IMC report 2: where the barbarians weren’t

I am definitely going to have the latest ever reports on the International Medieval Congress this year, possibly not even fitting them into 2011. A number of interesting sessions have already been blogged, particularly by Gesta and Jon Jarrett, who has also blogged a couple of the sessions I attended.

However, I do want to talk a bit more about Walter Pohl’s paper on “Ethnicity and its discontents”, (session 308), mainly because it seemed one of the most sane and reasoned contributions in what’s become an extremely bitter debate. Walter started off by demonstrating how he’d been accused in print both of being committed to the existence of a coherent ‘Germanic’ people (by Walter Goffart) and of destroying the concept of a ‘Germanic’ people (by Marco Valenti), and therefore said that either he could fall into an identity crisis or try and make his position clearer.

He then laid out a series of five possible positions one could take on this matter (note, these statements are taken directly from Walter’s handout, which I hope is OK):

Position 1: The population of the early Middle Ages consisted of stable ethnic groups which constituted its basic frame of reference

Position 2: Ethnic groups are not static, but dynamic; rather than by actual common descent, they are defined by a shared belief in a common origin and history

Position 3: Ethnicity is only ‘culturally constructed’, and therefore not ‘real’, but a purely imaginary, ideological phenomenon

Position 4: We hardly have access to self-identifications, just to categorizations by others, therefore we can say little about early medieval ethnicity

Position 5: Ethnicity may have existed out there, but it did not matter much

Walter saw Position 1 as being the traditional assumption, whether ethnicity was seen as being in blood/genes or culture/language. He identified his own view as Position 2, although he wanted to point out how proponents of this view had developed it over the years. For example, Reinhard Wenskus developed the idea of a core group which handed on kernels of tradition, but didn’t use the term ‘ethnogenesis’, which was developed by Helmut Wolfram. Walter also mentioned the influence of Patrick Geary, looking at Roman influence on post-Roman identities. He went on to say that he saw ethnic identity as a continuous process, not a once-off. Walter wasn’t looking for the authentic tradition that Wenskus had imagined, but the religious/political effects – indeed a kernel of tradition wasn’t necessary for ethnic identity.

Walter described positions 3-5 as “ethno-scepticism” and disposed of position 3 fairly effectively, pointing out studies such as Luckman and Berger on the social construction of reality: ideologies have impact on real world. Position 5 (Walter mentioned Andrew Gillett as an example of someone holding that), involves rather a lot of ignoring what late antique and early medieval texts are telling us, because they do mention ethnicity a lot.

Position 4 is one of the most difficult questions about ethnicity: Walter quoted Tim Reuter as pointing out the differences there can be between external and internal identities: e.g. “German” is a Roman ethnographic category, but the Germans didn’t act together politically.

What Walter was suggesting was drawing on the work of Richard Jenkins on social identity to look at the negotiations between individuals, the in-group and the out-group.

This struck me as a particularly useful concept, firstly because it disposes very neatly of a slightly glib comment that Peter Heather once made: if identities are socially constructed, why does anyone choose the identity of a slave? And secondly because it seems to me very applicable to other forms of identity, particularly gender. There are some fascinating gaps, for example, between people who think of themselves as women, those whom other women accept as women, and those whom men see as women.

I’m not sure that Walter dealt entirely satisfactorily with Position 4. In fact, arguably position 2 and position 4 can be held simultaneously without doublethink: it’s perfectly possible to say that ethnic identities are important and dynamic and still think that we can’t say anything useful about them. (There are lots of important things in the early Middle Ages that we can barely say anything about). But for that conceptualisation of identity alone, and its potential use as a tool in other forms of identity, gender, class etc, this was one of the most useful papers at IMC 2011 for me.


Tuesday morning started with me giving a paper on “The emperor’s new clothes: moral aspects of Carolingian royal costume”. Owing to people pulling out the session ended with just me and someone talking about Muslim views on alchemy (it had been intended as a three-way Western/Byzantine/Islamic discussion of material dimensions of power). Rather than attempting to describe my paper (anyone who is really interested can e-mail me and request a copy), I will instead tell you about how the moral norms of UK academic costume influenced what I wore to give it.

