Sunday, March 02, 2014

So much Drama! The Dark Ages Again

In another discussion about the "dark ages" and why the Renaissance is better and is in fact a "rebirth" of classical art and literature, one of the contributors compared the Germanic successor states of the early medieval period with the "classical period" in terms of drama as an example.  In the classical world we have greats like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes and so on.  Nothing comparable from the early medieval period, so this indicates that at least on the dramatic level, the classical period and Renaissance are superior.   There are of course several problems with such a reconstruction.  Let's take a look at them.

The first major problem is the myth of the Classical Tradition  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm a big believer in the Classical Tradition, and in the teaching of that tradition.  But I also know that it is a construct of later ages that has gathered the rosebuds of the classical period and then forgotten that the beautiful bouquet came from thorny bushes.  Or to restate, the "Classical Tradition" consists of the highlights of the Classical period and presents those highlights as if they were the whole.  It is easy to forget that looking at the dramatists of fifth century BCE Athens for example that the Classical Tradition knows no other dramatists for the entire period.  A few will mention Plautus and Terence, perhaps Menander.  Fewer will know that Seneca tried his hand at drama.  And there the Renaissance mythers dry up.  Thus, at best for the 1000 year period, 500 BCE-500 CE, most Ren mythers can name maybe a half dozen dramatists, almost all from one slice of that period, fifth century Athens. 

The careful observer will note the problem immediately, of course.  Comparing one slice of the "Classical Period" to another period and then saying, "See, the Classical Period is better since that other period produced nothing of the kind" is fallacious.  It takes a part as if it were the whole, then compares that false whole to another period and weighs the balance.  In point of fact, no one can name dramatists of the second century BCE (save Terence *if* the Ren mythers knew that that was when he lived!), or a dramatist of 3rd, or 4th, or 5th century CE!  Most Ren mythers are completely unaware that we have whole literary movements that are mentioned briefly by later writers of which we have no surviving examples…not even from the sands of Egypt!  Of course the mythers do not wish to compare those periods that are dry and have little to recommend them in terms of drama or literature.  A truth of history is simply that there are periods where a great deal of creative art is produced, and periods where that isn't true, and periods that are consolidators, and periods that pushing the traditional boundaries.  Comparing the Germanic successor states to fifth century Athens in drama and then finding the former wanting in comparison to the "Classical Age" is fallacious.  If one wants to compare the Germanic successor states' literature and art to the Roman Empire of the 3rd or the 4th centuries, that's fine, let's do that.  The Successor States may still be wanting (we'll see), but at least the playing field will be equal.  

The second major problem is that the Ren mythers do not seem aware of what remains and what doesn't.  Those great playwrights of Athens wrote dozens of plays, Aeschylus if I remember correctly wrote more than 80.  We also know, for example, that at the Dionysian festival where the plays were performed, that each playwright submitted four plays, three tragedies and a satyr play.  Of Aeschylus' 80 tragedies, we have 7.  And the same is true of the other dramatists: they all wrote dozens of plays, and very few survive.  And we have no examples of the satyr play!  At all!  I mentioned above that we have whole movements of literature and drama for which nothing survives.  One example of this is Athenian Middle Comedy…not a play survives.  

Now it might be tempting for Ren mythers and others to say, "Well they don't survive because of those Germanic Successor States!  The Germans came in, Rome fell, and so much was lost."  False.  Quite apart from what the Germans supposedly destroyed in establishing their kingdoms, the most important thing to note is how much was lost *DURING THE ROMAN EMPIRE.*  or even before.  The case of Aristotle's public works is a case in point: his "exoteric" works were already lost by the time of the Alexandrian library!  His works published for the public are unknown, not even their titles come down to us.  They're gone!  One essential fact that mythers overlook is that if the people of antiquity were not interested or did not value a text, it died.  And as mentioned about drama above, we have no copies for hundreds of plays written by the great names that come down to us much less the plays of their contemporaries.  And the reason is because the folk at the time had no interest in preserving them!  And that has nothing to do with the transformation of the empire into the successor states of the Middle Ages.  All this to say that when Ren mythers are talking about the rosebuds that survive, we cannot let them forget that those rosebuds came from rosebushes, or in other words, that the loss of great texts and literature was not the result of the Middle Ages, but of Classical Antiquity, the very source of great literature that they wish to praise so highly.  

