Kalamazoo 2014 report 1: I’ve got a conference in Kalamazoo

I have now taken part in my first ever International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, although I skipped the full experience by staying in a hotel, not the dorms. I enjoyed it a lot, meeting a number of new people as well as many familiar faces: particular thanks go to Danica Summerlin, Val Garver, Kimberley Jack and Jenny Davies, all of whom provided support and/or transport at key moments. Although the Zoo is rather lighter on early medieval history than the Leeds International Medieval Congress and some of the sessions were fairly loosely connected together, I still heard a lot of interesting papers, so I’ll get right into discussing them.

I started off literally at the beginning with Panel 1 on Aspirations Unmet and Exceeded: Failure and its Fruits in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. This had lost one paper of its three, but two very different and interesting papers remained. One was Mary Ellen Rowe from Central Missouri talking about the life and especially the afterlife of Widukind, the Saxon opponent of Charlemagne. She was arguing for a reciprocal effect of Charlemagne and Widukind on each other: Charlemagne defined as victorious Christian hero against Widukind and Widukind reacting by the creation of militant paganism (or at least unifying defence of pagan practices). She was also suggesting the possibility that the Viking raids of the late eighth century may have been a broadening out of resistance to Charlemagne from Widukind’s initial impetus, since he had Danish connections.

Widukind remained a surprisingly popular figure for centuries after his defeat – Mary Ellen traced this as far as the Niedersachsenlied, a pre-World War II German song still being sung today. Widukind could be remembered in many different ways and his failure could be worked around. To those who celebrated a pagan Widukind, the tendency is to focus on his heroism against overwhelming force, (Mary Ellen paralleled this to the US Confederacy). To those who want to stress his Christianity, in contrast, he is a shining example of someone who finally saw the light and thus became an even greater hero.

Mary Ellen was taking a traditional close analysis approach to her early medieval history. In contrast, Martin Reznick from New York was combining traditional history of late Roman Egypt with some very interesting ideas from political science and game theory. He was looking at why people used the Roman legal system, with all its corruption and inefficiency rather than alternative methods of dealing with disputes and taking as a specific example an unfortunate landowner called Aurelius Isidoros, who had his grain burnt while it was on the threshing floor in Karanis around 298 AD. Isidoros submitted several petitions to various officials in Egypt: why did he do so when the chances of getting a satisfactory judgement and being able to enforce it were so low?

Martin discussed the initial crime as the sign of a failure by Aurelius Isidoros: the arson would have been very hard to carry out without someone seeing it, which meant the perpetrator must have counted on local sympathy for him. Indeed in one of the later petitions, Isidoros states the name of the perpetrator, with whom he had a long and complex history of problems. Martin’s argument was that using formal legal systems was a strategic move, a difficult, dangerous and complex gesture by Isidoros intended to get local people on his side, by implicitly proclaiming that he did not deserve such treatment, i.e. that the arson, probably a revenge attack, had gone too far. If he was able to get local support in this way, he could then abandon the formal legal procedure and revert to self-help methods. Martin mentioned a second century edict that seemed to be trying to prevent people abandoning cases partway through in this way.

I found Martin’s paper particularly interesting both because I and some other early medievalists have been playing around with game theory and because last year I heard (although I still haven’t blogged about) Tom Lambert arguing for self-help and legal systems as operating in largely separate spheres for Anglo-Saxon England. While Martin’s work doesn’t necessarily invalidate Tom’s ideas (which are more about what kings thought they ought to be legislating about) they do suggest that even a crappy and unjust legal system may get used quite a lot (and Martin was quite clear that the Roman legal system was crappy and unjust).

As well as this specific early medieval connection, Martin’s work was also very interesting for its methodology. The problem with game theory for early medieval history is that you can only guess at the pay-off matrix. What Martin was arguing was that you could nevertheless use game theory to look at the ‘black box’ of self-help and see what strategies are plausible, given the tactics of the other player. In other words, he was rejecting the previous suggestions in the literature that people turn to the law either because they’re desperate or they’re ill-informed about their chances. It’s more likely that there were ways litigants could make the system work in their favour to some extent, and anyone who works on dispute settlement should probably start thinking in more detail about how people might be able to game things to get what they want.

