that combination varies. Much of my historical work has tended towards the ‘skin’ side, focusing on specific cultural moments, but Chris’ work keeps on reminding me that I need to look at wider patterns as well, see how all the pieces of a society fit together. That’s the impact, often indirect but important, that he’s had on my own research.


The novelty of sermons

I’ve been thinking recently about moral instruction on marriage in the early centuries AD and how it was changed or not by the coming of Christianity. And it occurred to me that the sermon as a method of moral instruction is something distinctively different from the previous Roman culture. What’s new about the sermon? Essentially that it provided repeated moral instruction to a substantial non-elite audience.

It’s this combination that strikes me as distinctively new (although I’m open to correction). The Roman tradition of speechmaking (whose style influenced some preachers, such as Augustine, heavily) was centred on political speeches and those in the lawcourts: accessible to the non-elite, but not on moral topics and not repeated regularly. Wandering teachers and preachers of various religions provided moral instruction to a non-elite audience, but their itinerancy meant that only a relatively small number of faithful disciples would hear them repeatedly.

The ancient philosophical tradition of moral teaching, meanwhile, was predominantly aimed at a small elite (although Stoicism was more of a popular philosophy), who gained repeated instruction as a pupil of the philosopher. The nearest equivalent to the Christian sermon and presumably its inspiration was the Jewish homiletic tradition of the derasha, a vernacular explanation and exposition on a passage of Scripture.

The difference between the derasha and the sermon that I’m interested in is the changing size of the relative audiences. While Jewish communities were greatly disrupted after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Christianity continued to spread and flourish throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with more and more churches and parishes appearing at which the priest was expected to give a sermon or homily every week. Churchmen may have complained about the infrequency with which many of their flock attended church, but I think that the sermon still provided a more substantial platform for moral outreach than had previously available in the classical world.

Big History and the Early Middle Ages

In December 2015, I went off to the LSE and heard Ian Morris give the first of his public lectures as the  Philippe Romain Chair in History and International Affairs. In this one, he was looking for a grand unified field theory of history and laid out what he considered the basics of a “Theory of Everything” which covered the last 20,000 years of human history. He started by making an important point: he sees every historian as having a Theory of Everything, even if they don’t make it explicit and even if that theory is that everything is contingent. In response to that, I want to begin sketching out some of my theories of everything. But I also want to look at how the early Middle Ages does or doesn’t fit into Ian’s own Theory of Everything.

After an overview of the historiography of a theory of everything, starting from the eighteenth century), Ian sketched the outline of the current leading contender for such a theory, at least in the English-speaking world. The basis of this is evolutionary thinking, looking at what he called the 100,000 year question: how did we get from very few modern humans with a minimal standard of living and low life expectancy 100,000 years ago to the modern world?

Ian also talked about the three key components of such a theory: biology (humans as animals), culture and cultural evolution, and geography. In terms of evolutionary big history, Ian claims, what we see as an overall picture is a move from foraging to cultivating, farming villages, and then several different levels of more complex states. The speed of the movement through this sequence varies between regions of the worlds according to environmental conditions and there are also regions which move to herding rather than cultivating, but the broad patterns are quite similar. In many ways this part of the talk sounded like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, with geography essentially being destiny. However Ian’s interested in the future, as well as the distant past, so he pointed out that “time’s arrow flies diagonally”. In other words, as bigger units expand, they cut off indigenous paths of development in the societies they come into contact with, such as with the Old World invasions of the New World or with industrialisation nowadays.

In the long run, though, Ian sees a very smooth process of increasing scale; he talks of history being “largely an endless pursuit of energy” and his new book, based on that thesis, is called Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. In other words, his Theory of Everything is not just evolutionary, but materialist and broadly teleological. He did point out, however, that despite the long-run smoothness in the short run there could be catastrophic periods (and didn’t forget to quote Keynes on the fact that in the long run we’re all dead).

The difficulty here is what counts as the short run, when you’re talking about either 100,000 years or at least 20,000 years, as his later talks do. But I’m going to look at western Europe in the early Middle Ages (say 500-1000 CE) and in the 20,000 year period, I’d say that isn’t just a momentary blip.

Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages is, as global historians repeatedly point out, a backwater. The early medieval West is doubly so, which is really my point. There’s a change in the period from the Roman Empire to considerably simpler forms of societies and economies. If you’re Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome you see this as the “end of civilization”, whereas Chris Wickham sees more opportunities for free peasants.  But regardless of whether you see this as positive or negative, the fact of the change is clear, and that’s a problem for Ian’s theories. Time’s arrow is flying backwards in his terms and no-one seems particularly interested in getting it to fly the “correct” way, towards the more complex society that has been lost. What’s more, when more complex societies do develop in the West in the Central Middle Ages, they’re not “Roman” in socio-economic terms, and they’re not very Roman culturally.

There’s an obvious contrast here with the Chinese empire, which also fell apart periodically in the first millennium CE. Large and complex premodern societies can be brittle and prone to collapse: we know that. But the Chinese state was repeatedly recreated; after Justinian no-one seriously tried to revive the western Roman empire.

One obvious response is to say that they were factors that meant that the Roman empire couldn’t be revived, such as a loss of key territories, population decline (due to climate change or disease) or the loss of substantial technological knowledge. It’s not clear to me, however, that any of these suggestions is an adequate explanation. In terms of territory, the West’s big loss was North Africa and its grain supply, but to compensate that, there were substantial new areas of farmland that became available in Germany for any would-be Roman emperor. And population loss and climate change also probably happened in China as well.

Technology loss seems at first sight more plausible. But there weren’t actually many technologies that were completely lost, long-term, to the whole of the post-Roman West. Wheel-made pottery and glass may have vanished from Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, but they could be re-imported from Gaul at a later date. Concrete probably was lost entirely, but the metalwork skills of the early Middle Ages remained substantial. What changed most drastically was the scale of production, rather than the specific technologies used. Bryan Ward-Perkins argues that in terms of the range and quality of material goods available, the Roman empire was comparable to thirteen or fifteenth-century Europe (Fall of Rome, p. 100), i.e. one that was still premodern.

It’s possible that there’s some other factor that I haven’t considered which explains why the Roman empire (or something akin to it) couldn’t be revived. But that doesn’t explain why no-one seriously tried to revive it. Charlemagne and the Carolingians are emblematic here. They certainly tried to revive some aspects of Roman culture, such as more classical Latin. But what is also interesting is what they didn’t try and revive. There was no royal attempt to recover and apply Roman law, even though there was a considerable amount of it still available in manuscript form. Nor did anyone try and recreate the Roman army, even though there were texts around, such as Vegetius’ De re militari that might have allowed this.

The list of opportunities not taken goes on. In 757, a hydraulic organ was brought to Pippin III’s court: there’s no evidence that anyone tried to reverse-engineer it. There was a lot of other technology floating around in the eighth and ninth-century Byzantine and Islamic worlds: despite their contacts with these, the Carolingians don’t seem to have been searching for it. (This contrasts with texts of canonical collections, the Benedictine Rule etc, which Charlemagne and his successors were keen to get from outside the kingdom).

All this brings me back to something that I think John Gillingham once said (though I can’t now find the specific reference), to the effect that “We needs must love the highest when we see it” is historically inaccurate. Elites could often see or know about more sophisticated forms of government and larger, more complex states without necessarily thinking they were a Good Thing. The early medieval west strikes me as an important counter-example to a Theory of Everything that is evolutionary, teleological and materialist.

One possible way round this problem is to say that the evolutionary process is very path-dependent. Once you’ve made a key decision or incurred a vital loss, there’s no way back: the early medieval state has become flightless, as it were. One possible key moment is identified by Chris Wickham as the point at which the Merovingian rulers gave up collecting taxes. But that decision is in itself hard to explain in a purely materialist framework.

I think that to get a workable Theory of Everything we have to abandon one of evolution, teleology and materialism, and funnily enough its materialism I want to abandon rather than teleology. At the 20,000 year scale I think there is evidence for humans overall wanting more complex societies rather than the simple life. It also seems to me unnecessarily drastic to throw out evolution completely. Repeated small changes that make an institution or a society more “successful” is a plausible mechanism for many historical developments.

But as Ian himself pointed out, cultural evolution is often directed and purposeful, unlike the randomness of biological evolution. That means, however, that individual cultures and subcultures can sometimes move in the “wrong” direction: individuals or groups can deliberately choose options that are not in their own material interest and that reduce, rather than increase, complexity. Whether you think of Egyptian monasticism or the Cambodian Year Zero, such acts are repeated throughout history.