And speaking of preservation, the Germanic societies entering the Roman Empire and setting up shop were still an oral culture and slowly made the transition to a written-oral culture.  That is, while writing came to be essential, orality never disappeared, nor significantly decreased.  But on entering the historical period and the empire, they were oral.  If what does survive from later periods reflects the historical situation, scops and skalds, the oral poets, were highly valued.  And we have the word "players" in Germanic languages; we're not sure what "players" did but we are told in more than one text that they "played" before such and such a king.  So there are clearly performances, perhaps even of a dramatic kind.  That they are not recorded should not be taken as an indication that they did not exist, and no judgement can be made of their quality.

Oh, and lest we forget, so many of those important texts Ren mythers are on about that the early medieval period inherited from the Late Antique period they faithfully copied.  And read.  And studied.  And commented on.  They absorbed the knowledge of the past, at least what was passed on to them, and preserved it.  Over the centuries, other materials that had been lost or misplaced were recovered….whether through a library discovery or through trade or through contact with the Muslim kingdoms…and these too were then copied, read, studied, commented on, and absorbed.  My point is though, that without those "dark ages", there could have been no Renaissance.

Finally, and I make this point often against Ren mythers, there was never a lack of interest in the classics and the classical period throughout the Medieval Age.   By definition the so-called Renaissance is the "rebirth" of interest in the knowledge of the Classical Age.  But that's silly.  The Medieval Age was very interested in the classical age, read classical texts, preserved classical texts, absorbed classical knowledge and then built on that knowledge.  Yes, there were some things the Renaissance *EMPHASIZED* that the Medieval period did not, but that's not the same thing as saying that interest was "reborn."  In short, even using the term Renaissance is simply a historical lie.  

So there you have it.  Making claims that the early Medieval period didn't produce greats like Sophocles and Aeschylus and must be wanting in some way is false on its face  If you wish to compare the literature of fifth century Visiogothic kingdom with fifth century Athens, well, that's one thing (though why one would is another question), but if we wish to assess what is going in the Middle Ages we first have to compare to what came immediately before.  And doing that will show some striking similarities. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

There Were No European Dark Ages!

A number of years ago on this blog, I promised a series of posts that would deal with the notion of the "dark ages."  That term is so wrong, so misused...and yet, I continue to encounter it over and over again even by professionals in the Humanities in adjacent fields.  Over the last couple years on forums that have grown up such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn as well as the old fashioned but still living Usenet groups, I've traded comments and debates on the issue.  I thought it was high time I took some of those posts and made them into long promised blog posts.  So here goes.

18 months or so ago, I had a discussion on one of these boards with an intelligent fellow who asked the following question:  "Some say the “dark ages” in Western Europe are directly related to the lack of paper and difficulties to keep track of administrative, legal and commercial activities. Is it a valid argument and what sources infirm/confirm this point of view?"  Now most folk interested in the field will recognize that this question is inspired by the Pirenne thesis, which boiled down to its oversimplified essence is that the Roman Empire continued unabated until rise of the Muslim armies and state in the 7th century.  

