Counting ethnic minorities in history departments

One of the more unusual classes I went to while I was doing my PhD at King’s College London was a beginner’s Italian course at the Modern Language Centre. What was unusual wasn’t the course itself, but the high proportion of ethnic minority students taking this course: from memory, a quarter of the class or more may have been non-white. This wasn’t typical of the classes I attended, even at KCL, which is fairly ethnically mixed. The reason, apparently, wasn’t a burning desire by all of the class to learn Italian, but that the medical students at KCL were being required to do some non-medical classes and this one happened to fit in well with their timetable. It was a useful reminder of how ethnic minority participation in higher education varies a lot between subjects.


I Deug-Su, researcher in early medieval hagiography

There has recently been discussion about diversity in medieval studies, especially ethnic diversity and the extent to which racism may motivate that: Dorothy Kim included references to microaggressions suffered by non-white medievalists. She also talked about counting bodies, so I want to start doing that. Specifically, I’m interested in whether medieval history is a “leaky pipeline” in terms of ethnic minorities: do you get progressively fewer BAME participants as you get further through and higher up the academic system, as is the case with some science subjects? Or do you get the opposite pattern, where percentages of some group increase as you go up the system, as is the case for men within school teaching, where the percentage of head-teachers who are male is greater than that of the teaching workforce as a whole?

I’m looking here specifically at the UK, both because the academic system is different from that of the US and the ethnic mix and forms of racism are also different. And I’ll say at once that while the statistics aren’t readily available to look at the process in detail, they are still interesting.

In the UK, unlike in the US, students choose specific subjects on entering university rather than further along in the process. And we have broad statistics concerning the choice they make: HESA the Higher Education Statistics Agency has breakdowns of numbers of students studying subject categories by ethnicity .

I played around with the key data from 2013/2014: Table 6a from Statistical Release 210, which looked at full-time students by ethnicity in the academic year 2013-2014. This records the ethnicity of UK-domiciled students (i.e. not overseas ones) and breaks it down into four main categories, corresponding to census categories: White, Black, Asian and “Other (including mixed)”. They explain that White includes all people self-defining as white, whether or not they are of British ancestry, Black covers a variety of Afro-Caribbean identities, Asian includes Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese identities (as well as other Asian backgrounds) and “Other” includes mixed White and Black or Asian origins, other mixed backgrounds, Arab identity and a catch-all Other. (More details of the categories are given on the Census website).

What I did was quite simple: I calculated the percentage of each of these four ethnic groups who chose to study a particular subject grouping at undergraduate level. For example, 3.00% of White students chose to study medicine or dentistry, while 1.5% of Black students, 7.59% of Asian students and 4.38% of Other students did. Because there’s a wide range of subjects, the percentage of any ethnic group studying a particular subject is low, but you do get a clear sense of the distinction (if any) between ethnic groups.

It’s particularly interesting to compare subjects which have similar entrance requirements. The most striking is comparing “medicine and dentistry” with “veterinary science”, both subjects which require high A level grades in three sciences. Veterinary science is a far smaller subject group than medicine and dentistry: at undergraduate level, it’s chosen by 0.42% of White students, 0.01% of Black students (which equates to 5 full-time students), 0.05% of Asian students and 0.15% of Other students. But the contrast is still clear: more than twice as many Asian students as White ones chose to do medicine, only an eighth as many chose to do veterinary science. This isn’t simply a matter of different secondary school qualifications achieved by ethnic groups: this is about how such qualifications are used to develop one’s future.

Overall, 47% of students do science subjects (which includes agriculture, engineering and technology, and architecture, building and planning), but this disguises differences between ethnic groups: 46% of White students do science subjects, 45% of Black students, 45% of Other students and 53% of Asian students.

Here is the overall data for full-time UK-domiciled higher education undergraduates:

Ethnicity and subject studied

These show very ethnically divergent patterns for study for non-science subjects. For example, a far higher percentage of Black and Asian students choose to study business at university than White students. What particularly interests me is comparing statistics for law and history, since these seem to me likely to appeal to many of the same students (predominantly those with high performance in arts A levels). The percentages of students from different ethnic backgrounds choosing to study law as against “historical and philosophical studies” are:

Law: 3.27% White; 5.89% Black; 6.47% Asian; 4.97% Other
History: 4.94% White; 1.28% Black; 1.53% Asian; 3.86% Other

“Historical and philosophical studies” includes archaeology, philosophy, theology and heritage studies as well as history, but I’m focusing on history, as over two-thirds of the students are studying history. And the statistics are clear: Black and Asian students, by and large, choose not to study history at university, while they do choose to study law.

I also want to look at the possible existence of a “leaky pipeline”: the existence of cumulative prejudice against ethnic minority students that means few get to the higher levels of academia. Is there a particularly leaky pipeline in history? The one set of statistics that is easily available from HESA is a comparison of the number of postgraduate versus undergraduate students in a particular subject. Are BAME students who’ve studied a subject at undergraduate level less likely to study it at postgraduate level than White students?

This is obviously only a very crude measure of possible leaky pipelines, since we’re not looking at exactly the same cohort of students. Students may move between broad subject groupings as they go through the academic system and some postgrads will have come back to study after a number of years out of academic life. Nevertheless, the ratio of postgraduates to undergraduates can give a rough sense of what’s happening one step further down the academic line.

An additional complication is that postgraduate study can mean very different things in different subjects. In particular, there are very large numbers of postgraduate students of education (around a third of the total student numbers in the subject), because a common training structure for teachers is to do a first degree in a specific subject and then do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. In the statistics that follow comparing undergraduates and postgraduates, I’ve therefore excluded the “education” category from all my calculations.

Excluding those, 8.25% of UK-domiciled students are postgrads (again, these statistics don’t include the very large numbers of postgrads from overseas). At this point you’re getting down to quite small numbers in some subject categories and ethnic groups, which mean the percentages are sensitive to small changes in the actual numbers. But let’s assume that the proportion of undergraduates to postgraduates will remain constant over the near future. What chance does a UK undergraduate have of going on to study at postgraduate level? Overall, the equivalent of 9.0% of undergraduates go on to study at postgraduate level. If you break that down by ethnicity, the statistics are as follows:

8.88% White, 8.49% Black, 8.07% Asian, 9.88% Other

What about history specifically? The theoretical percentages of history undergraduates who go on to study at postgraduate level are as follows:

9.86% White, 6.47% Black, 8.38% Asian, 9.68% Other

That suggests a possible leaky pipeline, but there is a complication: the percentage of students whose ethnicity is not known (which includes those students who have declined to answer the question). For undergraduates overall, it’s 0.8% of the students, but it’s 2.5% of postgraduate students. For the historical and philosophical category it’s even higher: we don’t have data for 1.1% of history undergraduates and 4.3% of history postgraduates. To put that in numbers, there were 65 known Black students doing postgraduate study in history, 160 Asian, 215 Other and 220 “not known”.

Assuming that the majority of this Not Known data is caused by students who refuse to answer the question (since it’s not clear why history departments would have collected substantially less data than other departments), the problem is that we have no idea of the ethnicity of these students. Are they predominantly White, but refusing to provide such “political correct” information? Are they predominantly White but rejecting the idea of ethnicity as a theoretical concept? Or are they members of ethnic minorities who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be identified as such?