Any materialist theory of everything, therefore, needs to build in an understanding of humans’ economic irrationality, both accidental (Daniel Kahneman’s Fast Thinking) and deliberate. And in particular, I think that the early Middle Ages demonstrates that a sufficient Theory of Everything needs to look quite hard at why cultural evolution sometimes leads to societies (or at least the elites leading them) coming up with the “wrong” results. Seeing culture largely as superstructure simply doesn’t work, and I’m not yet convinced by Ian’s idea of morality as dependent on material conditions. I think we need a theory of everything that looks in a rather different way at the interplay between morality and economic circumstances, even if I’m not yet certain exactly what it’s going to look like.



Bigamy and bureaucracy

NPG 4478; Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (nÈe Braddon) by William Powell Frith
Mary Elizabeth Braddon by William Powell Frith, oil on canvas, exhibited 1865


Over the Christmas holiday I was reading some Victorian novels: I re-read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and then I went on to another novel of hers: Aurora Floyd. This too, turned out to have bigamy as a central part of the plot. In fact, a recent academic study by Maia McAleavey, The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian  Novel, reckons there are over 200 Victorian novels with bigamy or prospective bigamy as part of the plot.

McAleavey links the sudden appearance of this plot (which nineteenth century critics, such as Margaret Oliphant particularly associated with Braddon) to changing laws on marriage. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 specified the new formalities required to make a marriage legally binding, while the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 made divorce more readily available. McAleavey sees bigamy as a plot device which provides an evasive “quiet” alternative to adultery or divorce, allowing the author to show either an innocent victim committing the offence unknowingly or a villain knowingly flouting the law, rather than merely the seventh commandment.

I want to bring a slightly wider perspective to the question, however and ask why the bigamy plot wasn’t popular in medieval times. After all, as Sara McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne shows, “bigamy” (in the sense of remarriage while the previous spouse was alive) was relatively common. The relatively few examples of medieval literature she finds using this plot concentrate on one single version of it: the husband who goes to war and is believed dead, but who returns either just before or after his “widow” remarries.

This story (which is as old as the Iliad) finds a real-life parallel in the sixteenth-century case of Martin Guerre. But the location of all these real-life and fictional cases is key: the spouse or supposed spouse returns “home”. These premodern plots reflect the realities of worlds before bureaucracy, where identification, recognition and acknowledgement were almost exclusively local. A would-be bigamist who moved only a day’s journey or so away could effectively reinvent themselves and change their marital circumstances. Indeed, in a world without the registration of births, marriages and deaths, proving the original person had even existed came down to sometimes fallible eye-witness statements.

In contrast, Victorian bigamy plots take place in a society where bureaucracy and faster travel make reinventing oneself via relocation increasingly difficult. It has become easier to trace people, at least those above the lowest ranks in society. Written evidence, such as passenger lists and city directories, play important roles in the novels of Braddon and others. Lady Audley fears that she cannot rely on her secluded country location to protect her from her first husband finding her. Indeed, it is no longer so secluded with the coming of the railways: she is able to go up to a London for a day’s burglary at one point.

But bureaucracy also offers new possibilities for the bigamy plot in another way, especially useful to a sensation novelist such as Braddon. Traditionally, the revelation of bigamy requires a confrontation between the first spouse and one of the second married pair or would-be married pair. The novelist has to engineer this confrontation and make it plausible that the returned spouse is believed, that the previous marriage is recognised as existing. Lady Audley’s bigamous secrets survive for longer than expected because George Talboys, her first husband, confronts her in secret and she responds by murdering him (or at least attempting to do so).

The ending of Lady Audley’s Secret also makes clear the poor planning of his bigamous marriage by Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. He confines his mad wife to his own attic, making her available to confront the would-be second Mrs Rochester.  In contrast, once Lady Audley has been diagnosed as “mad”, she is securely removed to an asylum in Belgium and thus cannot cause further harm.

Victorian bureaucracy, however, also allowed bigamy to be revealed in a different and more definite way.  Aurora Floyd’s first marriage, although it is repeatedly hinted at during much of the novel, is first made explicit in the most dramatic circumstances. Her first husband’s murdered body is found with a blood-stained document hidden in his coat: that document proves to be their marriage certificate.

