Leeds 2013 report 1: pleasure and mass murder

The theme of this year’s International Medieval Congress was pleasure, and although I didn’t go to many sessions specifically on the theme, the keynote speakers gave an interesting flavour of two important themes: what do individuals find pleasurable and what activities do societies rate as acceptable (and unacceptable) pleasures?

We started with William Reddy from Duke University talking about “Is Pleasure an Emotion? Historicism and Anachronism in the History of Emotions”. A large chunk of Reddy’s talk was on neuroscience, starting with research on perceptions, and the complex information flows between the visual information incoming and the identification and memory functions of the brain. The key thing seemed to be that there were both top-down and bottom-up processes involved, interacting in a completely un-computer-like and non-modular way.

Reddy also discussed the concept of embodied emotions, such as the finding that reading emotional passages from novels was selectively slowed once people had had botox treatment, because emotional comprehension involves minute facial muscle movements. More generally, emotions are associated with widely-distributed brain networks, with massive opportunities for cognitive-emotional interaction. The existence of “pleasure centres”, as allegedly found in addicted rats, is now also doubted. Instead, Kent Berridge argues for the existence of separate liking and wanting systems as seen e.g. by the fact that the taste of chocolate may still appeal even when one’s had one’s fill of chocolate.

To neuroscientists, pleasure is an emotion, with overlapping sets of regions mediating sensory and other inputs. At the level of brain activity, there is no difference between an appreciation of a sweet taste and an appreciation of Picasso. There aren’t some more primitive brain regions for “lower” as opposed to “higher” pleasures, and neuroscience also confirms the key importance of culture in pleasures and the relativistic nature of pleasure.

Reddy ended by comparing attitudes to pleasure in Sanskrit texts to those in early medieval theology. Sanskrit has a contrast between sukha and ananda (gross versus refined pleasures), but for warriors, one of the three ideals to be pursued, as well as dharma (rectitude) and artha (acquisition) is kama (pleasure). The Kama Sutra is not just about love-making, but the disciplined enjoyment of the good of pleasure. The sexual act, like other activities giving pleasure, was one that needed to be mastered for an aesthetically pleasing lifestyle. In contrast, there was tendency towards dualism in late antique western thought, opposing the body and the pleasures of the flesh to the mind and sublime pleasures.

Reddy ended by saying that neuroscience struggled with the aftermath of this dualist tradition for a long time. Thirty or forty years ago, neuroscience was still working with the idea of systems in the brain that mediated between the mind and the body. Nowadays, both Sanskrit and Latin frameworks are both seen as equally adequate (or equally wrong). Neuroscience shows our experiences as neither just hierarchical (as in the Sanskrit tradition) or dualist (as in the Latin tradition).

After this intriguing and unfamiliar material, the second keynote speaker, Esther Cohen, talking on “What’s wrong with pleasure?” covered rather more familiar ground, pointing out that what we consider to be pleasures aren’t necessarily the same as those of the medieval west, and that comparing the two is made harder by the lack of an exact equivalent for the term “pleasure” in medieval Latin. Even for those in a religious life, pleasures weren’t purely intellectual: the pleasures of the dead in paradise were thought of in physical and sensory terms: beauty, fragrances, fine robes, lovely music. Monasteries also allowed certain pleasures to their inhabitants, especially from the twelfth century onwards: the pleasures of friendship and correspondence, and for some the pleasure of singing the liturgy. To Cohen, one of the key terms is “affectus”, an untranslatable combination of pleasure, pain and suffering that was in itself neither good or bad. The point was whether such internal movement was in the right or wrong direction. She finished by pointing out the existence of different affective communities even in the twelfth century. Putting the two talks together, all forms of pleasure may be the same neurologically, but any particular manifestation is very socially and individually specific.

I then moved on to two sessions on the late antique military. First up was Session 104 “In Praise of Late Antique and Early Medieval Military Men, I: Military Men – Soldiers and Warriors” with the following papers:

Roland Steinacher, Roman Soldiers and Barbarian Warriors: Late Antique and Early Medieval Military Circles

Ralph Mathisen, Senators as Generals in Late Antiquity: The Resurrection of a Rejected Model

Laury Sarti, From otium to virilitas: Shifting (Elitist) Male Virtues

Roland was arguing against the idea of warbands as the formation places for barbarian cultures, and showing how much late antique ethnography comes from a learned tradition still relying on categories from centuries earlier, such as the idea of peoples who live on horseback (first applied to the Scythians by the Greeks and then adapted to both the Huns and the Avars). The most entertaining part was how in Vegetius military ideas get intermingled with “science”: in the frozen north, people’s blood is thicker and so harder to move up to the head: the result is that you get the Celts, who are strong but dim, and poor at tactics. Further south, because it’s hotter, people’s blood is thinner, so Africans are cowardly but clever. Romans, of course, live in the temperate zone, so are just right!

Roland was also making some intriguing comments on the existence of inner barbarians, ethnic groups within the Roman empire seen as “barbarous”, such as the Bessi and the Isaurians. Men from these tribes could enter the army as a career and even rise to be emperor, as Zeno did. Roland ended by pointing out that there were fewer differences between the Roman and barbarian worlds than are sometimes thought, and wondering whether it was just modern historiography that made us believe so much in frontiers.

This impression of blurred lines was reinforced by Ralph Mathisen who rapidly and effectively gave us statistics which showed that the majority of generals in the late fourth century in both the Eastern and Western empire did not have barbarian names, and went on to show the continued overlap between civilian and military careers for some Romans, such as the early career of Avitus, who was briefly emperor in the mid-fifth century.

