The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

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The novelty of sermons

I’ve been thinking recently about moral instruction on marriage in the early centuries AD and how it was changed or not by the coming of Christianity. And it occurred to me that the sermon as a method of moral instruction is something distinctively different from the previous Roman culture. What’s new about the sermon? Essentially that it provided repeated moral instruction to a substantial non-elite audience.

It’s this combination that strikes me as distinctively new (although I’m open to correction). The Roman tradition of speechmaking (whose style influenced some preachers, such as Augustine, heavily) was centred on political speeches and those in the lawcourts: accessible to the non-elite, but not on moral topics and not repeated regularly. Wandering teachers and preachers of various religions provided moral instruction to a non-elite audience, but their itinerancy meant that only a relatively small number of faithful disciples would hear them repeatedly.

The ancient philosophical tradition of moral teaching, meanwhile, was predominantly aimed at a small elite (although Stoicism was more of a popular philosophy), who gained repeated instruction as a pupil of the philosopher. The nearest equivalent to the Christian sermon and presumably its inspiration was the Jewish homiletic tradition of the derasha, a vernacular explanation and exposition on a passage of Scripture.

The difference between the derasha and the sermon that I’m interested in is the changing size of the relative audiences. While Jewish communities were greatly disrupted after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Christianity continued to spread and flourish throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with more and more churches and parishes appearing at which the priest was expected to give a sermon or homily every week. Churchmen may have complained about the infrequency with which many of their flock attended church, but I think that the sermon still provided a more substantial platform for moral outreach than had previously available in the classical world.

Late antique Christianity and equal marriage

In some ways the title of this post is misleading: I’m not discussing the reaction of late antique Christian writers to same-sex marriage (there are rare examples of such marriages in Roman times: see Mathew Kuefler, “The marriage revolution in late antiquity: the Theodosian Code and later Roman marriage law”, Journal of Family History 32 (2007), p. 363). Instead, what I’m interested in is how the arguments of (some) Christians in Britain today on same-sex marriage are drawing on ideas of marriage developed in the few five centuries of Christianity, rather than directly from the Bible itself, and yet ignoring elements of this “traditional” view that do not suit them.

One of the key arguments repeated in opposition to same-sex marriage is that marriage is intended for the procreation of children and that therefore any relationship in which procreation between the couple is impossible cannot be regarded as marriage. This is often extended in Catholic teaching to the claim that any sexual activity between a couple that is non-procreative is sinful.

However, the Bible says nothing explicitly about contraception (although there have been attempts to claim that the punishment of Onan in Genesis 38: 8-10 shows that all contraceptive acts are wrong). While the Creation account in Genesis 1 has God telling humans to increase and multiply, Genesis 2 has Eve created as Adam’s companion and there is no mention of marriage as involving intercourse or bearing children before the Fall.

Overall, however, the Old Testament sees marriage and procreation as good and blessings from God; the New Testament is far more ambivalent towards both. In particular, St Paul’s discussions of marriage (the most extensive in the New Testament) have almost nothing to say about procreation: when he says that it is “better to marry than to burn”, there’s no suggestion that this is only for those willing and able to have children.

The view that sexual activity is only morally acceptable for the procreation of children comes not from the Bible, but from Stoic philosophy, but it was taken up both by early Christian Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and slightly later ones, such as Jerome in the fourth century. As John T. Noonan puts it in Contraception: a history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and canonists (Harvard UP, 1965), p. 49: “The statement that the rational use of sexual faculties is a procreative one is not the same as the Old Testament statement that fecundity is highly desirable. The ideas do, however, harmonize”.

As discussed in detail both by Noonan and by Peter Brown, The body and society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity (Columbia UP, 1988), a developed theology of marriage and its purposes, embodied in the works of St Augustine, took place in the late fourth and early fifth century against a background of intellectual challenges from ascetics and sects regarded as heretical. Augustine attempted to assert the good of marriage against opponents who mainly saw it as vastly inferior to virginity and sexual abstention. Some, like Jerome, asserted that the only good thing about marriage was that it generated children who could become virgins. The Manichees, meanwhile, saw procreative sex as particularly evil, generating children who were caught in the body and the darkness of the material world. Some of them, at least, argued for efforts to ensure that any sexual activity was non-procreative. On the other side of the debate were Christian writers such as Jovinian, who saw marriage and virginity as equally good.

As Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser have discussed, this whole debate was also implicitly about authority within the church and within society. Renunciation of sex (specifically male renunciation of the sexual use of women) had become a symbol of the wider self-control that a man in authority needed to have, and a symbol that was particularly promoted by ascetics from a lower social position anxious to prove their moral superiority. This was a challenge to the other obvious claimants to Christian leadership in late antique society, the couple of senatorial social status.