In the discussion several of those who responded to the question challenged the underlying assumptions of the question.  And that's where my comments started as well:

"...I will begin with questioning the premises. The question assumes that there are such a thing as the "dark ages" defined later in the thread rather broadly (600-1300); the question further assumes that there was an "inability" to keep track of administrative and economic details....which is poppycock and a display of ignorance. We actually have large amounts of material from all kinds of sources that track this kind of information, (depending on place and period.  700 years after all is longer than the Empire's life, so not surprisingly, some places and times we have more information than at others for a number of reasons).  Another assumption in the thread is that learning to write was practiced on papyrus. Papyrus in the ancient world wasn't a cheap product, the sources of papyrus were few, so while available, it certainly wasn't wasted on teaching students to write. (Later edit: This statement of mine isn't entirely true: we do have examples from antiquity of pen trials and student exercises on papyrus, especially from Egypt.  Nothing like practicing their letters [learning the ABCs as it were]). They used wax tablets: small pieces of wood slightly hollowed out and the hollow filled with wax...reusable and does not waste precious resources. Literacy is hard and near impossible to measure since what the ancient and medieval mind meant by literacy was the ability to read Latin (and Greek in the Empire), not the ability to read vernaculars. So when they speak about so and so being illiterate or that class of people being illiterate, they mean that they don't read Latin, not that they don't read or write. Many, particularly in the High Middle Ages and after, had functional literacy in their native tongues to carry on commerce. There is also a typical but erroneous assumption of the "collapse" of Roman culture. But I can only stress that there are some very important and serious unhistorical assumptions that lay behind the question and subsequent discussion."

For whatever reason, my comments were not well-received, though I said little different than other posters in the thread.  `In any case, my next contribution to the thread had this to say:

"Let's turn now to some of the more specific historical issues you raise. Let's start with the “Dark Ages”: According to you this is a commonly agreed upon term for the period 600-1300. Once upon a time long ago this was the the middle 19th century, and then really only among certain audiences. It was never used much among non-Anglo scholars. Writing over a century ago, W. P. Ker in his “The Dark Ages” on the very first page speaks of the change in the 19th century restricting the use of the “dark ages” to the period from already a century ago the term was dropped and restricted to a much narrower period. Over the course of the 20th century, especially since WWII, the term has been utterly rejected for that use too....restricted among British and American scholars now to the period 400-600 IN ENGLAND!!! Naturally you don't believe me, so how about you check some very basic tools like the Encyclopedia Britannica under “dark ages” where you'll discover a statement that says that the term is rejected by scholars. Or you could check out the newish Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Jordan, Chester(2004).Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Supplement 1. Verdun, Kathleen, "Medievalism" pp. 389–397. Sections 'Victorian Medievalism', 'Nineteenth-Century Europe', 'Medievalism in America 1500–1900', 'The 20th Century'. Same volume, Freedman, Paul, "Medieval Studies", pp. 383–389. In point of fact, the term exists only in English; our colleagues in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia have not been plagued with the term (our colleagues here ;may want to chime in for Eastern European and Russian historiography). They use, and have used “early middle ages”. If you really want to learn about it, I recommend an article by Janet Nelson History Workshop Journal, No. 63 (Spring, 2007), pp. 191-201 titled The Dark Ages. So no, the Dark Ages doesn't cover the period 600-1300, it isn't used by 21st century scholars except by a very limited number speaking of a very limited period, so called for different reasons than those you have given, and even that is changing for very important reasons. 

But you go on to claim that this “dark ages”, which we will now define as the Early Middle Ages (and really the period 600-1300 covers the Early and High Middle Ages) as a political, economic, and cultural black hole. While delightfully colorful and effectively pejorative, one wonders on what grounds one can describe a vibrant period as a “black hole.” Politically, not sure what the issue is there: there were powerful political entities, there was the rise of nationalism, there was every bit as much palace intrigue and violence as anything in the emperor's palace during the Roman empire, there was medieval political philosophy and that continues to affect how we think politically as much as the Greco-Roman inheritance does, constitutional movements have their roots in this period, notions of individual freedom, equality, political power of the people ...and more. It seems to me that a “political black hole” would be one in which there were no political structures and systems...but that doesn't describe the medieval at all. Likewise this supposed “black hole” of an economy produced wealth...this after all is the time of the Staffordshire Hoard, and other hoards, treasures from the Byzantium, from India are not uncommonly found, spices from the far East, taxes and taxation, tolls on trade, the commercial revolution, the rise of the middle class, the transition from Roman manorialism to a market economy, the emergence of the single family farm, and I've just touched the surface. Culture? You jest, I hope. But in case not, universities, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, fantastic literature including poetry and prose, philosophy, science, technological innovations, the visual arts, music and musical notation, architecture, drama....everywhere we look we find a vibrant, living, full culture. No, I'm afraid anyone saying that the period is a cultural black hole just hasn't bothered to look. This is a popular misconception that we medievalists seek to rectify: to have this easily disprovable misconception bandied about as fact in a dedicated group of professional medievalists is frustrating in the extreme.