A society in which every marriage, even a clandestine one, had to be officially recorded provides more scope for drama than is given by the careful weighing of evidence necessary to prove a prior marriage or betrothal revealed in medieval archives  such as the York Cause Papers. Bigamy was not a new plot device in the mid-nineteenth century, but Victorian technological and bureaucratic developments allowed many new and sensational variations on the theme.



Pseudo-Isidore and canons as weapons

Scholars debating about when in the ninth century the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries were created have increasingly argued for an early date for them, either in the aftermath of the second rebellion against Louis the Pious in 833 or even after the first rebellion in 830. Some scholars, such as Mayke de Jong, however are not convinced by these arguments for an early date. I’m not an expert on Pseudo-Isidore, an immensely complicated subject, but I am interested in how canons and decretals get used in Carolingian disputes, so I want to approach the question from a slightly different angle: when in the ninth century did people start using canons as weapons?

The purpose of the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries is relatively clear, after all: they’re forgeries of authoritative statements by councils (canons) and in papal letters (decretals). And they were intended to be of use in disputes concerning churchmen, for example setting out under what conditions clerics can be accused of an offence. But such forgeries only make logical sense in a situation where genuine texts of this type are already being used to argue controversial cases (like the deposition of Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims and its after-effects).

There’s probably an entire master thesis to be written on the development of Carolingian citation practices. From early on in Charlemagne’s reign, some capitularies, such as the Admonitio generalis of 789 quote canons by the name of the council; similarly, the Council of Aachen in 816 has a whole string of passages from named authors and councils. There’s a noticeable change in referencing practices in the lay mirrors between Alcuin’s  De virtutibus et vitiis and Jonas of Orléans’ De institutione laicali. Alcuin incorporates short extracts from patristic sources into his text without identifying them; Jonas gives longer extracts, specifically identified as such. Using canons and decretals isn’t a new phenomenon in 830.

But when you start looking at their use in polemic texts from the 830s, it’s minimal. For example, Agobard of Lyons cites no canons or decretals in either part of his Liber apologeticus from 833. Then there’s Divinis praeceptis – a possibly forged letter of Gregory IV (JE  2579) claiming to be from 833. Eric Knibbs argues that’s is a genuine text of Gregory’s inspired by Paschasius Radbertus of Corbie, one of the Pseudo-Isidore forgers. Eric describes the text as “basically little more than a patchwork of canonical citations”, largely from one of Pseudo-Isidore’s key sources, the Collectio Hispana. But despite this, there’s only 1 papal decretal explicitly cited (Innocent I, JK 286), the text of which has then been interpolated to include a reference to the Council of Nicaea. It’s a similar story for the relatio of Louis’ penance by a number of bishops from Oct 833: that cites only one papal decretal explicitly (and no canons).

In other words, there’s little evidence of arguments making extensive use of genuine canonical sources around 833, which makes a project to forge large numbers of them seem implausible at that date. Of course, that doesn’t exclude them being forged later in the 830s, but here the evidence of Ebbo of Rheims is revealing. We have two versions of an apology by Ebbo of Rheims, justifying his reinstatement as archbishop of Rheims in 840. The earliest of this was probably written in 841, the later possibly in 842. Neither of them includes any explicit references to sources other than the Bible.

What’s particularly interesting is that at one point Ebbo says that he’s done seven years of penance, after which remission is usual (septenni ferme sub penitentiae spacio, quo in sancta aecclesia peccatorum penitentibus fieri solet remissio, patienter expectans et nemini consecrationis ibi dignitatem impedivi). I’m not certain where this statement comes from, but there’s one likely source for its specific reference to seven years. That is a letter allegedly by Isidore of Seville to Bishop Massona of Merida, which was widely circulating in the Frankish world by the eighth century, including in the canonical collection, the Collectio vetus Gallica. In this letter, “Isidore” deals with the question of whether a priest can be restored to office after doing penance. He says that they can if they have done worthy penance and specifically claims that the canons allow this after seven years (PL 83, col. 901: Maria ergo, soror Aaron, caro intelligitur sacerdotis, quae dum superbiae dedita, sordidissimis corruptionum contagiis maculatur, extra castra septem diebus, id est, extra collegium sanctae Ecclesiae septem annis projicitur, qui post emundationem vitiorum loci, sive pristinae dignitatis recipit meritum).