After that very interesting start, I stayed with early medieval stuff and had the slightly odd experience of having flown thousands of miles to hear a predominantly English panel. The first session organised by Early Medieval Europe journal (Session 45) had two out of three English panellists. The one US participant was Amy Bosworth from Muskingum, talking about Carolingian attitudes to wolves. As expected, these didn’t get a good press, whether it’s as ravening baby-snatchers or as comparisons with people who are even worse than wolves. But Amy ended by pointing out that actually wolves don’t get mentioned that much by the sources, compared to natural disasters so Carolingians may have not worried that much about them. This prompted a comment by someone (I’m afraid I can’t remember whom, but I think a Canadian) that maybe wolves then were regarded much as ‘we’ thought of racoons and bears nowadays, as nuisances with whom we just had to get along. It was at that blithe acceptance of living alongside bears that I truly appreciated that I was not in the Golden Triangle anymore.

The English contingent of the panel were Sarah Hamilton talking about cursing (although with surprisingly few curses, which had to be cut for length) and Fraser McNair from Cambridge on tenth-century Flanders. Sarah, as usual, was demonstrating why looking at the tenth-century and liturgical sources (neither of which are terribly mainstream) is worthwhile. While there’s a new interest in tenth-century bishops in the wake of Tim Reuter’s ideas of the period as “a Europe of bishops”, the emphasis has been on their more secular roles. Sarah was pointing out that there was a new type of liturgical book developed at this point, the pontifical, which was intended for material specifically needed by a bishop.

I’ve heard Sarah talking about excommunication before and in some ways this was a shorter version of some of those themes: the flexibility of the texts (once memorably described by Conrad Leyser as “jazz curses”) and their use in negotiations. But this time she was also making the point that a lot of the formulae look very specific and some seem to refer to particular property disputes. In the light of Martin Reznick’s paper, rather than treating excommunication as just a liturgical ‘black box’ (offence goes in one end, ritual condemnation comes out the other), we probably ought to be thinking more seriously about how the staging and the sequences of the stages might be intended successively to mobilise local support, especially when Sarah showed how much detail we can see about the sentence of excommunication being publicised.

Fraser’s paper also intersected in my mind with some of the issues I’d heard earlier about game theory. In the teeth of the methodological problem that there are far too many people called Arnulf in late tenth-century Flanders, Fraser was trying to sort out the political events of the succession to Arnulf the Great of Flanders, who died in 966. In 965, Arnulf, who was worried about the fact that his successor was his grandson Arnulf II, then aged seven, gave his county to Lothar, king of France. When Arnulf died, Lothar annexed southern Flanders: Fraser was arguing, contrary to some previous scholars, that this wasn’t an agreed part of the deal, and that Lothar also managed to install the regent of his choice in the rest of Flanders.

What I (as someone who knows sod-all about tenth-century Flanders) took away from this was a reminder that tenth-century Carolingian kings weren’t just negligible: Lothar seems to have managed to play quite a successful game both here and during some other minorities. But Fraser’s paper also raised a wider point. As he stated, Arnulf the Great had been both very aggressive and very successful in his early career (including being behind two of the more shocking murders of the period: Archbishop Fulk of Rheims and William Longsword). But these tactics meant he didn’t have many allies when things got difficult in the 950s. (I asked about marriages, and Arnulf seems to have had bad luck on timing of these, with one in-law dying and his holdings getting split seven ways and another marriage being too late to provide support).

In other words, tactics for princes/magnates aren’t one size fits-all and what works at one point might not be so good a decade later. This may be an obvious point, but it’s one that’s easy to forget: a game-theoretic approach isn’t a complete solution, but trying to think more systematically about what other options were realistically available may sharpen our political analysis.

For the next timeslot there were several panels solely on early medieval Europe, so I went off to one organised by the Haskins Society (Session 107) on periodisation and organising concepts. We started off with Bonnie Effros from Florida talking about nineteenth-century archaeological study of the Merovingians (on which she’s recently written a book: Uncovering the Germanic Past: Merovingian Archaeology in France, 1830-1914). The book focuses on the impact of Merovingian graves on debates about French ethnic origins. In this paper, by contrast, Bonnie was talking about views on paganism and Christianity. She identified the development and persistence of a fixed view that the presence of grave goods indicated “pagans”, a view particularly promulgated by Abbe Cochet, one of the founders of Merovingian archaeology. Bonnie suggested that this may also have affected how skeletal remains were handled (without much respect or interest) and speculated if they might have been treated with more care if they had been felt to belong to “fellow Christians”.

