Kalamazoo 2014 report 3: women and Carolingians

I started off Saturday at the 49th Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies with a roundtable on women and power, which I’ve already discussed and then I went to the first of two sessions organised by Medieval Prosopography. Prosopography is always particularly prone to the so what problem: what do you get out of a presentation if you’re not interested in the particular people/region covered by it? But I think all the papers did a good job of tying in wider themes of interest.

First up was Adam Matthews talking about the alliance between the family of the widowed Odila and the monastery of St Florent of Samur in the eleventh century. Adam reconstructed a series of sales by a widow called Odila and her family to the monks over several generations, which was combined with several family members becoming monks there. This looked like a way for Odila to hang onto her property (I was immediately thinking about Jinty Nelson’s wary widow), since she may possibly have been threatened by her dead husband’s relatives. Adam also made the important point that although we tend to think about monasteries in the period either as mediators or in need of protection, here in the relative stable county of Anjou, we have monks as protectors of others.

The second paper was the most relevant to my interests: Constance Brittain Bouchard on “The Capetians’ Merovingian-era origins”. This was an extension of a topic that she’s written on before, about royal and noble families’ understanding of their own genealogies. It’s very hard for researchers to trace any lineages from the eighth and ninth century back to the sixth or seventh. We can see the Robertines in the ninth century, but although they don’t look like parvenus, it’s very hard to link them up with earlier Roberts who might be their ancestors. Constance’s argument was that this isn’t just due to scanty sources, but also to the Capetians’ own understanding of their past. By the thirteenth century, for example, you might not get Robert the Strong, Odo and Robert I mentioned: the emphasis was on a royal lineage and those who didn’t fit neatly into this were smoothed over. Constance contrasted this with the Carolingian dynasty, who were more assiduous in creating the memory of their ancestors, and in new ways. She pointed out the paradox that modern researchers know more Capetian ancestors than the Capetians themselves did: by the time they needed a memory of ancestors, with a developing emphasis on strict patrilineages, it was too late for the Capetian family to create one.

The final paper in the session moved us to late medieval England, with Anne DeWindt on “Social mobility in late medieval England: evidence provided by a family of fifteenth-century villeins.” This was a study of the Berenger family of Warboys in Huntingdonshire, trying to work out how we can assess social mobility. Anne was looking at changes in the size of land-holding, in office-holding and also occupation, with the usual issues about patchy evidence. But she also made the interesting point that geographical mobility didn’t necessarily mean social mobility and raised the possibility that members of the family who were moving elsewhere, even to London, may in fact have ended up in an urban underclass, both for women (as servants) and men (as low-status chaplains). She linked this up to work by Gregory Clark on long-term social mobility. He has apparently argued for regression to the mean by both rich and poor – i.e. that that the averaging out effects from one generation to another mean that any rate of social mobility is slow.

On Saturday afternoon I went off to another early medieval session: Session 465 on “Carolingian Culture”. This yet again revealed how many Carolingian texts there are that I don’t know at all well. The session started with Jared Wielfaert talking about “Prudentius of Troyes and the Accumulative Aesthetic in the Carolingian Period”. Jared is working on Prudentius’ Contra Eriugenam, part of the bitter controversy over predestination in the ninth century. The text comes from several rounds into the dispute: this is Prudentius writing in opposition to John Scotus Eriugenia, who in turn had been encouraged by Hincmar to write against Gottschalk’s views.

Jared has been studying the one surviving manuscript witness of Prudentius’ text (BnF lat. 2445) and was arguing for the visual force of the manuscript, a force lost in Migne’s Patrologia Latina edition. The original has a hierarchy of scripts and an elaborate system of sigla. Prudentius’ work is essentially a theological Fisking of John’s Treatise on Divine Predestination. Prudentius quotes a short section from John (with a theta symbol), follows this with a chi-rho symbol to mark his own responses, which mainly consist of long (and sometimes barely relevant) passages from patristic sources. The names of the quoted authors are in large rustic capitals, sometimes barely abbreviated. Jared described the visual effect as that of the Fathers shouting down John.

The manuscript was compiled in a number of stages, and we probably have it in an unfinished state. It includes a lot of marginal and interlineal comments with extra quotes, all probably added by Prudentius himself. At some points parchment tabs were put in for extra quotes. Jared was interested in why the book was compiled so inefficiently, with such excessive quotations and linked this to Carolingian architecture and art, which has been described as having a “cumulative aesthetic”, wanting to juxtapose old and new material, reusing spolia and generally believing that “more is more”. John Scotus Eriugena’s text appeared visually as a thin, weak booklet; Prudentius’ big book was an argument in itself.

Prudentius’ way of work sounded very familiar from what I knew about Hincmar’s techniques of writing and in response to my questions Jared suggested Hincmar may have learned from Prudentius (which is possible, although Hincmar would never have admitted it). But it’s also another reminder that what counts as a good argument is historically specific (and can’t just be reduced to the idea of Carolingian authors as incapable of thinking logically).