Augustine attempted to steer a middle course, opposing the condemnation of marriage as heretical, but wanting to remain within a tradition that saw virginity as superior. The result was that he produced a distinctly ambivalent defence of marriage which described all sexual pleasure as sinful. It’s also typical of his own limits of perspective that he argued that Adam and Eve must have been intended by God to have intercourse in Eden: if Adam had just wanted friendship, a man would have been a more stimulating companion (Brown p. 402).

Tangled up with this was another near-simultaneous debate about the virginity of Mary, discussed in most detail by David G. Hunter, Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy (Oxford UP, 2007). Had Mary remained a virgin while giving birth to Jesus (virginitas in partu), i.e. had God allowed some kind of miraculous painless birth, as various apocryphal Gospels claimed? Had she remained a virgin after giving birth (virginitas post partum), i.e. had she and Joseph been in a permanently celibate marriage? Neither were agreed doctrines in the fourth century. Ambrose of Milan, however, anxious to protect the consecrated virgins of his church from pressure to marry, and seeing Mary as a symbol both of such a virginal life and of the inviolable church, became the most influential supporter of Mary’s perpetual virginity during birth and after.

This was the view of Mary that triumphed in the western church. However, it was also important to maintain that Mary and Joseph had been truly married, for obvious reasons. As a result of these debates, the doctrine that Augustine developed about the purposes of marriage sees multiple “goods” in it: offspring (proles), fidelity (fides) and symbolic stability (sacramentum, which didn’t yet mean “sacrament” in the Catholic sense). The sacramentum, in the sense of an indissoluble bond, meant that a couple who could not have children together could not divorce so that one might remarry and have children. The procreational good of marriage could be dispensed with. This could be either on grounds of incapacity (the old could marry for mutual companionship) or on grounds of choice (continence in marriage was preferable to intercourse).

Reflecting this view, the medieval church almost always adhered to the view that it was consent, not consummation that made a marriage. The churches’ current opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis that the nature of Christian marriage requires the procreation of children turns out to be based on extremely shaky historical and theological foundations.

Popular culture and populist puritans

My final post on this summer’s IHR Earlier Medieval seminars (though it wasn’t actually the final paper of the term) is about Lucy Grig’s paper on “In search of late antique popular culture (via Caesarius of Arles)”. Lucy was looking at Arles in the early sixth century, a city possibly at the cusp of the ancient and medieval worlds. (Its greatest moment had been in the fourth century, when it had won imperial favour under Constantine). She was particularly interested in looking at how popular culture might be embedded in and interacting with “high culture” and quoted Stuart Hall (the modern cultural theorist) on the tensions between popular culture and the dominant culture which tries to reshape it.

Those attempts to reshape popular culture are very clear in Caesarius’ sermons (or at least the sermons attributed to Caesarius – Lucy said for her purposes it wasn’t essential if they were all his personal work). His sermons do seem to be aimed at a wider cultural group than before, even if there’s argument about who exactly the audience are, and they’re certainly trying to reform popular culture. Some of the things he complains about, like attending theatrical spectacles, may be purely a trope. It’s unlikely the amphitheatre and theatre in Arles were still going by his time; their sites seem to have been used for spolia from the fifth century.

But in sermon 6, which is written in the form of a dialogue with various “rustici”, we do seem to have something reflecting actual practices. Caesarius insists that being illiterate is no excuse for not following God’s commandments – you can still listen to someone reading to you. If you can remember “shameful love songs”, why can’t you learn and remember the Creed? If you’re bothered enough about your vineyard to get good advice on taking care of it, why aren’t you bothered enough about your soul to ask experts about that? Caesarius’ rustic man may not be the lowest of the peasants, if he’s got his own vineyard, but he certainly sounds to have his own culture, and it’s one that Caesarius wants to change. Other sermons of Caesarius show him co-opting the local land-owning elite into policing their subordinates and controlling their own household, as well as encouraging his audience to inform on their misbehaving neighbours.

This looks like the active attempt to attack current forms of popular culture; Lucy briefly also mentioned hints at what might be intended to replace this. Caesarius wanted lay people to learn psalms and hymns by heart, partly because if they were singing in church, they wouldn’t have time to gossip there. Augustine composed popular hymns, such as a peculiar abecedarian hymn against the Donatists. (This has apparently been described as the first pop song, even though it would have taken 35 minutes to perform – I think references to prog rock popped up either in the talk itself or the discussion afterwards, though we also had Charlotte Roueché saying that Acts 19 has a crowd crying out acclamations to Diana of the Ephesians for two hours, so 35 minutes against the Donatists isn’t long).