This implies that Ebbo had a source for his statement about seven years penance but chose not to cite it. In terms of referencing practice, he’s working in an older Carolingian tradition (as seen in Alcuin) of implicit citing of sources, where it’s either assumed that anyone who matters will recognise the source of the author’s quote or that the writer’s own authority is enough in itself to justify the statement made.

In 833 Ebbo had gone over to Lothar’s side at the Field of Lies, at precisely the point when Eric Knibbs thinks Pseudo-Isidore was starting up. But it’s not just that around 840 Ebbo doesn’t appear to know any Pseudo-Isidore’s texts; it’s that’s in the early 840s it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that citing canons or early decretals was a useful thing to do.  In fact, when Ebbo himself later turned to forgery (around 845) he forged a letter from Gregory IV (JE 2583), who had only just died.

In other words, in the 830s people engaged in the sort of controversies that the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries  were allegedly created to affect, not only aren’t using these forged sources, they’re only rarely using genuine sources of the same type. If we do want to find people using canonical sources as polemic, we have to look in different directions: Hrabanus Maurus and Hincmar of Rheims.

The first polemical source I’ve found that makes more sustained use of canons and decretals is the letter  De honore parentum by Hrabanus Maurus to Louis the Pious from 834 (recently discussed by Mayke de Jong) . This treatise is largely based on Biblical exemplar, as you would expect from an expert commentary writer, but in one section, c. 8, on how those who administer secular judgement are to be considered, we abruptly get a string of patristic sources and councils: a decretal of Pope Innocent I, extracts from Augustine and Ambrosiaster and a quote from the Council of Antioch. In form, this looks very like the argument from sources you can see in Jonas’ De institutione laicali, but it’s now being applied to a work that’s making a political argument, claiming that the penance imposed on Louis the Pious was unjust.

We also have a surviving manuscript (Paris BnF lat. nouv. acq. 1632A) from the late 830s or early 840s, which contains a collection of sources known as Capitula diversarum sententiarum pro negociis rei publice consulendis. This is a selection of patristic sources justifying warfare and the ruler punishing others. Although it doesn’t specifically include canons or decretals (it does include Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job), it’s the kind of dossier that in the second half of the ninth century was frequently used as source material to argue a specific case. The dossier has previously been attributed to Jonas of Orléans and placed in the late 830s, but Phillip Wynn thinks it was compiled by Hincmar of Rheims, possibly in about 842, during the war between Louis the Pious’ sons.

There’s also another source from the early 840s, which although it’s not directly polemical, is collecting canons and decretals in a way that would be useful for polemic. This is Hrabanus Maurus’ Paenitentiale ad Otgarium, which he composed for Archbishop Otgar of Mainz around 841. The first chapter of this contains a discussion of whether it was possible to reinstate priests to office after they had done penance. Hrabanus listed a string of canonical and patristic texts on the subject. This topic was central to Ebbo’s return to Rheims, and demonstrated that such matters could in theory be decided by the use of authoritative sources.

Putting these three texts together, it looks like there was a change in concepts of the sources of authority sometime between about 834 and the early 840s. Previous polemicists and litigants, such as Ebbo, relied on more generalised moral and Biblical arguments. In contrast, some scholars were repurposing the moral florilegia that had existed from the late eighth century onwards into specifically political/legal weapons, citing them explicitly as authorities. This is clearly visible, for example, by the time of the Council of Soissons in 853. Only when this idea of canons as weapons had spread did it make sense to forge Pseudo-Isidore, because only then would its material be used.

The first possible citation of Pseudo-Isidore comes from 852; the first definite one from 857. The earlier the creation of Pseudo-Isidore is pushed back, the greater the problems in explaining why we have no trace of its effect until the 850s. But I think the evidence (or rather non-evidence) of the use of (genuine) canonical sources as weapons before the 840s also makes it harder to argue for an early date for starting Pseudo-Isidore. Before 840 it’s not clear to me that if the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries had existed, anyone would have known what usefully to do with them.

Political smears, then and now

I’m currently writing a paper about political propaganda in the Carolingian empire and it’s getting more topical than I’d like it to be. My focus is on a chain of events between 827 and 860, which in a simplified version goes like this:

1) (827-828) Two important magnates of the Emperor Louis the Pious, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans are accused of military incompetence and removed from office. The accusations about them have probably been trumped up by Bernard of Septimania, who then goes on to enjoy Louis’ favour.