What is clear, however, is that in absolute numbers there are very few UK-domiciled ethnic minority students studying history at postgraduate level. Whatever the uncertainty about the ethnicity of some students, 87.2% of full-time postgraduate students doing historical and philosophical studies are self-declared to be White, out of a full-time student population (postgraduate and undergraduate) that’s only 77.2% White.

Does this imply that university history departments are discriminatory? What the overall statistics suggest is that the key moment is when students decide on their undergraduate course. Distinctive ethnic patterns of subject choice occur before students have had more than superficial contact with history departments. Students may have visited the university on Open Days etc, but even entrance interviews would normally come after a broad subject choice has already been made. If perceived or actual discrimination is putting ethnic minority students off studying history, it’s happening at an earlier stage than university.

Claims of racism specifically against history departments also don’t fit easily with some of the other data. It’s interesting to look again at the statistics I gave above comparing those who chose to study law or history at undergraduate level:

Law: 3.27% White; 5.89% Black; 6.47% Asian; 4.97% Other
History: 4.94% White; 1.28% Black; 1.53% Asian; 3.86% Other

The legal profession is hardly a bastion of diversity. There’s also the intriguing point about the Other category: students from that category are substantially more likely to study history at undergraduate level than students who identify predominantly as Black or Asian. They’re also almost as likely as White students to go on to study history at postgraduate level (9.68% v 9.86%).

Who are these “Other” students? The 2011 census gives a further breakdown of this Other category for the whole of the UK population:

0.8% White and Black Caribbean
0.6% White and Asian
0.3% White and Black African
0.5% Other Mixed
0.4% Arab
0.6% Any other ethnic group

(Statistics from Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011). Note that the census separates Other and Mixed, but the HESA statistics combine them. In terms of percentages, in England and Wales, the Other and Mixed categories make up 3.2% of the population, Black 3.3% and Asian 7.5%. In other words, the Other/Mixed category is predominantly people of mixed ethnic background, rather than from Arab, American or Oceanic heritage and it’s almost as large a group as the Black population. If racial discrimination were a major influence on subject choice at undergraduate level, you’d expect it to affect them as much as Black or Asian students.

It’s also revealing to look at the most popular subject groups among different ethnicities. Here are the top 10 subjects studied by full-time undergraduates.

Ethnicity and top 10 subjects

What I think we’re seeing is the effect of different vocational choices. Very broadly speaking, students identifying as Black and Asian look as if they’re predominantly choosing degrees that are more obviously vocational. 34% of Black students overall are studying either “Subjects allied to medicine” or business, for example, as opposed to 20% of White students, while Asian students’ focus on science subjects and on business also suggests a strong vocational bias. In contrast, the “Other” group have patterns that look more like White students’ choices: a more even spread between subjects and more studying of “arts” subjects.

One possibility is that we seeing a confounding effect from class. If Other students are coming from higher social classes than Black or Asian students, there may be less pressure on them to study subjects that are directly vocational. Another is that there may be cultural prejudice against Black and Asian students (rather than discrimination strictly based on skin tone) and that Other students are more likely to be “read” as culturally British.

But I also wonder whether there may be issues of cultural hybridity here. Are students whose family histories are complex more likely to be conscious of the opportunities that arts subjects offer for exploring that complexity, what it means to live between cultures? If so, this is an aspect of their courses that history departments are well placed to stress.

Looking at absolute numbers, however, is sobering for history departments. In 2013/2014 there were 50,665 UK-based students studying “historical and philosophical studies” at undergraduate level: 1005 of these students were Black (2.0%), 1910 were Asian (3.8%), 2220 were Other (4.4%). There were 5085 UK-based students studying “historical and philosophical studies” at postgraduate level: 65 of these were black, 160 Asian, 215 Other. Even if there isn’t a leaky pipeline, with these kind of numbers you’re not going to get much diversity at higher levels within the next ten years. Ethnic diversity in the academic staff of UK history departments, such as it is, tends to come from staff born and educated outside the UK.

The absolute numbers also imply that many masters courses in history are going to find themselves with very little ethnic diversity or even none. In particular, if there’s any skew in the historical periods or subjects that students are interested in (and this is such a personal aspect of studying history, that there almost inevitably will be), medieval courses are in danger of a vicious circle. Ethnic minority students choose not to study the period, because it’s perceived as “too white” and then there aren’t the role models to inspire progress up the pipeline, leaky or not.

And if you’ve got historical circles where there is relatively little ethnic diversity, that in turn is a fertile field for discriminatory treatment. To take one example, when I attended the Magna Carta conference recently, there was a mixed audience of students, academics and interested members of the public. When I saw a middle-aged black man among the audience, I initially presumed he was an amateur of some kind; it was only later that I realised he was the distinguished professor of medieval history William Chester Jordan. My excuse for not recognising him is that I am generally much less well-informed about American medievalists and also those working on topics (like late medieval political history) far from my own research; I am more conscious of historians from minority backgrounds working in early medieval history.

My stupid mistake in this case had no negative consequences, but repeated careless assumptions like mine can easily lead to intended or unintended microagressions: the message being given to ethnic minority academics and would-be academics: “you don’t belong here”. Those of us who are white can try and avoid such mistakes, and support people from ethnic minorities who are interested in studying the Middle Ages, but there isn’t likely to be much change happening soon within the university sector.

If we really want to get students from ethnic minority backgrounds interested in medieval history, I think we will have to start much earlier, focusing on schools. In particular, I think it’s worth considering the new National Curriculum in History for England.

Because there’s now an emphasis on chronology, medieval history is tackled relatively early on. In particular, at key stage 2 (pupils aged 7-11), children have to study British history before 1066 andone of a choice of medieval non-European societies (“early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c. AD 900; Mayan civilization c. AD 900; Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300”). If we want to hook students from all ethnic backgrounds on medieval history, that’s the time to do it. So anyone who can write about both Anglo-Saxon England and the Islamic world clearly and simply enough to engage an eight-year old needs to get out there and start doing it. It may be our best chance of ensuring that future medievalists in the UK aren’t so uniformly white.

The new site has arrived!

This blog was previously at, but has now relocated, since the company running my previous blogging platform have announced that they are closing it at the end of 2015.The archives from 2005 onwards (including all comments) should now be available here, although there have been a few problems with misrecognised characters. If you leave any comments in future on the previous site, I will ask you to repost them on this site. Please let me know if you notice any problems: I’m still trying to tweak templates, colour schemes etc to get a reasonable effect. Meanwhile, happy reading!

Magna Carta 1: backwards and forwards

As all my readers will probably be aware, this year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and there have been large numbers of events commemorating it. The most active group of all has been the Magna Carta Project and a few weeks ago I went off to their conference to get an exhaustive dose of Magna Carta-related research. The conference included 30 or so papers, so I can only give brief summaries of them (I think a conference publication is planned for those who want more details). But this is a report also from a Carolingianist’s viewpoint, not that of someone who specialises in the central Middle Ages. As the post title implies, I’m coming to Magna Carta from the other direction to most people, not looking backwards from 2015, but forwards from 815 (or maybe even 715). What is distinctive about Magna Carta in that respect? What evidence is there of continuity as well as change?


Seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter, one of the leading rebels

We started off with an entertaining talk by Nick Vincent, principal investigator of the project who set the scene with a brief history of commemorations of Magna Carta, including the event he had just attended at Runnymede, memorably described as “part village fete, part Fascist rally”. He pointed out how few of the previous anniversaries of the charter had been celebrated: in 1715 the government had been distracted by the Old Pretender, in 1815 by Napoleon and in 1915 by the Kaiser. A large committee of the Royal Historical Society had been formed in January 1914 to prepare for the 700th anniversary, but was disbanded in October 1914, having done almost nothing. The RHS, however, were behind a set of essays published in 1917 on the charter.