So is this another case of cultural hegemony attempting to stifle popular culture, which in turn resists it, in the way Stuart Hall talks about? Yes, but there’s also something interesting and different here. Peter Heather, in the discussion afterwards, was pointing out that pre-Christian/non-Christian authors (he mentioned Themistius as an example), simply didn’t give a damn about popular culture. Themistius was part of a very elitist culture in which the only rational people worth bothering about were the educated and leisured. This only changed in the fourth and fifth century because Christianity said everyone had souls. Caesarius fulminated against the lives and culture of the plebs because they mattered to him as people in a way that they hadn’t to previous cultural elites.

In this, Caesarius is part of a whole group of populist puritans visible in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: I’d link him with other religious reformers such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jonas of Orléans, and to a certain extent Hincmar of Rheims as well. They’re all men who want to interfere in the lives of others: puritanical about sex and dirty songs, but also attacking the ill-deeds of rich and powerful men. Caesarius condemns male drunkenness and promiscuity; Chrysostom denounces wife-beating and those who don’t help the poor. Jonas and Hincmar too both condemn oppression of the less powerful. They were moralists who didn’t take the moral status quo of the ancient/early medieval world as acceptable: the other side to their puritanical nature was a genuine concern for the poor and vulnerable. Many religious moralists now only seem to worry about sex; it’s interesting to have a reminder of a time when moralists were concerned with all aspects of their audience’s lives.

Who cares about history (unique identifiers edition)?

Over at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, a discussion that started off being about the trajectory of women’s history has mutated into one about why someone isn’t creating a system of unique identifiers for medieval texts. And while I’ve spent the last decade or so thinking about gender history, I’ve spent half my life thinking about databases and identifying references uniquely, because that is one of the things librarians do all day. So I wanted to start from Joan Vilaseca’s plea for “A public and standarized corpus of classical/ancient texts with external references to editions, versions, comments, articles, etc,etc.etc”, sketch out what I’m aware of as existing and explore why history seemingly can’t get its act together in the way that chemistry or taxonomy has.

There are actually some databases that do a fair amount of what Joan would want. As examples, there are:

1) Perseus Digital Library. This is a big and sophisticated free collection of classical texts, including some very neat tools, such as Greek and Latin word study tools (which I freely admit to using when I’m stumped on working out the root verb from a conjugated form). This doesn’t have identifying references, however.

2) Library of Latin texts. This commercial database includes the full text of the whole corpus of Latin literature up to the second century AD (essentially taken from the Teubner editions), plus a lot of patristic and medieval Latin (largely, but not entirely taken from the Corpus Christianorum series). Associated with this is the Clavis Patrum Latinorum which provides a numbered list of all Christian Latin texts from Tertullian to Bede. (There are similar indexes which cover Greek patristic texts, apocrypha, and early medieval French authors.

3) Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. This database includes most literary texts in Greek from Homer to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. It’s a subscription service, but it includes a free online canon database that provides unique identifying numbers for works and parts of works.

4) Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL). This is a catalogue of ancient and medieval Latin hagiographical materials, produced by the Bollandists, which provides unique identifying numbers for different texts. There’s also a free online version.

5) Leuven Database of Ancient Books. This free database includes basic information on all literary texts preserved in manuscript from the fourth century BC to AD 800; the texts are assigned a unique number. (It’s a subset of the Trimegistos project which focus on documents from Graeco-Roman Egypt, both literary and non-literary and also provides identifying numbers).

What this very brief overview reflects is one basic fact: to produce a database and/or identifying ring systems of any size takes time and money. As a result, there have to be enough people wanting the result to make it worthwhile making that investment. There are several different models for financing such projects: you can sell the resultant database (either for profit or at a break-even price), or you can persuade funding bodies to support you, or rely on charitable donations but you need someone willing to pay.

It’s worth looking here to see why identifier projects in other fields have succeeded. A lot of large-scale identifier projects, for example, have come out of library science and publishing, both because these are huge and connected networks and because there’s the commercial driver of being able to identify something in your inventory quickly and accurately). So the Standard Book Number, developed for WH Smith in the 1960s became the ISBN of today, followed in the 1970s by the ISSN for serials, etc. It’s noticeable that it took more than twenty years after unique identifiers for serials to develop for unique identifiers for individual articles within those serials to develop (the CrossRef project using DOIs). This wasn’t because no user ever wanted an individual article to read before then; it was because it was only with electronic journals that it became feasible to try and sell individual articles to people.