There are three somewhat conflicting and competing norms on dress for UK academics, each of which have their own moral message. One is professional attire, emphasising that we are respectable members of the middle class doing a proper grown-up job. The second is individualism in dress, showing that we are capable of independent thought, not just fitting in with the herd. The third is lack of attention to costume, showing that our thoughts are on the life of the mind, the spirit rather than the body. (Various combinations of these norms can also be made, such as the dandyism of David Starkey, taking professional costume into the realm of finicky eccentricity).

There is also, as usual, the complicating factor of gender. For this talk, I was wearing a short-sleeved plain white blouse, a navy skirt with pink flowers on, flat black sandals, and, as usual, no make-up and minimal jewellery. This is a slightly smarter and more feminine costume than I would normally wear, but without sacrificing comfort. A look that, I hoped, said: “my mind is really on higher things than clothes, but I’m prepared to adhere to conference conventions, and even though I’m talking about gender, it’s not going to be scary.”

This appearing as a slightly feminine woman is not the only way to go on these occasions, of course. A rather more flamboyant friend of mine has a conference persona which, via elaborate hair-do, high-heeled sandals and the sheer force of personality, makes her look like one of the more formidable Roman goddesses. I presume her message to be: “Yes, I am a girl, but you are going to listen to me anyhow!”

Having given my paper, I opted out for the rest of the morning, and went and looked at the bookstalls. After lunch, I made me first visit to Texts and Identities, now cut down drastically and heard Session 708 (The Past, the Pagans, and the Frankish Church), which comprised:

Eric J. Goldberg, Rudolf of Fulda’s Lost Historia Saxonum
Dimitri Tarat, Familiar Motives: Adam of Bremen on Unni’s Mission to Denmark and Sweden
Rutger Kramer, Different Kind of Other: The Outside World in Carolingian Monastic Narratives

Eric’s paper was a neat take on a text which I don’t know at all well: a piece that serves as an introduction to Meginhard of Fulda’s piece of hagiography De miraculis sancti Alexandri. He was arguing that it was in fact a completely independent work (it doesn’t mention the key figures from the hagiographical portion of the one manuscript). He saw the text being intended as a bridge between Hrabanus Maurus (with whom Rudolf was closely link) and the Saxon nobility, who didn’t always get on with Hrabanus (as seen for example, in the Synod of Mainz 829, and Gottschalk’s claim to have been unwillingly tonsured). The work therefore showed the purity of the Saxon nobility, and constructed a shared Frankish/Saxon memory by memorializing the Saxons as Frankish allies in the sixth century.

Dimitri Tarat’s paper took us forward to the eleventh century, or rather to an eleventh-century reconstruction of the tenth century. Archbishop Unni of Hamburg-Bremen went on a mission to Scandinavia in 935-936, and according to Adam, won the heart of Harald Bluetooth and preached across the Danish islands, as well as going to Birka in Sweden. Dimitri saw Adam as trying to present Unni’s mission as a success and implying that Unni converted Harald without actually saying so; because Poppo, the more likely convertor of Harald, didn’t come from Hamburg-Bremen. It was a useful reminder that discussions of the “medieval church” can easily leave us to ignore how much rivalry there was between different factions (and, of course, of how unreliable all our sources are).

Finally, Rutger’s paper was looking at hagiography as a way of creating monastic community in contrast to an imagined Other. What was interesting was that he went beyond straightforward discussions of textual community to show that not all Others were seen as the same. For example, while the Vita Sturmi shows Sturm having to deal with depraved and violent pagans, in Leoba’s life, there’s an incident where her community of Bischofsheim was wrongly accused of harbouring immorality and infanticide, after a dead baby was found near the convent. This incident drew the community together, but also shows an outside world thoroughly understanding the monastery and its gender roles. The Gesta Sancti Rotonensium, meanwhile has an incident where a prostitute meets a monk and tries to get him to come home with her, claiming they had been brought up together. He is rescued from the predicament by two priests. Here, claims to secular kinship are rejected in favour of the true family of the community. Rutger convincingly argued that there wasn’t a homogenous picture of the Other to monastic communities, and that the amount of leeway authors had in depicting outsiders varied according to how “distant” they were. I was also interested in how again (pace Walter Pohl), you could see the same patterns of identity as defined both by insider and outsider groups.