In 1965, commemorations of the 750th anniversary were overshadowed by the death of Winston Churchill, but the year did mark the publication of James Holt’s volume on Magna Carta, which as Nick put it, “rescued it from the lawyers”. Nick highlighted the research of John Baldwin and Philippe Buc on the scholastic ideas behind Magna Carta: it shouldn’t just be seen as an English document, but placed in a European context.

Nick also provided an introduction to the Magna Carta Project, which has focused on the charter and related texts as physical objects. Nick himself had discovered a copy of it back in 1980 at Hereford Cathedral and the project had so far identified 227 charters of King John, using these as comparisons for the handwriting of the Magna Carta copies.

After Nick, we started off before 1215 with papers from Jinty Nelson and then Levi Roach on the political role of charters in the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England. Jinty’s paper was showing how many of the individual elements seen in 1215 were already present in the Carolingian world. There was certainly “assembly politics”, as discussed by Tim Reuter and charters, which tell us about very varied levels in Carolingian society. You can also see similar ideas of how a king should behave, going back to Isidore and examples of agreements involving both nobles promising fidelity to the king and the king swearing to behave as a “rex fidelis” to them, such as made by Charles the Bald in 858. Hincmar of Rheims, meanwhile, was interested in how coronation oaths might be used to ensure correct behaviour by kings, as well as celebrating how the “boni barones” of Charlemagne and Carloman had ensured a smooth succession.

One difference that Jinty did note is that these kind of political agreements appear in the Carolingian period largely in capitularies, rather than in a charter form, though she reckoned there were close links between the various types of documents. Thinking about her paper afterwards, I was struck by the thought that you could make a kind of Frankenstein’s monster version of many of the clauses of Magna Carta if you stuck together bits of different Carolingian capitularies, but such a concoction wouldn’t include much of royal agreements with the magnates, like the one in 858 or the Capitulary of Coulaines 843 (one of the other key examples of agreements between Carolingian rulers and their fideles). Carolingian rulers did promulgate decrees about matters like widows and weights and measures and fish-traps, as Magna Carta did in 1215, but they did that only in capitularies of their own free will. So one key difference between thirteenth-century England and ninth-century Francia is the increased complexity of the political situation, with more groups involved in negotiations at times of crisis and making more specific political demands.

Levi’s paper, meanwhile, was building on an article by Julia Crick which looked at Anglo-Saxon ideas of liberty. Ideas of “libertas” (freedom and exemptions from public duties) initially became associated with holding land by charter (bookland), but then came to be applied more specifically to exemptions for religious and monastic establishments.

Levi was talking about a specific group of such church exemption charters known as the Orthodoxorum charters, and arguing that some of the earliest ones were forgeries by Abingdon Abbey. Although the earliest, Sawyer 658 and 673, are dated as 959 AD, there are implausibilities (like a dead archbishop signing one) and Levi saw the privileges given as reflecting the problems of the 980s, and these charters as produced in the 980s or 990s, along with genuine charters giving liberties to specific churches. These charters, reflecting constitutional developments in Aethelred’s personal reign, then inspired forgeries which provided the same kind of liberties for other monasteries. Levi also pointed out that such royal safeguarding of church liberties was a common European theme and the tendency was for liberties and privileges to be given to churches first and then to expand outwards to wider recipients.

Although in questions, someone was trying to make a distinction between such charters as giving rights to one individual institution and Magna Carta as addressed to all, the combination of Jinty’s paper and Levi’s did suggest there were several variations on forms of legislation that might have similar content and effects.

Similar parallels to European patterns were also visible in Bjorn Weiler’s paper on “Good Kings and Bad Kings in Medieval Reality”. This was looking at how some later twelfth-century historians rewrote aspects of John’s reign to make it conform to norms. In particular, Bjorn highlighted how Matthew Paris claimed that Archbishop Hubert Walter made a speech to the barons at John’s coronation, saying that a king must be chosen unanimously and must show virtue, implicitly replacing John’s succession by hereditary right with an election. Roger of Wendover had already claimed that John had made promises at his coronation and had been warned not to accept the office if he was not prepared to keep them.

The earliest evidence for the coronation (by Roger of Howden) doesn’t mention Hubert’s speech, but Bjorn points out how it fits within a long tradition of bishops admonishing kings (such as St Dunstan’s letter on the crowning of Edward the Martyr and an Archbishop of Reims (Fulk?) supposedly denouncing Charles the Simple as unsuitable to be king, because he consorted with blasphemers). Enthroning a king was a sign of status for a bishop, but also a challenge for him. In particular, there was a concern to establish the norms of royal behaviour at the start of a king’s reign (or, in Matthew Paris’ case, to retrospectively claim they had been established), so he could be held to account later.

Attempts to hold kings to account weren’t new in C12, but Bjorn did see a particular concern about this as the increased use of a class of royal administrators separated the king more from the traditional elite. The period was also marked by a “fashionable” concern for law and ethics; what Bjorn did think was new (with the continuing council envisaged by Magna Carta) was the putting in place of long-term methods of oversight of the king, rather than simply one-off moments of enforcement. John Sabapathy has just published a book on new methods of accountability in the high Middle Ages: looking again at Magna Carta within this framework sounds a useful development.

After dodgy history about real kings, we had Martin Aurell on “Good Kings and Bad Kings: Arthur, Tristan and John”, starting with the end of Arthur the pagan, British king in Richard I’s reign: “Arturus, rex Britonum” had become “Arturus rex Angliae” in Roger of Howden, and Arthur’s tomb was found in Glastonbury in 1191. By c 1230 Arthur had become associated with the house of Anjou, as seen in the Lancelot-Graal cycle and other texts. But the use of the associations weren’t straightforward: Arthur of Brittany, for example, was able to use the resonances of his name against his uncle. Some versions of the story had Arthur as a bad king: the French romances in the thirteenth century tended to see him negatively as an English king, in contrast to Lancelot as being from Gaul.

Martin also pointed out how ideas about kingship and law were embedded in such romances and may have reached an elite lay audience in this way. He mentioned Arthur’s speech on how a loyal king “preserves law, truth, faith and justice” and how the Prose-Graal has Arthur having to do penance for his sins. I was particularly interested by this aspect, as that again sounded like something that had changed from the Carolingian period. Whatever the stories being heard at Charlemagne’s court, they probably didn’t have the same ideas of contractual relations between kings and the aristocracy and the theocratic ideas of a good king: those I’d say come in with some of the chansons de geste, but it’s hard to see them before that.

There were a couple of particularly interesting comments during the questions on this session: Nigel Saul pointing out that one thing missing from Magna Carta was any baronial control of royal patronage, which was a key flashpoint later on and Alice Taylor mentioning some of the twelfth and thirteenth-century romances that deal with the king denying rights and inheritances (especially in Raoul de Cambrai and Silence). Once again, I had the sense of the patterns of problems with kingship repeating down the centuries: royal favour was always both inevitable and problematic.