Jared was followed by Leanne Good on “Taming the Medieval Wilderness through Hagiography”. This was looking at the hagiography surrounding the monastery of Fulda, and how it made a “wilderness” from an area that was actually already inhabited. What I found particularly interesting was how Leanne was linking up some of the symbolic acts found in the Vita Sturmi with those in early Iberian colonial texts talking about to how claim “new” land, such as by the clearing of land and the making of small buildings. (Sturm built a corral for his donkey). She cited work by Michael Curry on how places are legally created. As in some of the previous talks at Kalamazoo, this was a distinctively New World take on a medieval text that gave me a viewpoint I hadn’t thought of before.

Finally, Laura Carlson who I knew from Oxford, but is now in Canada, talked about “The Bonds and Bounds of Friendship: Amicitia Vocabulary in Carolingian Model Letter Collections”. As Laura pointed out, studies of friendship have been revitalised by modern social networking tools, which have revealed the carefully constructed and formal nature that friendships can take. Laura was trying to develop some of the ideas of Gerd Althoff on friendship further using letters from Frankish formularies. Her research is not helped by the editor of the MGH Formularies collection omitting bits of letters or whole letters from such collections that he decided were too emotional. But enough remains to suggest that “friend” could be something akin to a formal title, and that there is more use of “amicus” than had been previously thought. (I was also interested to hear that women could be addressed in such friendship letters). To complicate things further, Theo Riches in questions pointed out that talk of “friendship” could be a power move: it isn’t necessarily friendly to use the language of friendship. Given the well-known problems of dating and locating formularies, all this means that using such texts is going to be difficult, but it does sound like a possible way to get material that might be comparable to Altoff’s Ottonian situations.

That ended my sessions for Saturday, though I did go to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship reception (and have now joined the SMFS) and also to the dance. Maybe it was just because I didn’t stay till late (because of needing a bus back to my hotel), but I didn’t find it as crazily fun as the Leeds disco.

I was speaking in the graveyard slot, on the last session on Sunday morning, so skipped the first session, since I wasn’t sure I could get between locations on time (I had excessive amounts of luggage with me because my trip was so long). So the end of my first-ever Kalamazoo was my panel (on “New Approaches to Carolingian Charters”), at which I managed to do a live demo of the Making of Charlemagne Europe database without it falling over. I was followed by two of my friends. Julie Hofmann gave a paper entitled “Databases and Diplomatic: Is Context Worth Anything?” This was worrying away at the problem of what we lose by making charter databases. How does the extra level of abstraction affect our relationship to a document and our sense of it? And how do we get the resources to train people in the specialist skills to get beyond the database?

Julie’s points are important and we need to consider them before we get too euphoric about the possibilities of charter databases. Though I must add that at the moment I’m not exactly euphoric at the moment about these possibilities. There is a reason that our project’s unofficial motto is RTFC: Carolingian charters are hard to fit into a structured database. We’re also going to try and provide background context for the charters, but the database will still never be more than a tool for users, not the be-all and end-all.

After the pros and cons of databases, the final paper, by Jenny Davis was rather lower-tech, but managed to be new by the simple approach of making us realise that much of what we thought we know about Charlemagne’s charters is incorrect. Geoff Koziol contrasted the later West Frankish kings’ political use of charters with their more routine use in earlier periods, but Jenny argued that in fact Charlemagne’s charters were carefully targeted and slightly unexpected. He didn’t grant much land (either in terms of numbers of charters or size of estates) and he often didn’t give his own patrimonial land, but land acquired in court cases or taken from the Lombard fisc. He also gave less to monasteries than later kings.

Similarly, the traditional view of Charlemagne as building up networks of royal institutions in the heartlands of the empire needs to be nuanced. The monasteries in the heartlands who got multiple charters tended to have long-established links to the Carolingians: Charlemagne wasn’t buying loyalty there, although there is more evidence for him doing so in Italy. Jenny thought this was responding to Italian circumstances and contrasted this with the lack of grants to Bavarian churches or monasteries. It’s also hard to see strategic purposes by Charlemagne in the majority of his grants, though this may reflect a lack of our local knowledge as well.

Jenny also pointed out the changes chronologically: we get fewer charters after 790, just at the point where we start getting more sources of other kinds. Again, this suggests that charters couldn’t be expected. Charlemagne seems to have reacted opportunistically to events (such as Lorsch’s dispute with the family of its founder in 772). Charters were already an old tool in his time, but although he continued a tradition of giving, he did so in different ways.

So that was my four days of Kalamazoo wrapped up (although with a few more medievalist encounters all the way back to Chicago). I think as an early medievalist I still prefer the IMC in Leeds, but once you get to Kalamazoo it’s cheaper than Leeds (especially if you stay in the dorms), the bookfair is amazing, and I heard some interesting people speak whom I suspect I would never hear elsewhere. I can’t see myself being able to afford to go back over there soon, but I would like to go again at some point (preferably with a spare suitcase for taking books home).

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One thought on “Kalamazoo 2014 report 3: women and Carolingians

  1. Fascinating, especially the bit about types of friendship and how claiming someone as a friend can be a power move. I guess it survives in such terms as ‘he has friends in high places’.

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