Finally, we had Laury Sarti, who was looking at a topic close to my heart, perceptions of manliness, but at an earlier period than I’d studied, focusing on Gaul from 400-700. Her argument was that the language of texts referring to the male elite shows an increasing valuation of physical and military virtues. She focused on three terms: fortitudio, utilitas and virilitas, arguing that these came to replace more traditional Roman virtues, such as eloquence. I was particularly interested in her discussions of “utility”, because the Carolingian dynasty claims their greater usefulness as the justification for taking over the throne from the Merovingians. (I’d have liked to explore the Carolingian use of utilitas for non royal aristocrats in my thesis and book, but never had time to do so).

Laury also made the important point that honor was still used largely for official functions and to a certain extent for glory/fame from 500 onwards. It’s not really used for passively-obtained respect in the period, even though we can see men being humiliated for lack of assertiveness. We still need the study of Carolingian honour that I keep on asking for, but maybe Laury’s new book can get us some of the way on its Merovingian precedents.

After lunch, the second session on late antique military men reverted to those two inevitabilities of life, death and taxes. The line-up for Session 204 was:

David Woods, The Company of God: The Model Christian Military Unit?

Guido M. Berndt, Impulse Manslaughter: Obligation, Necessity, or Pleasure?

Paolo Tedesco, Soldiers, Taxes, and Lands: Means to Finance the Armies of Italy, 450-550

Kai Grundmann, Language of Command: When (Not) to Obey an Order

This was an intriguing mix of subjects, starting with David Woods showing how accounts of military martyrs (the forty martyrs of Sebasteia and the Theban legion from around 300 AD and the sixty martyrs of Gaza from the seventh century) stressed the unity of the group, focusing on them as a military unit acting collectively. These spiritual warriors do not need leadership, because they are all united in their purpose from the start. There are two particularly telling details in the martyrdom at Sebasteia, where soldiers who refused to sacrifice to the emperor Licinius I were left on a frozen lake to die of exposure. When one of the forty did give up the struggle and retreated to a bathhouse, the executioner joined the martyrs, so that the number of forty might be preserved. And when the bodies were being removed for burning, the mother of one soldier, who had not yet died, placed his body in the cart herself so that the forty might continue to be united in death.

Guido Berndt, meanwhile, talking about violence inflicted rather than endured, showed how the personal infliction of violence in the form of murder or manslaughter of an opponent could be applauded by chroniclers, e.g. John of Antioch’s depiction of how Theoderic killed Odoacer. Such acts could be demonstrations both of cold-blooded ruthlessness and of the physical capacity of a man to inflict violence, although there is no sense of the need for a “fair fight” in the passages that Guido discussed. Next Paolo Tedesco discussed Italian taxes, arguing against Walter Goffart’s view that what was being given out to Ostrogoths in Italy was simply tax revenues, but suggesting that a permanent settlement of troops on the land coexisted with a continuing fiscal system, with an increased monetisation in the kingdom.

Finally, we had Kai Grundmann suggesting that the balance between coercion and persuasion by generals might be somewhat different in the late antique than in modern armies (we had a few mentions of Kai’s own experiences as a conscript). Good commanders were shown not only as leading by example, but also able to demonstrate just causes for their actions in speeches. Effective commanders might also, however, give exemplary punishment for brawling or other failures, such as ineffective watchmen. Kai looked in detail at a moment during the Gothic Wars in 539, where the Byzantine general Mundilas was besieged in Milan and was unable to get his soldiers to fight rather than surrender. Kai’s argument was that the normal methods of encouragement didn’t work because Mundilas couldn’t promise the righteousness of their cause, since the Milanese, whom he was trying to protect had broken oaths and switched sides and so deserved punishment.

I had to miss the next session to talk about Hincmar, but I finished the formal part of the day with some more pleasure, listening to Rosamond McKitterick giving the first early Medieval Europe lecture on “The Pleasures of the Past: History and Identity in the Early Middle Ages”. This was a typically erudite discussion of a number of different manuscripts and sources, showing the creative ways in which Carolingian scholars understood the past and adapted earlier works: from a mappa mundi showing paradise, via the Lorsch Arzneibuch to historical miscellanies.


Eighth century Mappa Mundi, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat.Lat. 6018, FF.63v-64

Rosamond’s emphasis was on how the history of antiquity could give early medieval thinkers a sense of being heirs to the past and of order in the world. Place was of key importance here, and she discussed how the Liber Pontificalis used the city of Rome as a framework for its history of successive popes, addressing an audience assumed to be familiar with its topography. The Liber Pontificalis also had a new perception of time, dating Roman time from the pontificate of Peter, rather than from Creation. This was then meshed with other historical works, such as the Universal Chronicle of Eusebius-Jerome, which changed Roman history into the history of Rome and its Christianisation; a Lucca manuscript from around 800 combined the Liber Pontificalis and the chronicle to help create new forms of cultural memory.

Rosamond was arguing that such cultural identities may have been stronger among the monastic elite than their sense of belonging to a particular gens or ethnic group. This pleasure in the past may have created a particular Christian identity which gave them a distinctive understanding of their own place in history. As readers of this and other medievalist blogs will realise, the study of history can drive one slightly mad. But it can also sometimes give a pleasure that is no less intense (if not necessarily “higher”) than that of more purely sensory enjoyment.


One thought on “Leeds 2013 report 1: pleasure and mass murder

  1. Leeds 2013 report part 1I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We…


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