We then moved onto John’s relationship with the church, starting with Janet Burton on “King John and the Cistercians”. Janet was arguing that John wasn’t unremittingly hostile to the Cistercians, but that he reacted to events, with clashes at several times over John’s need for money (first to pay Philip Augustus and then in 1210 for the Ireland expedition). In between these, his relationship with them was more positive and he even founded Beaulieu Abbey. What interested me most was hearing about the Cistercians as an order dealing with John, for example, abbots in England saying that they could give money without the consent of the General Chapter. Such structured monastic orders weren’t around in the early Middle Ages and their existence did pose a challenge to rulers’ authority in the thirteenth century.

Sophie Ambler followed on “The Church in Politics, 1200-1300”, reminding us that the church was at the heart of events in 1215, especially since we now know that several of the copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were probably made by episcopal scribes. Archbishop Stephen Langton played a key role in enforcing the charter, including the use of excommunications. Similar rituals were associated with later proclamations: Matthew Paris has a vivid description of the symbolism used in 1253: the bishops held lighted candles which they threw down to the ground at the end of the sentence of excommunication, saying: “Thus are extinguished and stink in hell those who attack this sentence”.

Sophie particularly highlighted the role of Stephen Langton, who had been trained in the schools of Paris and used this training to discuss ideas of what the king was entitled to do. For example, he seems to have used legal formalities to avoid handing over Rochester Castle to John in late 1215 (we heard more of that later in the conference). It’s perhaps not surprising that John ended up denouncing Langton as a “notorious and bare-faced traitor” and that Langton lost his ability to act as a mediator and peacemaker. Sophie ended by saying that Langton’s tomb was tucked away in Canterbury Cathedral and he deserved more commemoration. (I didn’t get the chance at the time to say that my old parish church, Slindon in West Sussex has a memorial to him).

After refreshments, we reconvened for the final session of the day: Anne Duggan, John Hudson and George Garnett discussing: “Magna Carta: Common law or ius commune?”

This was one the session that was probably toughest for the non-legal historians among us to follow, especially since I admit to only having a hazy notion of what the ius commune is: basically, the combination of Roman and canon law taught in the schools which forms the basis of many European legal systems, but supposedly had little influence on English secular common law. This traditional view goes back to Glanvill and the London Collection of English laws from the twelfth century: the collection included a forged letter of Pope Eleutherius to King Lucius of Britain saying that rather than giving than the Pope giving Lucius Roman law to follow, Lucius should develop his own law with the counsel of his peers. George was putting this into a context of twelfth-century attempts to dig up Anglo-Saxon law and present Norman law as a continuation of it. In other words, right from the start, we don’t have simple descriptions of the history of English law, but attempts to frame the story in a particular way.

This traditional and accepted view of the lack of influence of “learned law” in England and on Magna Carta in particular was challenged by Richard Helmholz in Magna Carta and the ius commune, which saw 21 clauses of Magna Carta as influenced by ius commune. One of the most interesting things I gained from the discussion between Anne, John and George was a sense of how hard it is to pin down influence. Elements of the ius commune were circulating by the 1130s, even if the full system was only developed later. But how do you conceptualise “influence” where there may be influence on vocabulary, but not procedure or vice versa, or when writers may be using a smattering of Roman law to add a patina of learning? And how do you know when it’s not just that similar solutions have been independently found for similar problems?

Three points in particular stuck with me. John talked about how in North Italy, the same jurist might use Roman law in one place, Lombard law and another and custom in a third. Anne pointed out that in the English sources you can see a learned population who are bilingual or even trilingual (English, French, Latin), as sometimes reflected in word order. And finally there was her description of the lawyers as “subtle men taking from ius commune whatever was needed to add precision to English laws”. It’s these ideas of legal and linguistic code-switching that give me the best sense of this thirteenth-century legal world, one that in that aspect does seem considerably removed from my scholarly Carolingian home world.

Writing elsewhere

I’m just back from the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, about which I will eventually blog. Meanwhile my paper from the conference (on fathers and sons in early medieval charters) is up at the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project blog.

The big news from the conference was that Manchester University Press had the book I co-edited with Charles West, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work on sale, although they kept on running out of copies:

Hincmar sale image
Sign on the MUP stand in the IMC Bookfair

To celebrate the publication of the book, I wrote a post on the Sheffield History Matters on Hincmar as an over-worked middle-manager. Although I’ve now officially finished my stint as part of Charles West’s Turbulent Priests project, I’ve also blogged for that and may do so again. But I hope I’ll get back to more blogging on this main site over the summer.

How do men dominate women?

One shorthand description of a patriarchal system is one in which men dominate women. A slightly more sophisticated version of this description is one in which “men as a class” dominate “women as a class”. But I’m interested in how patriarchal systems have changed over time, so what I want to look at in more detail is which men get to dominate which women and the methods by which they do that.

In particular, I’m focusing on how patriarchy interacts with socio-economic status. So this is an initial attempt to look at the different mechanisms for male domination and think about which men can take advantage of them. I’m still trying to refine such categories of dominance, so there are some overlaps here and I’d be very happy to receive comments on any categories you think I’m missing or that need to be changed.

I’d also add that all of these mechanisms are opportunities for dominance; individuals can choose not to take them. The rich person can choose to give their money away; the physically stronger person can choose not to use violence; the powerful can choose to dedicate themselves to the protection and advancement of the weak. But some people (and historically it’s been men) have had more options to dominate others and it’s important to see what these are.

DoolittlesAlfred and Eliza Doolittle

1) The use of wealth to dominate others. This takes varying forms: classic ones include owner/slave and employer/employee. But wealth can also be used to dominate others in purely market transactions. The rich customer can make outrageous demands on the poorer provider desperate to keep their business. The seller rich enough to purchase/retain a scarce good can make a killing, whether it’s accumulated grain in time of famine or the renting out of a house.

Any mechanism which tends to make men wealthier than women thus enhances their opportunity to dominate them. Such mechanisms include job segregation (with “male” jobs then better paid or with better prospects for advancement), unequal pay/promotion opportunities within the same occupation, unequal inheritance rights and unequal control of household income.

2) The use of violence to dominate others, whether socially sanctioned or not. Such violence can be subdivided according to the closeness of relationship between the perpetrator and victim:
a) domestic violence against those within a man’s household
b) violence against friends/colleagues: date rape is the obvious example, but sexual harassment at work would also be included
c) violent crime towards strangers within your own society
d) warfare – violence against those from other societies

3) Male dominance of the political/judicial system is clearly crucial to the enforcement of patriarchy: specifically a preponderance of men in law-making, law enforcement and court decision-making. It is this that enforces or allows discriminatory practices and sanctions or fails to prevent some forms of violence.

4) More generally, any male-controlled or male-dominated institutions/organisations allow discriminatory practices against women within such institutions to thrive: such institutions include churches, modern universities, medieval guilds, many businesses, traditional trade unions.

5) The extreme version of this is all-male institutions: male-only bureaucracies; medieval universities, social clubs, schools, pre-twentieth century parliaments, etc. To the extent that these provide power to those men/boys in them either directly or via enhanced opportunities for social advancement, they help entrench male domination.

6) Ideological control has always been important for male dominance and takes place at two levels:
a) intellectual theory (scientific, theological, political etc)
b) popular thought (where the key point is who has the “loudest voice”, whether that’s in terms of media control or just the people who are able to dominate discussions).