2) (830) Bernard is accused of adultery with Louis the Pious’ wife; some of Louis’ sons stage a coup against him, with the backing of Hugh and Matfrid, but Louis soon regains control.

3) (833-834) Louis’ sons again stage a coup; Louis is accused of numerous crimes and forced into doing penance for them, with the aim of removing him permanently from power. One of the leaders of the bishops imposing this penance is Ebbo, Archbishop of Rheims. Louis, however, regains the throne  again.

4) (835-851) Ebbo is made a scapegoat for the penance imposed on Louis and forced into “voluntarily” renouncing his office on the grounds of his unworthiness. However he continues to dispute the validity of this loss of office and attempts to regain his archbishopric.

5) (857-860) Louis’ grandson Lothar II attempts to get rid of his wife Theutberga by falsely accusing her of incest with his brother Hubert and then forcing her to make a “voluntary” confession of this and ask for penance.

6) (860) Some of Lothar’s opponents ask for advice on the legal validity of this process. One archbishop writes a long text De divortio on the topic: Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, the successor to Ebbo.

What I’m focusing on in my paper, building on work by Mayke de Jong and Courtney Booker, is how the mechanisms of penance and accusations of sinfulness get repeatedly used against opponents, and how those who’ve denounced false accusations and lack of proper procedure against someone on their own side go on to use the same techniques against their opponents. How partisanship trumps principle in other words, by people who are nevertheless trying to claim the moral high ground. And the last few days have given a depressing insight into the mentality behind this.

I considered becoming a registered supporter of the Labour party and voting in the leadership election, but I didn’t in the end: there wasn’t any candidate I was positive enough about.  But though I don’t agree with some of Jeremy Corbyn’s positions, I can see his appeal, the promise of a different kind of politics. It wasn’t surprising that the right-wing media decided to attack him with repeated unfounded smears.

And now a week or so on, we have “Piggate”, and David Cameron being attacked with dubiously based smears by a right-wing newspaper. And a number of the people who’ve been talking about principles in politics are eagerly pointing and laughing (though to be fair, not Corbyn himself). It now turns out that the media lying and smearing people is fine for many people when it happens to someone whom you dislike.

The excuse for why this is OK seem oddly familiar too. There’s very little evidence for the specific accusation about Cameron and a dead pig, but that doesn’t matter. Because it’s the sort of thing that someone like him would do or the sort of initiation rite that an Oxford dining club would have and thus if it’s not true, it’s truthy. Theutberga’s brother Hubert had a bad reputation: it’s perhaps not surprising that Lothar used sexual slurs against him to justify ending his marriage to Hubert’s sister.

And then the further excuses come and more principles crumble. Many liberals and left-wingers have rightly spent years calling for a less prurient sexual morality, to treat sexual conduct as about consistent notions of harm, not just what is “normal”. And now they’re making school-kid smutty jokes about someone else’s behaviour, because he’s a Tory and so that’s OK.

It’s funny, of course, so I’m told, and he’s a powerful man, so why shouldn’t we mock him? It doesn’t do any harm. But the original accusations were clearly intended to do harm: that’s the point of making them. And humiliation and ridicule are a common part of smear campaigns. One of Louis’ partisans, Thegan, reported how Hugh of Tours’ servants laughed at him for his cowardice; as Mayke de Jong puts it (Penitential State p 252): “such mocking songs roared by one’s retainers and servants strike me as a Carolingian aristocrat’s worse nightmare. This is why Thegan integrated it into his strategies of defamation.”

Humiliation as part of a strategy of defamation: that’s what people cheering on Piggate are supporting. And then the final excuses come. Cameron’s a man who’s done evil things, so it’s OK to smear him. Or he’s palled up to a billionaire, so it serves him right when his former friend turns on him.

If the accusations were true about him, then they’d be more force to this: the equivalent of Al Capone getting brought down for tax evasion. But as I’ve said, the specific evidence for this claim is so far very weak. Swap the situation around politically. Jeremy Corbyn has associated with some unsavoury characters in his opposition to what he sees as imperialism. (To avoid confusion, I accept that there are reasons why he felt this to be necessary, such as furthering peace processes or as part of a movement focused on stopping a particular war). So does that mean that he’s fair game if one of them subsequently spreads lies about him?