Next you speak on the topic of illiteracy responding to my comment to your question. Originally, this topic came up because of a statement Dariusz made regarding literacy. So let's begin where we need to: the Roman Empire. There's this misperception that literacy was widespread during Roman times. Of course, what the Romans meant by literacy was the ability to read Greek and Latin; any kind of literacy in a native language didn't count, so the ability to read hieroglyphs, Hebrew, Aramaic, Celtic languages, and so on need not apply. So it again is difficult to ascertain who and how many could read. But the estimates based on the evidence indicate 7-10% of the Empire's population could read. The percentage among certain subgroups might have been higher, such as the military where being able to read was a necessity. Everyone else employed professional scribes to read and write for them, or didn't do it at all. Literacy was for the elite and the slaves the elite employed as scribes, and some priests. 

So when we move into the medieval period, why the disparagement when approximately 7-10% of the population could read Latin? During the fifth and sixth centuries, Roman education continued as witnessed by some fine Latin writers (and here I speak of the West); the seventh century was a century of transition wherein the Roman system was fully absorbed into the Christian monastic system which grew up alongside and imitated the Roman system. While it is true that monastic schools were the source of education in the early part of the period, the issues of “church control” are just silly. The king appointed abbots, bishops and other church leaders in their realms. As such, the King controlled education. Some kings had an interest in education and promoting it, some didn't...but that was more than most emperors of Rome gave to thinking about education in the empire. The interesting contrast about Rome and the medieval kingdoms is that in Rome education was only for the elites. In the medieval period, those in the church came from all sectors of society and learned to read. While the idea of “literacy” still referred to the ability to read Latin, everywhere we see that these monastic schools also wrote the vernacular languages and we have evidence that literacy in the vernacular was more, not everyone, but more widespread than Latin literacy. On this measure, by the time we get to the High Middle Ages, literacy (here referring to the ability to read) 1100-1300 is more widespread than in the Roman Empire. In case of doubt, as I'm certain there will be, I will be more than happy to supply plenty of bibliography both about literacy in the Roman world and in the Medieval. Just ask. 

A common mistake when reading on this subject is to confuse writing and literacy. Reading and Writing are different skills and were taught differently. Lack of writing does not mean lack of reading skill, though often (but not always) the inverse is true. 

Moving on, your next point is to try and say about papyrus. I said, in contrast to your statement about papyrus being necessary to learn to write, that a) in fact papyrus was expensive and not a commodity to be used to teach children how to write and b) that they used wax tablets for such things. We've seen that your quotes don't quite fit the bill, as a response. Do read Diringer though, a 50 year old book, but still standard reading in History of the Book. Fact is, though cheap to produce, shipping it all across the empire was not cheap, and being an import, subject to taxes, and of course the Empire took it over as a government monopoly. One third century usurper of the throne bragged that he could fund the entire empire on the profits the government made on the papyrus industry. There wasn't the equivalent of the big red tablet with big lines that we moderns took to class in our youth to learn those letters. As I shared before, they used wax tablets, not clay as you averred. 