7) A desire by girls/women for the approval of a man/a group of men is also an important part of patriarchal dominance and one that crops up in a wide range of settings. (Such emotional power can also be used to the advantage of women and children: I will discuss that in a future post). A wish for it can appear in settings where men/boys otherwise have a disadvantage in socio-economic power over women/girls: i.e. when a girl from a prosperous family wants the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks to like her. But it’s also common in settings where there is equal social status (you want your male co-workers to like you) or there is a power imbalance, i.e. a daughter want her father’s approval, a female student wanting a male lecturer’s approval, or a woman in a religious setting wanting approval of her behaviour as devout.

Using this typology, to what extent are men from lower socio-economic groups able to dominate those from equal or higher socio-economic groups? Obviously, in situations where the rich dominate the poor (1), a poorer man can’t dominate a richer woman.

In terms of violence (2), men of any social status can commit crimes in times of war. Crimes against strangers can also be committed by men of any socio-economic status, but such crimes by low-status men against high-status women are more likely to be prosecute and harshly punished. It is still high treason to sleep with the wife of the king, for example, and in the US, black men accused of the rape of white women have always been liable to injustices. Men “marrying up” may be able to carry out domestic violence on higher-status partners, but are also more liable to retaliation from their partner’s family.

The judicial system (3) allows limited opportunities for some lower-status men to dominate higher-status women: essentially, there are opportunities for police officers and prison guards to do so.

In male-dominated organisations (4), the men at the top of the organisation can obviously dominate all the women within it (as well as the men lower down). But the extent to which men at lower levels can dominate women at their own level varies greatly between organisations. At one extreme you’ve got guilds which would allow a few women in, but specifically exclude them from all senior roles and thus make them firmly second-class members. At the other are organisations which are formally non-discriminatory, but in which policies/procedures/prejudices still exist which disproportionately hamper women from getting to the top (such as in modern universities).

All-male institutions (5) offer the greatest opportunity for lower-status men for at least some domination over higher-status women: however rich and powerful these women may be, they don’t get to be a freemason, etc. In terms of ideology (6), intellectual control is difficult for most lower-status men to achieve, although there are a few examples of clever men rising socially to do this, such as Jerome. Lower-status men, however, can sometime manage to “shout louder” than women of the same or higher-social status.

Finally, lower-status men are not often in a position to try and gain approval (7) from higher-status women. However, it is an option for low-status men who are sexually attractive or charismatic in some other way (one obvious example would be Rasputin). Because the need for approval by family members tends to be inculcated at an early age, lower-status men may also be able to use the tool of giving or withholding approval as a way of dominating higher-status wives and daughters. Alfred Doolittle may be part of the undeserving poor, but he can still sponge off Eliza Doolittle, despite her increased social advancement.

So overall male dominance of women doesn’t necessarily assist low-status men. Even if men are on average richer than women and more likely to be at the top of institutions, that doesn’t help you if you’re a poor man or at the bottom of an institution and not likely to be able to move upwards.

Men of lower socio-economic status who cannot rise socially are therefore more reliant on a relatively small number of opportunities for dominance. Traditionally, they have been able to lord it over the women within their household and they could enjoy the benefits of all-male institutions. Some male-dominated institutions have also given opportunities for dominance even to those men not at the top. Apart from that, their options have effectively always been limited to “shouting louder”, relying on female need for approval, and possibly using varying forms of harassment and violence (although these are more risky options).

During the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of all-male institutions disappeared. A large number of male-dominated institutions survive, but formalised equal opportunities within these lessen the options of domination for men near the bottom. Men’s control over households has also been considerably reduced, by a combination of easier divorce, domestic violence being taken more seriously and more economic independence for women.

If you think of it in those terms, you can start to see why many in the modern Men’s Rights Movements and similar groups use the particular tactics they do. Such men mostly aren’t at the bottom of the heap, but they’re not in dominant positions within society. If they feel the need to dominate women (although obviously not all men do), partners/families are their main option. Such men are likely to be frustrated if these aren’t available for them and women either choose not to be with them or leave them. The power of male approval over women’s behaviour, meanwhile, has always relied heavily on supposed male solidarity: “if you do this, none of the men will like you”. The support of some men for feminism has broken such solidarity down: if MRAs do not like a particular woman, she can still find men who do. With a large number of traditional methods for ensuring male dominance removed or weakened, it’s not surprising that lower-status men who are desperate to demonstrate domination focus on ideology (insisting that women are inferior to men) or toy with the possibility of violence.

It’s hard to claim that patriarchy has disappeared when the vast majority of those at the top are still men. But the forms of patriarchy have changed over history and are continuing to change, and I think there is evidence that patriarchal dominance by lower status men is becoming considerably harder for them to achieve in the modern West.

Transwomen, class and feminist solidarity

I started this blog just over ten years ago by talking about a feminist article I’d read. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by looking at another one, dealing with an issue that seems to have become a hot button topic within feminism. How can trans women be fitted into a feminism that focuses on patriarchy? I’ve come across an article by Jane Clare Jones, who expresses anti-transwomen views in such a context, but tries to argue that this is a moderate position. Jones discusses various kinds of oppression, focusing on what she sees as the function of the oppression:

Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group.

In contrast, she sees “the restrictions on homosexuality” as a variant of patriarchal oppression, part of a wider system of heteronormativity predominantly designed “to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies”.

Based on this, Jones goes on to argue that while trans people are oppressed, they are oppressed as the result of patriarchy and not by women. To her, discussions of cis-privilege are wrongly positioning non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people:

There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement.

It’s certainly perfectly possible to see some of the oppression of trans people as resulting from patriarchal systems. The problem is that it’s hard to see the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a hotbed of patriarchal thought. Some strands of feminist thought are also hostile to or exclusionary of trans women, and pretending they’re not isn’t very helpful. It also isn’t simply a matter of the old claim that trans women embody stereotypes of femininity. What we’ve seen as more trans people come out is how varied they and their experiences are: no-one’s going to put Deidre McCloskey on the cover of Vanity Fair. So I want to go back to Jones’ question: to what end are non-trans women/cis women invested in the oppression of trans-women?

In one way that’s the wrong question to ask, because systems of oppression don’t actually require much investment by most people. Race-based oppression (especially in the US) may have started as being structured around the extraction of resources of land and labour from particular races. But racism is still a structural problem in the UK and the US (in different ways), even though many white people aren’t deeply invested in it. Instead, such structural racism in white-dominant societies relies on relatively small groups eagerly enforcing white superiority and the much wider indifference/passivity of most white people (in which I’d include myself), which means that the system doesn’t get changed. In the same way, I don’t think most cis women are actively oppressing trans women. But there are a small group that are and I think the end for much of this is paradoxical: they’re trying to maintain feminist solidarity.

I’d argue that feminism has had more problems with solidarity than any other social movement. The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and yet feminist movements are a very recent phenomena. And the main reason for this is class: women from higher classes have not felt they have much in common with women from the lower classes and vice versa.

The historical evidence suggests that class is the primary division blocking solidarity between women, not race or sexuality. In particular, feminist movements didn’t grow up substantially more quickly in societies that were relatively racially homogeneous (such as nineteenth-century Britain) than in ones that were more racially mixed (such as the US or New Zealand). And while arguments over sexuality did divide the women’s movement in second-wave feminism, they weren’t prominent before then. BAME women or lesbians can still feel alienated by the priorities of modern day feminism. But I’d argue that class is still by far the most difficult issue in feminism (and in social justice circles generally).