The last session of the day was another complete shift, since I was dropping in on the last of four sessions on food history:

Session 822: The Rich Man’s Feast and the Poor Man’s Fare: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Food and Nutritional Health in the Middle Ages, IV – Early Medieval Recipes: Theory and Practice

Wanessa Asfora, Apicius: Aspects of the Incorporation of a Cookery Book in the Early Middle Ages, 8th and 9th Centuries
Timothy Dawson, A poverty of education versus a poverty of experience: towards a richer methodology
Melanie and Daniel Ezra-Logue, Feasting at Tintagel in the Late Saxon Period

Wanessa started by arguing that Apicius’ Roman cookbook, which survives in several Carolingian monastic copies was preserved because it could be understood as pertaining to dietetics, “tempering” rich food by sources to maintain proper balance and health, rather than simply as indulgence or for antiquarian interest.

If Wanessa was stressing the moral aspects of food (drawing on some of the same texts I’ve used), Timothy was arguing for more attention to be paid to food as primarily about enjoyment. He came originally from a background of Byzantine re-enactment and was arguing for combining the hands-on aspect of this with the more scholarly aspect of studying the history of food. He concluded by handing round samples of a sweet from recipe in a tenth-century military manual, thus winning the prize for tastiest paper of the conference. Though he had to admit that the recipe had been slightly modified: it used the original almond meal, sesame seeds and honey, but he’d substituted dandelions for the original (and potentially harmful) squill.

This reminder of practical limitations brings me neatly onto the Ezra-Logues, who’ve been doing re-enactments of meals at Tintagel, which seems to have had very limited cooking facilities. In contrast to Yeavering, there’s no sign of a dedicated kitchen area and no chimneys, only flat hearths. So the main dishes were probably flatbreads baked on a griddle, along with pork cooked in a cauldron. There’s also no evidence for agriculture at Tintagel (not enough soil), but field beans have been found there, so there are suggestions of pease pudding being cooked. It’s also possible that other dishes included clay-wrapped seabirds and sweet and savoury pancakes.

It was a nice contrast with the previous papers to remind us of the complexities of food in the past: a taste for enjoyment interacting both with limited food/cooking options and cultural tastes. (As someone pointed out, eating Icelandic fermented shark is disgusting, but still sometimes done as a cultural tradition; it may have tasted disgusting to medieval people as well, but have been all that was available). All in all, it was an enjoyable way to finish up the papers for the day before going off to meet up with other bloggers and those prepared to associate with them.


5 thoughts on “IMC report 2: where the barbarians weren’t

  1. A couple of years back I decided I needed to learn more about ethnogenesis so I grabbed the Geary, Pohl and Gillett volumes and read through them.

    Much of the Gillett volume was venom directed at Pohl and his book’s essay authors. I then and there decided if that was the way the conversation went, then I really didn’t need to know any more about it.

    I’ve since softened my stance on that somewhat but the sheer distaste Gillett (or at least the authors of many of the essays) left me with has tended to steer me in other directions.


  2. Now I’m curious about the friend with the elaborate hair-do, because I can’t think of anybody that has one! It’s funny how reading, rather than hearing, can make things confusing — I stumbled a couple of times over which Walter you were talking about, Goffart (I know several Goffart students) or Pohl.

    I really enjoyed the Pohl talk, and must look again at my notes. What continues to strikes me about the talk, and the ideas in it, is that we so need to categorize things. My own take is that the only two of those four possibilities that we can rule out entirely are #1 and #3. The rest are largely contextual, and overlap on a regular basis.


  3. Thanks for such an interesting write-up – I very much wish I’d heard many of those papers myself! Just a small note of correction, though: Wolfram’s first name is Herwig, not Helmut. Anyway, hopefully see you soon at the IHR seminars (at which I should be a more regular presence this coming term)!


  4. Conferring in Naples I: the gratuitous picture postHaving finally finished reporting on July’s Leeds conference (and not even being the last to do so) leaves me now free to leap forward two months in a single bound, leaving me only four behind from reality, and talk about a conference I went to i…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s