Tweeting the assembly: Carolingian texts and social media

(Attention Conservation Notice: this is an unholy mashup between historical speculation and experience from 23 Things, exacerbated by too much checking footnotes and not enough sleep).

In a recent comment, Clemens Radl helpfully pointed me to an article by Stephan Patzold on the ‘Programmatic Capitulary’ of 802 that shows that it is probably a later pasting together of various different texts circulating about the reforms of 801/802. Its supposed coherence as a capitulary is largely due to nineteenth century editorial decisions in editing the sole manuscript in which it is found, Paris BnF lat. 4613 (an early tenth century Italian law book). The text thus joins an increasingly long line of others I use for my research whose evidential base is wobblier than I’d like. Indeed, you start wondering whether there were any ‘fixed’ texts in the Carolingian period. The canons of church councils notoriously get manipulated; Rosamond McKitterick, Helmut Reimitz and others have shown how mutable historical texts are; Carolingian authors repeatedly recycle fragments of older works, etc.

One way round this is to focus on the manuscript level, in the safety of a definite object and a text that did actually historically exist. But even some of the best studies of individual manuscripts seem to me to exclude by definition large sections of the Carolingian world. For this period, they can only really tell us about the thought-world of the religious houses that owned the manuscript, because only manuscripts in such locations survived. And it’s easy to get into an explanatory loop in which all you end up talking about is how monks compile and rework texts in order to make more texts that can be reworked and excerpted for new compilations…

Another alternative is sticking to charters, which sometimes, at least, have the virtue of actually being specifically locatable and dateable, and may perhaps have a slightly firmer relation to reality. You can do lots of really nice things with charters and individual places, but the problem is whether you can scale this up, because there are limits to what you can usefully do with regional history. (One interesting part of reading any regional study is seeing how many non-local sources they end up dragging in tenuous justifications when there’s no other bits of evidence available).

But I don’t care that much for charters or manuscripts, so I want to take a different tack. I’m interested in cultural history, and I want to argue that the fact that so many variants of particular texts are floating around shows that we should take them very seriously. They’re floating around because they’re being used and discussed.

This is where ideas from social media come in. What they are revealing to us is just how much and how fast ideas and rumours and phrases and jokes circulate during informal social communication. We’ve always known this in theory, but because speech vanishes, we haven’t had records of it, so we haven’t been conscious of it in the same way. Tweets/blogs/texts/e-mail etc aren’t quite frozen speech, but they’re a lot nearer it than even letters and pamphlets, some of the most informal communications we possess from earlier periods. These electronic forms of communication show us people interacting, and how even the relatively inarticulate and ill-informed want to have their say. They also show us how views and knowledge spread and the subtle balance between continuity and change. It’s disconcerting to look back at my own blog posts and comments from even five years ago and see both recurrent themes, but also disjunctions.

We already know that some of the patterns of social communication online are similar to those offline in the modern world (like telephone calls). It’s much harder to know how far this is applicable to face to face communications, or transferable to the early medieval past. But I think the onus is now on those who want to say that the kinds of interactions are/were fundamentally different to explain why. The early medieval assembly has tended to be understood either as a proto-parliament (a ‘democratic’ assembly) or as a top-down briefing (the equivalent of a sermon or lecture, in which bored and uncomprehending lay aristocrats fidget through kings and bishops droning on about justice and correct chanting).

Yet there is evidence for more interaction at assemblies: we don’t solely have to rely on Hincmar in ‘De ordine palatii’ for that. We have agendas; we have notes and reports on assemblies that look distinctly ‘homemade’; we have these variant versions of texts floating around in 802. We also have several hundred (or even thousand) men spending time together: praying, hunting, listening to speeches. Do they just talk about trivia – would the hypothetical tweets from the assembly (and the actual conversations when they got home) just have been about Charlemagne’s funny voice or who’s in favour this year?

I think that at least some of the time they would have been talking about reforming ideas, if only to mutter to their neighbours that some proposals just wouldn’t work in their region. And I think even this kind of unenthused discussion has its effect in the long term. You pick up and absorb the buzzwords used by a group around you, sometimes almost against your will. Ten years ago I remember railing against references to people’s ‘agency’ as jargon; now, it’s part of my professional vocabulary. Reforming ideas spread: even those resisting its demands tended to do so in its own language. The groups of peasants who appeal to Carolingian rulers thought that the rhetoric of impartial justice had some meaning (even if they did normally lose their actual cases). There are changes in behaviour at the local level in the Carolingian and post-Carolingian period, whether it’s in the book collections of local priests, or the excuses made by nobles for divorces. We can only rarely see specific documents that bridge the gap between the central authorities and practice on the ground, but if we take the message of social media seriously, we can start imagining more inventively how ideas can be transmitted, ‘retweeted’ and adapted in the interactions between royal courts and everyday experience.


One thought on “Tweeting the assembly: Carolingian texts and social media

  1. Firstly, I really like this post and its argument; secondly, I have to confess that in my last job presentation I cold-bloodedly used the word ‘legitimation’, thinking that it would make me look less weird than insisting on ‘legitimization’. I actually blame you for this. Agency, however, does something that other words don’t and I’ve never felt it was a problem.


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