International Medieval Congress 2

A hot, tiring and very interesting day yesterday (Tues 12th). I did the full works – four sessions, plus the evening Medieval Academy of America lecture and it gave me an awful lot to think about.

First session was one of the Texts and Identities strands. An interesting paper by Allan McKinley on early eighth century donations in Alsace, arguing that you can see different donation patterns by landowners depending on the extent of their land-holdings. It could have done with a handout to give more of the details (it’s hard to follow charter details just verbally), but it’d be interesting to see if patterns hold up elsewhere.

Standout paper of the session was Charles West on changes in advocacy from the Carolingian period to twelfth century. Is main argument was that advocacy was being thought of in conceptually different terms in the two periods: in the Carolingian period it was essentially a holistic relationship at the interface between churches and the secular legal system, while by about 1100 it had become a bundle of legal rights, regulated by charters rather than capitularies. He’s arguing that there are lots of other examples of this disaggregation of earlier symbols in the period and that this is the real change between Carolingian and later structures. Gave me a lot of things to think about, as I’m belatedly trying to come to terms with ‘l’an mil’ and the historical arguments.

Second session was on early medieval families and property transfers. Interesting case study by Genevieve Buehrer-Thierry of family of Bishop Hitto of Freising in C9, where, because it’s a ‘clerical lineage’, there are a lot of property transfers going via women, so strong ties of brothers and sisters/nephews and uncles, while husbands aren’t necessarily very significant in these specific transfers. Also Sylvie Joye talking about early medieval raptus (abduction) and how that affected brother and sister relationships. In theory, brothers should help serve as protectors of their unmarried sisters, but Visigothic law in particular suggests abuses in which since a woman might lose her patrimony if she didn’t get consent for her marriage, some brothers were surreptitiously encouraging elopement/abduction of their sisters, so they got a bigger share of the inheritance. Sneaky!

For the third session I felt like a change and so went off to an art history/archaeology session n early medieval goldsmithing. Lots of pretty pictures of very desirable jewellery. Also Martin Carver on smithing and other craft work found during a dig at Tarbat monastery in the Highlands. I’d been to this, so was interested to hear more archaeological details, but the most intriguing bit at the end. There’s evidence for a small church there in the 6th and 7th centuries, but it only really expands and starts major craft work in the 8th century. Among the material produced there are a number of very fine stone cross slabs, being produced at just the same time as Pictish stones elsewhere on the Dornoch peninsula with secular/pagan motifs. So this suggests a monastery could be accommodated for 200 years in the Pictish kingdom alongside other religious traditions, without seeming conflict – an interesting sidelight on mission/religious accommodation in the area.

The final session I went to was on Carolingian matters. Gerda Heydemann was contrasting Einhard’s translation of Roman martyrs to near contemporary attempts to build up the cult of St Bavo (whose monastery also got some of Einhard’s relics). What are the different strategies used for promoting the power of local confessors as against Roman martyrs? Steffan Patzold was usefully pointing out that Carolingian texts on consensual rule aren’t always just neutral statements of accepted norms, but can be polemical themselves, and in particular the Hincmar’s discussions of the need for a group of wise counsellors for the king in 879-882 is against the background of his losing influence at court. Hincmar’s praising of old counsellors as wiser and his eulogies of the good old kings are largely due to him being an old man faced with ever younger rulers.

There was also a very thought-provoking paper by Christina Poessel on Carolingian honour, looking at whether you can define the Carolingian elite as a honour group. As she points out, honour is a terribly slippery concept, but it is useful for showing dynamic processes, as opposed to the more static concept of nobility. (As I pointed out, the concept of de-nobling is very rare in the texts, although dishonouring is frequent. Christina was similarly talking about how honour is essentially given (transitive)). Very interesting stuff, but I’m not sure if the sources say enough to construct a detailed theory.

Finally, in the evening I went off to Roberta Frank on ‘When Norse was Hip’. I thought at first this might be a rather embarrassing attempt by a medievalist to be ‘with it’, but she does actually have interesting comparisons. She used among other cultural phenomena Norman Mailer’s idea of hip as the rootless outsider, unafraid to travel alongside death, which has obvious parallels to the Viking experience. She was also looking at how Anglo-Saxon culture was impressed by the glamour of Norse culture even when hostile to the Northmen as a whole: such as the complaints of Alcuin and others about the adoption of pagan dress and hairstyles, Anglo-Saxon playing with Norse kennings and motifs in poetry, the fascination with the supposedly Viking boar helmet. The comparison of ‘The Wife’s lament’ with blues about ‘the man who done me wrong’ suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched. I’m not well enough up on Insular culture to know if all the parallels work, but certainly very intriguing on the power of particular images of the outsider to impress even the ‘square’.


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