Most of the other really large-scale nomenclature/identifier projects have been in the sciences, for the simple reason that the same phenomena are being studied all over the world. We’re (mostly) looking at the same sky, hence the International Astronomical Union was formed in 1919. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, responsible for chemical nomenclature also dates from a similar period. (One of the other main systems of chemical nomenclature, the CAS Registry number is an offshoot of the subscription index/database Chemical Abstracts). Again, people are trying to do the same chemical reactions from Bombay to Los Angeles, so there’s a big demand for such systems. Biological classification has a very long history, dating back to Linnaeus (although unique identifiers are only just being developed), reacting to thousands of years of attempts to show how all species are related.

The classical/medieval database projects that I’ve mentioned above have essentially been possible because they have a sufficiently tightly-defined group of potential users who are all interested in the same sort of thing: classical literature or papyrology or hagiography. It’s therefore worth creating something for them to use. The problem with extending such a system to broader historical areas is that no-one cares about history.

That sounds ridiculous, but it’s a problem I’ve mentioned before: it’s not really clear that we’re doing the same thing as historians when we study vastly different periods and use completely different sorts of sources. Or to put it a different way, the Old Bailey database is a remarkable resource, but not of any professional use to me. I don’t care about all history, everywhere; I care specifically about early medieval European history. Historical sources, even just medieval sources, aren’t one thing, but a patchwork of different islands and most researchers spend most of their time perched securely on a few of these, rarely venturing off them. I’ve had years of being an early medievalist and never needed to cite Sawyer numbers, for example, because I don’t research or teach Anglo-Saxon history; I’d be almost equally baffled if I came across Corpus Iuris Canonici footnotes without the help of Edward Peters. The patchwork systems of identifying medieval documents remain because of the lack of overlap between the groups of researchers using them, and I can’t see any driving force that is going to change that. Crowd-sourcing has produced some remarkable things, but creating unique identifiers is a peculiarly ill-suited task for crowd-sourcing. Unless more people start caring about the history of everywhere at all times, Joan isn’t going to get the wide-ranging system he’d like.

How late should the late antique go?

The Journal of Late Antiquity is now online and seems to have adopted the recent habit of annexing bits of the early Middle Ages. The journal aims to cover ‘the late Roman, western European, Byzantine, Sassanid, and Islamic worlds, ca. AD 250–800’, while the existing journal Early Medieval Europe covers ‘the history of Europe from the later Roman Empire to the eleventh century.’ Preferring one journal over the other is easy if you work on Egypt or Iceland, but harder otherwise. Nor is it simply about whether you think barbarians or the ‘fall of the Roman empire’ are a Good Thing/Bad Thing (which is the normal cultural divide between the late antique and the early medieval). Both journals are printing articles by people like Peter Heather and Guy Halsall, after all.

The far ends of each journal’s period look reasonable, if you’re going to stick to round numbers (rather than the spurious precision that Modern History starts in 476 AD). I suspect Peter Brown originally started late antiquity in 150 AD because that was roughly where the Oxford classics syllabus lost interest (certainly, 25 years ago, when my husband was doing classics there, they ended the history papers with the death of Trajan in 117). Either 250 or 300 AD is a good place for the start of late antiquity, depending on whether you think Diocletian or Constantine are more significant. Where the ‘early medieval’ ends depends partly if you’ve got a central Middle Ages to go onto, or whether you’re moving immediately to the later Middle Ages. But assuming you’ve got a ‘middle middle’, then it’s a choice between 1000 and ‘mutation’ or 1100 with the Gregorian reforms and the Crusades, and I think I’d agree with 1100 myself.

The problem is the five century overlap in the middle (300-800). It makes sense for there to be some overlap between the two periods (and the two journals), because the post-Roman world developed at a different rate. You can’t really claim that fifth century Britain is ‘late antique’, but you can say that about fifth-century Gaul. On the other hand, there are some claims that are frankly unconvincing. We early medievalists ought to be thinking seriously about giving the fourth century back to the late antique people, if not in survey courses and textbooks (where you have to include some references to Constantine), at least in research terms. Equally, the attempt by late antique researchers to include the eighth century is just ridiculous. It makes no sense to cut up the two most powerful dynasties (the Carolingians and the Abbasids) in that way, and what else of ‘late antique’ culture is still round by then? I’d say you could either pick 600 or 700 AD as the end of late antiquity. 600 works better for western Europe (especially France and Italy), with Gregory the Great looking a very transitional figure, but 700 may make more sense for the east (and keep the Spanish historians happy). That leaves 250-400 to the late antique, 700-1100 to early medieval (both decent stretches), with three centuries in between being tugged either way, depending on your location and your field of history (roughly the early medieval comes in earlier in economic and political history and later in religious and cultural history). After all, of we could agree at least when we’re talking about, then maybe we could get a little further in the quest to get people thinking it’s worth studying things that happened before the twentieth century.