The second paper in the session was by Laura Wangerin from Wisconsin-Madison, asking why the Empress Theophanu wasn’t made a saint, when the other Ottonian queens were, when she was carrying out the same kinds of activities as them. Laura was arguing that Henry II, who succeeded Theophanu’s son Otto III wasn’t interested in maintaining Ottonian culture, which had stressed the royal dynasty as intercessors between heaven and earth. In addition, Theophanu, as an outsider, was a handy scapegoat for opponents of her male relatives: Laura pointed out how some manuscripts record her name in Greek characters whenever she’s mentioned, just to emphasise her alien nature.

The last paper in the session was the one that I particularly wanted to hear: Val Garver from Northern Illinois, asking the question “Did Children Have an Early Middle Ages?” I’m very interested in questions of non-traditional periodisation at the moment and Val made some important points while demonstrating just how hard such matters can be. Her overall answer to whether there was something distinctive about the early Middle Ages for children from other periods, was “it depends”. One key point was about class: while it’s easy to think about oblation, for example, as being a distinctive experience for early medieval children, this was only experienced by a relatively small proportion of children from elite families. In contrast, Val was arguing for the frequency of death and disease in young children as cutting across periods (and classes). Having read Robin Fleming on bones for historians I was thinking of the period before the twelfth century as distinctive for its incredibly high mortality, but in fact it may be that’s what unusual about the early Middle Ages is high mortality for relatively young adults of all classes, with a divergence between the rich and the poor in adult life expectancy from the high Middle Ages. But this might still fit with under-five mortality only reducing for any class much later. Val was also suggesting that the lived experience of children was much the same between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. I asked in the questions about infanticide and Val thought that shorter periodisations were more relevant here, though she didn’t have time to go into details; she also pointed out that there are a lot of problems with measuring infanticide.

It was useful to be reminded that periodisation depends crucially on what class you’re looking at and how much continuity there can be for subordinate groups (such as children). Periodisation for this kind of social history isn’t easy, but I think we’re still stuck with the problem that we need some version of it if we’re going to talk about change at all. As I’m trying to think about periodisation for patriarchy and women’s history, I’m increasingly coming to think that the key pivots may be very general changes, such as the Christianisation of the Roman empire or the development of legal systems, rather than more specific political or social moments. Val’s paper offers some pointers for how I might think about that problem at several different levels.

Since Kalamazoo has rather fewer sessions than Leeds, but a lot more new people to meet, that was the last session I attended on the first day, but I did also go to the early medievalists’ dinner, ably organised by Deborah Deliyannis. All in all, it was a good introduction to the ‘Zoo and its delights.

Update: a couple of minor corrections from Fraser on his paper: Arnulf the Great committed his lands to Lothar in 962 and died in 965 and it was at his father’s orders that Fulk of Rheims was killed.


2 thoughts on “Kalamazoo 2014 report 1: I’ve got a conference in Kalamazoo

  1. So…

    You didn’t miss much, staying in an off-site hotel rather than Cell Block I, II, or III. 🙂 Someone messed up reservations when I was there, and instead of rooming with a friend, we ended up each alone in separate rooms- even though we mailed out registrations, with instructions, *in the same envelope*. This was especially hassle-worthy when I got violently ill Thursday morning…

    Wolves are interesting. Out here in Oregon, we tag and track them. There’s one that has been wandering up and down the Cascades, and we get notes in the media when they ping him somewhere new. The sheep and cattle ranchers are not happy, even though their losses to wolves are miniscule. The folks who are worried about degredation of wolf numbers are louder at the EPA.

    I love the idea of ‘jazz curses’! Where did he say that? Do you remember?

    Bonnie Effros rocketh mightily. Her work on food and community has been an incredibly valuable source for the work I’m doing on Mero/Caro food.


    • It’s interesting to hear about the tracking of wolves: does that make them seem more controlled (and hence less scary) or more menacing (because you know they’re out there?)There have been suggestions about reintroducing wolves to Scotland (they were hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century), but I suspect that there’d be too many fears about them being a threat to humans/pets/livestock to allow that to happen. The stereotype of the Big Bad Wolf is still deeply rooted in our psyche in Britain so I don’t think the environmentalists will get their way on that one.

      I heard Conrad’s description of ‘jazz curses’ at a conference a couple of years ago. I don’t know if he’s used it in any published work. But then Conrad has a way with memorable phrases. I still remember his explaining the paradox of the combination of Augustine’s ideas on monastic correction and of his view of the unknowability of anyone’s state of grace: “The knife of correction was always a stab in the dark”.

      I was pleased I got a chance to hear Bonnie Effros, though I’d also have been more interested to hear her on either food or clothing.


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