The key problem is that for a feminist campaign to have real political impact, it needs to deal with issues that matter personally, if not to all women, at least the majority of them. In particular, a lot of all forms of political activity is carried out by students and middle-class professional women. They have the combination of the skills and networks to get political attention and also (often) more free time for campaigning than working-class women.

This doesn’t mean that working-class women can’t play an important role in feminist movements, but I can’t think of many feminist groups that were/are predominantly working-class. And the most successful feminist campaigns have tended to focus on issues that affect both middle-class and working-class women.

The classic example of an issue that cuts across class lines is women’s suffrage. Campaigns for sexual discrimination laws have also been able to draw on cross-class solidarity. But there are other feminist campaigns that have gradually run into the sands, at least partly because of class differences. The most obvious one is equal pay. Yes, it’s discriminatory if bankers who are women don’t get the same multimillion pound bonuses as their male counterparts do. But it’s hard to feel solidarity with women who miss out on that (or on being in the boardroom) when you and all your male friends/relatives are working in minimum wage jobs.

Campaigns about childcare have also tended to run into issues of class. Available childcare for middle-class women is increasingly about ensuring that their career path isn’t blocked; an alternative option is simply not to have children or to have them relatively late in life. My impression is that in contrast, childcare for working women is more about being able to hold down any job in order to earn a little more money. And there’s also the hidden issue of who is doing the childcare: in most cases, it’s done by poorly-paid working-class women, because it’s a low-status feminised job. Solidarity around this issue is hard to maintain across class lines.

If you look at the hot feminist topics of the moment, meanwhile, they’re abortion (in the US), sexual harassment and sexual violence. These, again, are experiences that affect all classes of women and that also have resonance across boundaries of race, age and sexuality. It’s not surprising that feminists in the media tend to focus on them.

And it’s here that issues about trans people come up: what are the bases on which such cross-class solidarities rely? Abortion as an issue relies very heavily on the distinctiveness of female bodies: women can get pregnant and men can’t. In fact, that’s a simplification, but a lot of female solidarity has always been based on shared bodily experiences. Trans people, by indicating that being a women may not be based purely on body sex, are potentially a threat to this solidarity.

Does the inclusion of trans women in feminist groups/movements threaten the ability of all women in them to be able to talk about shared bodily experiences? That seems to be at the basis of a lot of feminist hostility towards trans women. But I think, as with lesbians before them, what trans women speaking out reveal is that not all women have the same experiences. Lesbians speaking up within feminism reminded straight women that not every woman’s life involved sexual desire for men. Similarly, trans women aren’t the only women whose bodily experiences are ‘atypical’: there are ‘born women’ who from an early age know they’re infertile or don’t have periods etc. We need to work towards a feminist solidarity that can cope with both common and unusual bodily experiences via empathy: this specifically may not have happened to me, but I can imagine how positive/negative it would make me feel if it did.

The significance of sexual harassment and violence to the feminist movement, meanwhile, is another paradoxical reason why some feminists are hostile to trans people. Some definitions of patriarchy put such violence at the heart of it, such as this one by bell hooks:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

But hooks goes on to show this theory as something taught to her by both her mother and her father. The perpetrators of patriarchy are not just men. And those suffering patriarchal-based “terrorism” and violence are not just women: Jones herself admits that gay men and trans people also suffer from this.

The problem is that political campaigns need both to simplify their aims and to solidify their supporters. A binary between those suffering from the patriarchy and those benefiting from it can’t be easily summed up in a slogan. So just as fights against capitalism become simplified to being about “workers” versus “bosses” (or the 99% versus the 1%), a fight against patriarchy as a system which focuses on sexual harassment and violence become simplified to women as victims of harassment and men as perpetrators. The logic is summed up in the hashtag #YesAllWomen. All women are supposedly subject to misogyny and sexual violence and this becomes their defining experience. Following binary logic, therefore, men/some men are the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence.

The experiences of trans women, however, don’t easily fit into this simplified understanding of patriarchy. They are regarded socially as male (at least in their early years) and yet they’re also subject to patriarchal violence. And again, the enforcement of their masculinity is often done by their mothers as well as their fathers.

Trans women are therefore a complicating element in the simple political binary of them-and-us radical feminism, in which #YesAllWomen has implicitly become #YesOnlyWomen. A feminism supposedly based on shared experience of sexism ends up having to deny the experiences that trans women and cis women potentially share. Yet as with bodily experiences, it ought to be possible to find enough overlap of social experiences to build bonds of solidarity which includes trans women within a feminist movement. It’s not just trans women, after all, who stuff their bra to give themselves cleavage or get the wrong sort of toys taken away from them.

As I’ve said earlier, feminism has always found solidarity difficult, but the movement has nevertheless over the years achieved something not just for middle-class women, but also working-class women, black women and lesbians. In the same way, despite all the current fractiousness over the role of trans women in feminism, I expect that more and more they will come to be accepted as part of it: we just need to remain aware that the necessary simplifications of political slogans don’t match the messy complexities of real life.

Ideology, enforcement and arseholes

Since I research what could be broadly described as early medieval cultural history, I’m used to intermittent objections to this approach by proponents of socio-economic history. Ideology, to them, is secondary: people are motivated primarily by their own material advantage. While historical materialism is predominantly Marxist, there are also non-Marxist strands of economic/political history that also regard ideology as merely propaganda, simply fine words concealing self-interest. I want to argue, however, that even if you take a self-interested view of people’s motives, there’s a considerable need for ideology/propaganda in any non-democratic society, whether medieval or modern. (I’ll leave aside modern democratic societies for the moment, because there are potentially different dynamics there).

Many modern dictatorships or quasi-dictatorships show us in stark form the kind of dynamics that seem familiar from premodern European societies. The basis for power is a combination of wealth and office/political power. Office brings officeholders wealth via corruption; in turn wealth is used to ensure that the political and legal system continues to support the wealthy. And it’s also clear that in every society power and wealth rests ultimately on coercive force. This can take various forms, from the lord demanding dues from his peasants backed by a band of men on horses with swords, to the ‘pay this charge or we’ll send round bailiffs to seize your goods’. Behind even the most sophisticated political and legal system is ultimately the threat of physical violence from armies, police or militia.

The question then becomes what motivates the enforcers. The first point to make is that coercion is rarely risk-free. At a certain point most oppressive societies have to deal with putting down revolts or rebellions and it’s these enforcers who are on the front-line.

There are a few relatively risk-free way of coercing or punishing opponents, but these rely on being prepared to destroy the area you’re trying to retake: burning cities/villages (in pre-modern times) or bombing/gassing them (since the twentieth century). But if you want to keep most of the population intact, to use as a workforce, defeating opponents is potentially dangerous, especially if they’re tactically clever. As a lot of military history has shown, there are ways to defeat even elite weapons (such as heavy cavalry or tanks) on the right kind of terrain.

Being an enforcer can be a dangerous job, but it’s rarely the ruling class themselves who are the sole enforcers. The medieval aristocracy may have led armies or raids, but they relied also on a lot of non-noble troops; the early medieval milites who became the knights were often originally jumped-up (literally) peasants. And in modern military dictatorships, while those at the top of army may be rolling in it, there are a lot of far poorer troops at the sharp end of military activity or policing.