So we get to the final argument. The right-wing media will smear left-wingers/Labour politicians anyhow, so why shouldn’t we do it too? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But here we get to the nub of the matter. Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign were supposed to be something new. The concern of this new politics isn’t supposed to be about popularity or electoral tactics but about principles. There are odd similarities with the idea of the prophetic voice in Carolingian politics: the man whose focus is on right and wrong, denouncing sinners and protecting the weak, without any thought for his own advantage. The truth-teller, who doesn’t care whom he offends or what the consequences are. Corbyn fits rather well into that tradition in many ways, although he’s milder in personality than your average Old Testament prophet.

But if you want to stand on your principles, as the Corbynistas do, it helps not to abandon them whenever it’s to your partisan advantage to do so. Speaking truthiness to power isn’t terribly inspiring. Hincmar poses as a man concerned only with justice, but he wriggles uncomfortably as he tries to explain why Theutberga’s supposedly voluntary confession can’t be used as evidence against her. Why? Because it was the same method used to remove his predecessor Ebbo: if he says this method of proof is invalid, Hincmar’s own hold on office is potentially weakened.  So instead we get some feeble excuses about how the situation is not the same.

In the UK, the left-wing doesn’t have the power and influence that the right-wing does, in terms of money and media access. Its key weapon is its morality: it stands for fairness and for truth, for something better. Or so it claims: unfortunately, after Piggate, it’s going to be a little harder for it to make that claim convincingly, any more than Louis the Pious or Thegan or Hincmar could in the ninth century.

History PhDs: a Cambridge cohort study

Several years ago I carried out a couple of basic studies that looked at medieval history researchers and their careers:

A Prosopography of Cambridge Medievalists, which explored the careers of my cohort of MPhil students

The Over-Production of Medieval Historians, which used historic data from the IHR Making History project to ask whether there is an over-production of PhDs now as compared to previous generations.

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about the problems of early career researchers and the related problem about whether there are too many PhDs in history being produced. Brodie Wadell has done two very useful posts giving statistics for historians generally.

I want to approach the subject in a slightly different way, doing a cohort study of the careers of a group of PhDs from a particular year. What follows, therefore, is an analysis of what happened to people who got a historical PhD from Cambridge in 2005.

I chose Cambridge for this analysis for three reasons. Firstly, there’s a large enough cohort (66 people) that chance is less likely to be significant in the overall outcomes, but it’s not so large that tracking everyone would take impossible lengths of time. Secondly, I had two different sources of data to use to select the initial cohort (as I discuss below). Finally, Cambridge PhDs make up a relatively homogeneous and prestigious group. They’re all going to be studying full-time, they’re likely to be funded and I’d expect them to be among the most successful on the academic job market. As such, their results can give us a likely upper bound on how many PhDs get academic jobs.

I chose 2005 to study because I presumed that after 10 years anyone who would ever have a permanent academic job would finally have got one (though as it turned out I was wrong). Those studying for it would also have started their PhD in 2002 or before and so been in a more favourable position than later cohorts.

Data collection

The full data is available as an Excel spreadsheet if anyone wants to work with it further. My two sources for identifying the cohort were Newton Library catalogue of University Library Theses where I searched for all PhD theses from the Department of History and the IHR History Theses database. I combined the data from these and did some cleaning up. The biggest problem was that the year the two sources gave for the thesis sometimes differed: in these cases I preferred the Newton catalogue date, since it would have been based on the hard copy of the final thesis. The IHR list included some theses I’d classify as ancient history, so I removed these. But it also identified historical theses produced other than in the Department of History. The final tally by department was:

Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic 3
Architecture 1
Education 1
English 6
German 1
History 41
History of Art 1
History and Philosophy of Science 6
Music 2
Oriental Studies 2
Slavonic 1
Social & Political Sciences 1

This is a useful reminder that the boundaries of a ‘history’ PhD are blurred. I’m sure some people would come to different decisions than the IHR about exactly which ones we should include, but I don’t think that they substantially alter the overall thrust of my results.

