A rather belated report on a recent IHR seminar, when Sarah Foot (now at Oxford) asked rhetorically: ‘Should King Æthelstan get a Life?’ She is currently writing a biography of him, so perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the meagreness of the sources, she thought this was possible and worth-while to do. Her argument drew on a lot of recent work on medieval biography and how one might write it (see e.g. Writing Medieval Biography, 750-1250: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow) and I found it largely convincing, although it does make one realise how much (relatively speaking) we know about Charlemagne and Alfred (and even Charles the Bald).
There did seem to me some problems remaining with the project though: some minor, but some more substantial. One of the minor problems is how difficult is to say that you consider a historical figure was not gay without coming across as mildly homophobic/dismissive. Athelstan did not marry (and as far as we know had no illegitimate children). Sarah argued that that ‘we don’t need to consider his sexuality’ and that a political or religious reason explained his decision better. I think shes right, but that it was worth adding briefly that until very recently it was normal for gay men to marry for social reasons, irrespective of their own desires, and that *therefore* we don’t need to consider/assume etc.
A more substantial problem emerged when Sarah discussed Athelstan’s role as a relic collector (and he was obviously a very dedicated one). To her such relics are ‘junk’, which for a Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History seems a rather big blind spot. I’ve talked before about the need for empathy with one’s historical subjects, and it is surely particularly vital for biographical projects. As Jinty Nelson has shown, this is possible and useful even for those historical figures who are not “nice people”, whose values we can’t share.
But despite this, I think Sarah is doing a very good job at teasing out bits of information on Athelstan. She talked in terms of theatre and roles, but I found myself thinking (in a slightly peculiar analogy) of carrier waves and demodulation. Much of what the sources tell us about Athelstan is what a generic Anglo-Saxon king does (or even a generic early medieval king). But if we look carefully we can see the subtle differences in him, once we have subtracted Anglo-Saxon Ruler 1.0. He has more sisters than normal, is less often married, is more concerned about theft than usual, etc. As a result we can build up a faint image of someone who has some original features, who does not quite fit the standard picture.
This is an impressive achievement, but it does leaves us with one major problem, from the very success of this practice. Sarah talked at one point about being guided by Anthony Giddens’ theory of Structuration, that there is a dialectic between individuals and deep social structures. One of the main reasons that biography has seemed a valid approach to historians is the possibility that an appreciation of a significant individual’s psychology will allow you to understand the events with which he/she was connected better. The danger here, of course, is that you get into a circular argument: we argue for an individual’s personality, based on their behaviour in some events, but we also argue that the events happened in the way they did, because of that person’s personality. In most cases, there is enough evidence that you don’t have to become directly circular: for example, you can argue how early experiences shaped someone’s later behaviour. For Athelstan, however, you have to use so many scraps of evidence to make up any kind of picture, that there’s really nothing left over. The events of the reign can tell you about Athelstan, but Athelstan can’t then tell you about events of the reign. Sarah Foot has convinced me that you can do a good biography of Athelstan. What I’m not convinced is that it can be anything more than a historical dead end.