So what motivates such enforcers? The obvious answer is money: they get their pay or a share of the loot from their enforcement activities. In a society with some approximation to the rule of law that may be enough, but in non-democratic and corrupt societies, enforcers can get more on their own account than by staying within the system. Why don’t they keep the proceeds of the coercion themselves, rather than handing it over to their superiors? And to reduce it to the most basic level: if you’re a group of guards being paid by a king to guard his treasure and/or his person, why don’t you band together, kill him and split the treasure between you? If you’re faced with putting down a serious revolt, why don’t you instead switch sides and join it?

All this suggests that relying on purely material factors is a bad move for a dictator/non-democratic ruler. It’s at this point that the arseholes come in. This is a phrase coined by the economist Dan Davies, who argued that every would-be dictator needed a reactionary citizens’ militia: “a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren’t interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes.” Such people can be mobilised to put down revolts with relatively little training because their main role is to carry out group attacks on those who are individually weaker.

To encourage such groups, Davies thinks the dictator should “concentrate on nurturing their sense that they, despite appearances, are the backbone of the country, and allowing them to understand that although rules are rules, there are some people who just need a slap.”

Davies is talking about the specific case of modern, semi-industrialised countries (he mentions the Iranian basiji, eastern European miners and Zimbabwe ex-soldiers), but the general point is wider: what a non-democratic government really needs is people who are willing to help support it by force for “ideological” reasons as well as purely economic ones. His examples also show that these enforcers don’t need to be taken from a different class in a Marxian sense, those having different relations to the means of production. To take a modern British example, the police are also “workers” and have a strong trade union in the Police Federation.

Marxists tend to see the main purpose of ideology as a peaceful means of keeping the oppressed down: provide them with ‘false consciousness’ so they accept their oppression peacefully. But maybe we need to emphasise more the role of ideology on the oppressors’ own side: encouraging feelings of superiority and solidarity both among themselves and with the group of (lower-class) enforcers, so that no-one’s tempted to defect. The general tactics of ‘divide and rule’ by the ruling class are well known from modern politics, but how was such ideology specifically targeted at enforcers in earlier societies? Arguably, such a technique is behind the original development of chivalry, which linked together ideologically everyone from the ruler to men who possessed nothing more than a horse and some expensive weapons, possibly only as a gift from their lord.

Dan Davies’ definition also suggest that what modern dictators really need for securing their enforcers is an ideology closely tied to elements of social class. To put it a different way, it’s possible to be an ex-Nazi or an ex-Communist or an ex-Baathist. One of the main factors determining whether a dictatorship survives is when its enforcers can’t easily change side when the revolution begins. If you have an ideology to which almost anyone in any social position can subscribe, it’s easier to switch away from it when the going gets tough, at least for the junior ranks. Take off your army uniform and you can be a revolutionary too (or at least pretend to be while you run away).

In contrast, what’s been noticeable about recent Middle East conflicts is how tenaciously many people have been willing to stick to the ‘losing side’. The key point here seems to be the role of ethnic and religious identities, which can’t easily be changed overnight. If you’re an Alawite, you’re likely to stick to the Assad regime to the bitter end, because a Sunni government is going to be hostile to you.

In most premodern European societies, however, the ruling class (and their enforcers) weren’t predominantly from an ethnic or religious minority. (The obvious exception is Norman England). I suspect that therefore there would have been more need either for a fine-grained class ideology (the people you have to put down are stupid and lazy, unlike you) or identifying those who need to be oppressed with outside threats to society (they’re all Catholics/Protestants/Communists/heretics/in league with the Jews). For the early Middle Ages we’re unlikely to be able to find many traces of such kinds of ideology/propaganda being addressed to the enforcers (who are essentially illiterate warriors), but for those working on later medieval periods, it might be worth exploring how the ‘good’ lower classes can be encouraged to repress the ‘bad’ lower classes.

Hincmar no-mates and Carolingian friendship

There are a lot of themes that came up when I was indexing Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work, the collection of essays I’m editing with Charles West. But there’s one that didn’t: there’s no index entry for ‘friendship’. On reflection that’s interesting, because friendship is an important theme in many recent studies of the Carolingian intellectual and political elite, especially in the work of Gerd Althoff.

Is the lack of index entries just a reflection of the topics covered in the book? It can’t be comprehensive, of course: we’ve got just over 300 pages, while Jean Devisse’s biography of Hincmar is almost 5 times as long. But searching the proofs finds one interesting passage. Hincmar says about his early life:

After the brothers in the monastery of St-Denis, where I had been raised, had converted to a regular life and habit, I dwelled there for a long time, fleeing the world without hope or appetite for a bishopric, or any prelateship. Taken from there by friends (familiares) for the service of the emperor and the meetings of the bishops, serving from the obedience alone that was enjoined to me, after some years I sought again the quiet of the monastery. (Hincmar, Epistola 198, MGH Epp. 8, p. 210):

So Hincmar had friends at least at that point, and it’s fairly easy to identify one obvious candidate: Hilduin, abbot of St-Denis and Hincmar’s early mentor. But Hilduin died in 840, while Hincmar survived until 882. Who were Hincmar’s friends during his archiepiscopal rule? There aren’t any obvious names. You can admittedly come up with a shortish list of people who weren’t actively hostile to Hincmar, such as Hrabanus Maurus and Odo of Beauvais (although Egon Boshof reckoned Odo didn’t always support Hincmar). And I have got an index entry for Hincmar’s political networks: several of our authors used Flodoard’s summaries of Hincmar’s letters to talk about those. But definite friends are far harder to trace.

Is Hincmar’s friendlessness just a trick of the sources? We don’t have a huge number of complete letters of Hincmar preserved; we’re mostly relying on Flodoard’s summaries of them. Maybe he’s inadvertently misleading us: since his focus is on the history of Rheims, perhaps he’s omitted more personal letters or not reported that aspect of his letters? But even so, we have a large amount of Hincmar’s writings, including a substantial section of annals, where he could choose whom he wanted to discuss; you’d expect some evidence of any significant friendships to show up.

Which brings us back to Carolingian friendship. Recent studies have stressed that the language of friendship didn’t have the same meaning in past times that it does now. Beneath the enthusiastic and emotional rhetoric, it’s been claimed, friendships were more about social networking than the meeting of two minds, a facade of love over more instrumental relationships.

So if Carolingian friendships are formalised constructions, pacts of solidarity, why didn’t Hincmar have them? He certainly could have profited from them in order to ensure the flourishing of his archdiocese and the attainment of his political goals. It’s possible that no-one really liked Hincmar (apart from Jean Devisse and a few others, a millennium too late), but if we say that that impeded his ability to make friendships, we have to readmit emotional connections into the equation. The example of Hincmar-no-mates suggests that we may have to rethink our wider ideas of what early medieval friendships involved.

What would Hincmar of Cologne do?

I’m currently finishing off the introduction to the book version of the translation of De divortio Lotharii regis et Theutberga reginae that I’m doing with Charles West for Manchester University Press. So I’ve been rapidly re-reading a lot of scholarship on the case and its outcome. Most historians have seen the result (that Lothar failed to get the divorce he wanted) as due to the weakness of Lothar’s case for separation from Theutberga and remarriage to Waldrada and/or the influence of outsiders opposing him, with Charles the Bald, Hincmar of Rheims and Pope Nicholas I taking starring roles as the preventers of divorce. Letha Böhringer has shown this probably isn’t entirely fair on Hincmar (most recently in Letha Böhringer, “Das Recht im Dienst der Machtpolitik? Anmerkungen zu einer Neuerscheinung über die Scheidungsaffäre König Lothars II,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 119 (2001), 146-154), but I want briefly to consider via a counterfactual an aspect that I don’t think any of the scholarship has explicitly asked (Carlrichard Brühl gets nearest in “Hinkmariana II: Hinkmar im Widerstreit von kanonischen Recht und Politik in Ehefragen,” Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 20 (1964), 55-77). What if Lothar II had had Hincmar on his side?