Having got details of my cohort and their theses topics, I then attempted to locate them (using publicly available internet resources). My strategy was as follows:

1) Check the IHR database of teachers of history by name

2) For those not found on that, check by name

3) For those still not found, check LinkedIn by name

4) Google the person’s name

5) Check a history database: Historical Abstracts (post 1500), Regesta Imperii for pre-1500 theses.

All these measures obviously work better for those with more unusual names (and may fail completely if someone changed their name soon after completing the thesis). Out of the 66 people there are 11 who I have not been able to trace to a recent job. But with this combination of searches I can at least be fairly confident that these 11 (5 men and 6 women) are probably not in academic posts. My spreadsheet gives the current job title for people for whom I could discover it; otherwise it gives information on their most recent known academic involvement, e.g. books published.

Data analysis

Since the cohort is relatively small, I only tried a small amount of statistical analysis on it, as follows:

1) Employment status.  I split this into 4 categories:

Y = UK academic post

O = Overseas academic post

N = No current academic post

NU = Untraced (including those where I had some previous information about a career, but not current data)

“No current academic post” was where either I knew the person’s job or knew that they had recently had an academic post, but no longer appeared to be in it.

I didn’t attempt to distinguish between permanent and temporary posts, since this was not always clear from university websites, especially foreign ones. Nevertheless, it is clear from job titles and career histories that some of the academic posts were temporary (e.g. Adjunct, Research Associate).

2) Gender. I did a simple F/M split, based on name, pronouns used and photographs. If there are inaccuracies in gender identity that you are aware of, I am happy to correct these.

3) Period. I split the periods covered by the thesis into 3 categories:  medieval (pre-1500), early modern (1500-1789) and modern (1789-). Where a thesis covered parts of more than one period I put it into the one that seemed to predominate.


The basic statistics are the most revealing ones. Out of 66 students with PhDs, 36 had academic jobs (22 in the UK, 14 overseas). 30 didn’t (of whom 11 are untraced and 19 had either a non-academic job or no current academic job). Even with this most privileged of cohorts, only just over a half had academic jobs 10 years on. Admittedly, not all those who did a PhD necessarily wanted to go on and have an academic career. I’ve listed the other jobs people have ended up with in the spreadsheet and I might discuss them more in a future post.

It’s also worth noting two other splits. One is looking at who obtained academic jobs by period studied:

Period & status
Med EM Mod
Y 5 2 15
O 1 4 9
N 5 3 11
NU 4 3 4

The other is who obtained academic jobs by gender:

Status & Gender M F
 Y 11 11
 O 9 5
 N 4 15
 NU 5 6

From this, it’s clear: students who researched history after 1789 are substantially more likely to have academic careers than those who don’t and medieval historians have a substantially poorer chance of academic employment than other groups: only 40% of them have academic jobs, as opposed to over 60% of those who studied modern history. (Again, all this is discussing an elite cohort, one unusually likely to be hired for any academic jobs going).

The other is that there’s a bias against women getting jobs. Overall there are 37 women and 29 men in the cohort: 16 women and 20 men now have academic jobs ten years on. It’s possible that more of the women I haven’t been able to trace than the men have academic jobs (because of issues about changes of name), but that’s unlikely to bring them up to parity.

Before assuming this is directly due to sexism, however, it’s important to look at another table, which matches gender to period studied:

Period & gender M F
Med 5 10
EM 5 7
Mod 19 20

In this cohort, women were substantially more likely to research medieval topics than men were and since medievalists are less likely to get jobs, that may have influenced the overall outcome. It would be possible to compare employment outcomes by period and gender, but then you’re getting down to such small numbers that the differences might well occur by chance.

It’s also possible that we’re missing more subtle aspects to sexism. One possibility is that female PhD students may prefer to have female PhD supervisors (or at least cluster in subfields of history which seem less prone to sexism). If women are going into areas of research which have worse career outcomes because of this preference, then that’s a more difficult problem to tackle. But that would be quite hard to demonstrate conclusively without studying a much larger cohort in some detail.


If we want accurate information about the career prospects of historians, I suspect we in the profession will have to start doing some fresh data analysis ourselves: the published information isn’t adequate. This study shows one way of doing such an analysis; what I’d really like to do is compare this with a cohort from a less prestigious university and see the career outcomes from there. But even with this atypical cohort I think there are two important lessons visible: 1) if you’re hoping for an academic career, you do need to have a Plan B and 2) don’t be a medievalist.