The ‘so what’ problem

In some ways, the harshest critique that you can hear after a historian’s conference paper (though it’s normally only expressed in private, or obliquely in questions) is the basic question: ‘so what?’ So what if Einhard’s Vita Karoli was written in 817 or 823? So what if Carolingian women had more control over land or less than previously thought? This lack of interest in research is probably most prevalent in discussions of topics that are outside the current historical mainstream. Joan Scott, in ‘Gender: a useful category of historical analysis’, American Historical Review 91 (1986) p 1055 quotes the classic dismissive line: ‘my understanding of the French Revolution is not changed by knowing that women participated in it’. But almost any historical topic is out of the mainstream at some point. Every historian has to find a way to explain to others why their research matters, because if it doesn’t matter, then better or worse analysis of it is more or less irrelevant, except to the historian equivalents of train-spotters. Perhaps more importantly, they first have to explain to themselves why their research matters, because it’s ultimately only that that motivates you to get up in the morning (or sit down after a day’s work) and translate obscure Latin or read articles in academic German, rather than going back to bed, or watching TV.

For around ten years I’ve primarily researched Carolingian gender and morality, and I’ve had few problems in telling at least myself why it matters. How it connects to some of my own experiences about the interaction between men and women, religion and societal conventions. There have been some particularly striking moments: reading the Carolingian rhetoric justifying warfare in 2001, for example. But the questions my research raised always seemed pertinent.

But now I’m moving onto different projects, and I’m finding it hard to know at the moment how to justify them, or at least how to excite myself about them. What follows is an attempt to explain, not so much to others, as to myself, why it is worth pursuing my current interests in Carolingian legal cases, and specifically in translating Hincmar’s text De Divortio.

In one sense, Hincmar’s text is the obvious follow-up to some of my earlier work on gender and marriage disputes. But there has already been a very good gendered analysis of the divorce of Lothar II and Theutberga (Stuart Airlie, ‘Private bodies and the body politic in the divorce case of Lothar II,’ Past and Present 61 (1998) pp. 3-38), and I’m not yet sure how much I’ll be able to add to it. Besides, I hardly need to translate the whole text for that – there’s a lot of the work that’s not really about gender.

What I think I’m trying to do, and which might be interesting, and even possibly important, is two things. One is to look at how Carolingian authors argue, specifically about moral/legal issues. It’s something that I’ve already done some work on, analysing Hincmar’s treatise on raptus (abduction marriage). And it’s interesting because it takes us into the heart of how people (some elite people) thought in the eighth and ninth centuries. What their mental furniture was, and how they arranged it. And I’d say that matters because it gives us some concrete data to play around with when thinking about continuity and change. It’s tempting to think either that the way people think hasn’t changed at all, that ninth-century Franks are basically us with poorer sanitation and more facial hair, or alternatively, that they are a bunch of hairy Neanderthals barely capable of working out that 2 plus 2 equals 4. A lot of my recent paper on Hincmar and canon law was trying to work out what legal texts (and other kinds of texts) actually meant to Carolingian intellectuals, and the significance of various types of authority. And you can see that they’re playing with texts in a way that is different from later legal systems, but isn’t just simple-minded ‘arguments from authority’. Instead, they’re carrying out some quite complex feats of propaganda.

But the other thing that I hope to get from the translation, is what translating or studying any source hopefully gives you: a feel for the texture of another world. It’s hard to explain exactly what this means, because it’s so subjective and unspecific. For early medieval sources, to me it’s most often a sudden feeling of connection, of shared humanity, amid texts that are often both alien and where authors are always trying to say the ‘right things’. Like the story in the Annales Bertiniani 862, where a slave-woman starts to iron a shirt on a saint’s day, and every time she puts the iron across the shirt, the shirt becomes stained with blood. Amid all the many early medieval miracles, the creepy domesticity of this somehow makes it vivid in my mind.

For sources from more familiar worlds, I suspect feelings of disconnection are more striking: the sudden realisation that these are not the same kind of people as us. I remember reading Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda once, and its description of how Lady Delacour’s chaplain “relieved her from the terrors of methodism”, and suddenly seeing eighteenth-century ideas of religion from an entirely different angle.

It’s often not the main argument of the text that gives these kind of insights, they’re lurking in asides, in assumptions, so that unless you look at or translate the whole text, you can miss them. There’s a lot of fairly tedious stuff in De Divortio, and as I start to attack the repeated revision of our draft translation, I may find it hard to maintain my enthusiasm. But I hope that this post starts to explain to me, at least, why it’s worth doing it.

2 thoughts on “The ‘so what’ problem

  1. This is a very interesting reflection! I’m thinking at the moment about ‘negative space’ as understood by artists, who sketch in the focus of their attention but then start by painting around the outside, the negative space. I think this is a useful tool because it’s very often by working out what something isn’t, that we find out what it is.


  2. Interpretation of a text may require prior knowledge of its context. For instance, the epitaph of the magnate and knight commander Alan Rufus (circa 1038-1093) seems at first sight to be straightforward Latin, but uses some unexpected phrases that reflect lesser known aspects of his career.

    Consisting of seven rhyming couplets, it uses a variety of poetic idioms to describe him (e.g. he’s called a “flower” twice, and he “shone with a red-gold radiance”).

    He was “second to the King”, which accurately reflects precedence in charters during his later years, but since he was Breton it also has Celtic overtones of an heir in the sense of tanistry. (In 1069 his double-second cousin William I had designated him a royal “nephew”.)

    Multiple layers of meaning are achieved by ambiguous phrases such as “praecepto legum”. Does that mean teacher of the law, or even law professor? Or does “praecepto” imply that he was the regional commander of an order of knights such as the Knights Hospitaller, or that he had musical responsibilities in church? We know that he knew the law very well (in 1088 he advised the King and clergy of civil court procedure), founded institutions of learning (e.g. in and around Cambridge and York), had a “calm, clear voice”, and had architectural and therefore artistic inclinations, so perhaps all of those, and more, apply?


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