So consider Lothar II with the assistance of Hincmar of Cologne, a man who is a skilled and knowledgeable canonist/propagandist, loyal to his own king and moderately devious. How does this Hincmar in 857/858 deal with his ruler’s desire to divorce his wife of two years and return to his mistress, against the Christian rules of marriage and without alienating some of his own elites and giving his uncles in neighbouring kingdoms a propaganda coup?

I think the key manoeuvre would have been trying to get Theutberga to co-operate right from the start of the procedure. Would that have been possible? Theutberga had to survive an accusation of horrible crimes against her (incest and ‘unnatural’ intercourse with her brother, then aborting the resulting child) via a judgement by ordeal in 858. In 860 she was coerced into confessing the same crimes. Lothar II was unrelentingly hostile to her and I think had hoped to have her executed if the ordeal had gone against her in 858. While she wasn’t necessarily infertile, she hadn’t born a child in two years of marriage, suggesting either she was at least subfertile or that Lothar was so unenthusiastic that he wasn’t sleeping with her frequently. (He eventually had at least four children by Waldrada, so any fertility issues must have been on Theutberga’s side). And there’d probably been a third person in their marriage from the start: it’s been reasonably assumed that Lothar’s involvement with Waldrada started before his marriage and continued after it.

What if instead of the accusations, in 857/858 Hincmar of Cologne had come to Theutberga and offered her a deal: that she should voluntarily agree to give up the marriage and enter a convent, in return for getting all the prestige of a royal abbess? Would Theutberga have been prepared to take that? She fought long and hard to regain her position as queen, but how much was that about clearing her name from widespread ugly rumours? By 868 after a failed attempt at reconciliation, she said she’d rather “flee among the pagans that see the face of the glorious King Lothar”. How hard would she have fought to stay as Lothar’s queen, if she’d been offered the change to be the next Radegund? I think there’s a reasonable chance she’s have accepted Hincmar’s offer.

Hincmar’s problem then would have been squaring Theutberga entering a convent and Lothar remarrying with canonical traditions of indissolubility. While one-sided separation to enter the religious life had been OK in early sixth century Francia, there were a number of authoritative texts available to Carolingian authors opposed to this: Gregory the Great, in particular had rejected this. Either both spouses had to agree to enter the religious life or neither could. There were one or two canons which did allow the spouse remaining in the world to remarry, but they were less prestigious texts. Lothar could still have run into difficulties.

But this is what he had Hincmar of Cologne for, a man who knew how to use authorities to get the result that he wanted. Gregory’s argument was that since husband and wife were one flesh, part of it couldn’t remain in the world while part didn’t. But in the 860 case of Count Stephen of the Auvergne, Hincmar came up with the first ever “canonical” justification for why an unconsummated marriage could be ended and remarriage allowed. With the same argument, he and Lothar could have come up with a rhetorically fairly convincing story to put before the bishops and magnates of Lotharingia.

The argument would be that Theutberga had always wanted to lead a religious life, but had been forced into marrying Lothar by her brother Hubert. Lothar had, however, agreed to live in a chaste marriage with Theutberga, which they had secretly been doing for several years. Now, however, that was not enough for Theutberga: she wanted to leave the world completely. What was Lothar to do? Obviously, he wanted to support his wife’s religious calling, but if he did so, it would mean he had to leave the world as well, leaving the kingdom defenceless. What could a poor king do?

With that dilemma placed before the magnates, Hincmar would then suggest his theory that because of non-consummation, Lothar and Theutberga had never really been one flesh, so the marriage could be ended (and he might even suggest the nice touch of the original dowry going to Theutberga’s new convent as well). I think that combined argument might well have convinced the magnates. In particular, Theutberga’s family and supporters would have got at least something of a payoff. They might be losing Königsnahe, but they would be getting access to a monastery (or maybe multiples ones) as a powerbase and source for precaria etc.

Could this have worked? The most difficult part might have been making Lothar II looking like a pious young man and keeping him away from Waldrada for a decent interval afterwards. And it would still have been difficult legitimating their son Hugh, if he had been born before 858, which is quite possible. But if Lothar hadn’t made accusations against Theutberga, posing as someone of superior virtue, it’d be a lot harder to start pointing the finger back and making accusations against him. In particular, the charge that he couldn’t rule his wife/household wouldn’t have been available. And consummation as required for a valid marriage was probably something that resonated with Carolingian audiences. Charles the Bald (and even Gunther of Rheims) would have had a lot less material to work with than the implausible and contradictory claims from 860 that take up so much of De divortio.

And what of the papacy? There’s been much stress on Nicholas I’s interference in Frankish affairs, but even Nicholas didn’t get involved unless he’d been appealed to. And if Theutberga had been squared, who was there to appeal to him? Charles the Bald might have complained, but Hincmar would probably have retorted that it wasn’t really his business. And if Nicholas had intervened, what would he have done? Dragged Theutberga unwillingly out of her convent, saying she had to return to her marriage? That would have been difficult logistically and would probably have been a PR disaster for Nicholas. Whatever his views, he may well have had to accept the situation.

The only remaining problem, of course, would probably have been an epidemic of other husbands in the archdiocese of Cologne trying to divorce their wives in the same way. (Fulcric has already tried something similar in the early 850s). But this is Hincmar of Cologne we’re talking about: he could almost certainly have found some semi-convincing argument for why Lothar’s case was an example that absolutely no-one else should ever follow.

So I think there’s a plausible argument that the loyal Lotharingian Hincmar of Cologne could have arranged for his king to marry the woman he really wanted. And after that? If Lothar II hadn’t had to keep trekking down to Italy to make his case to Rome, could he have avoided the illness that killed him in 869. Could Lotharingia have survived, rather than become a lost kingdom? That may be going too far. But I think there is a decent case to be made, that with Hincmar of Cologne on his side, Lothar’s divorce mightn’t have been a lost cause.

What I’m doing: Hincmar and charters

As you will have noticed, things have been very quiet on this blog for ages, because I’ve been busy on a lot of other things. The busyness will be continuing for several more months, but some of the results of it are now becoming available.

1) The Making of Charlemagne’s database is now online and our blog will continue to be updated. I will also be giving a seminar on Tuesday 3rd February at Leeds on the project, as part of the series Medieval Studies in the Digital Age. (This is a free event, but you need to register).

2) The book of essays on Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims I have been co-editing with Charles West is now at the proof stage. According to Manchester University Press, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work will be appearing in July 2015. This contains the research of an international cast of scholars (British, French, German, Dutch, US and Canadian) and will answer almost all your Hincmar-related research needs. The rest will be answered by our forthcoming translation of De Divortio, also from MUP, which is making steady progress: this will replace the translation of this text we have currently made available on the Collaborative Hincmar project blog.

3) My new project (until July) is working on Charles’ Turbulent Priests project. I will be focusing on priests and their representation in original charters from the eighth and ninth centuries.

I hope to get back to more regular blogging in a couple of months, but until then, I hope some of this interests you.