They also used parchment. Less popular than papyrus during the Roman period, but still used for notes, records, inventories and the like. Quoting Diringer, “Among the Romans parchment was extensively used....” In fact, one use is as notebooks, competing with wax tablets in popularity, where um, students would practice their letters. Which means, when papyrus stops being used in the West, parchment and wax tablets have already been used to teach writing (not how to read, since that is a different skill altogether).. In other words, the very basis of your question, the absence of papyrus causing some kind of interruption in communication because, as you put it, “ how the disappearing of "paper-made" material impeded the transfer of communication and created this massive regression in social and economical development in Western Europe.” Yet we find already a widely available, widely used, common substance used throughout the empire, and by the time you are speaking of, 600, the most common writing material in the West: parchment. Where Pirenne is wrong, and many over the last 70 years have pointed this out, is that he didn't really look at the already widespread use of parchment and scriptoria in Late Antique and early medieval Gaul.  You turn next to ask: “Where are the warehouses that stored 5-some generation of land transactions, deeds and all other administrative records from Massilia to Treves?” That might seem to be a trump question. But first, where are such administrative records for the Roman period? The warehouses covering 5 generations? They don't exist. Depending on the period (700 years is longer than Rome occupied Gaul in the first place!) there are documentary evidences that remain that tell us quite a lot. The point I was making however is contrary to your original claim which had nothing to do with warehouses of records for particular locales. Your original post claimed that there were “difficulties to keep track of administrative, legal and commercial activities” due to a lack of papyrus. Yet, this isn't true. They had other writing materials, chiefly parchment, and during that long period you discuss kept records just fine, sent messages, communicated over long distances, wrote letters, etc. 

You next turn to my comment about Roman culture not collapsing. You cited something about political structures, which is a little problematic. But the point is that culture didn't collapse. Certainly, as Dariusz points out, there is a transition, but this transition takes centuries; Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries and into the seventh we hear of theater, games, literature on the Roman model etc etc, the funding of public good and works by the wealthy (those left standing). Perhaps not as often as had once been the case, but they survived the initial onslaught. 

But though transforming from Roman into Medieval, this doesn't mean that Roman culture “collapsed” (remember a collapse is a sudden, catastrophic failure, not a centuries long transformation from one kind of culture to another kind of culture). Throughout the period you have demarcated, there is great art, literature and poetry, philosophy, etc. Because they aren't Roman doesn't mean that it isn't culture, isn't fantastic, beautiful culture deserving of our appreciation every bit as much as Classical civilization does. ;

I am hoping by now that you are beginning to see the difficulties inherent in your question: there is no substantiation for the “some say” (though we'll explore that momentarily), the “dark ages” is not a term that is commonly agreed on for anything, not even in its most limited definition to the 5th-6th century in Great Britain (many of us who work in the period reject the term there too, meaning it isn't commonly agreed); 
while papyrus was not often used, that was a choice a) they could have imported from the Arabs as they did many other products and b) they had many other writing materials, especially parchment, On this parchment medieval societies composed and copied literature, brought together their knowledge in encyclopediae, wrote down their laws, kept track of their administrative, legal and commercial activities. 

In your explanation of what you're after in your second post, you described the period 600-1300 as being a “massive regression”. Now if we look over a 700 year period, we're going to find periods of economic downturn, and periods of economic success. If we compare to a similar 700 year period in the Roman Empire in the West....oh wait, it didn't last 700 years in the West. Ok, so let's look at the Roman Empire in the West....where we find periods of a roaring economy fueled by expansion and periods of a shrinking fact, the latter outstrips the former: looking at Britain for example which isn't part of the Roman empire until 43 CE, and done by 410, less than 4 centuries. Of those 4 centuries, it took nearly a century to Romanize and stabilize, so we're well into the second century by that point. By the last third of the third century though we see a trend in Britain of ruralization, depopulation, the change of croplands into pasture lands and other signs of economic depression that accelerate throughout the third and fourth centuries into the fifth and sixth. Its the period 600 and onwards that we begin to see recovery there, and by 700 in the full swing of what is mistakenly called the Northumbrian Renaissance, which isn't really a Renaissance but a whole new fusion and creation.

Let me turn to what I think is likely to lie behind your question. I think you recently read Henri Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne. Of course, your question has misunderstood Pirenne who argued that what disrupted communication was the Mslim invasions and kingdoms, not the loss of papyrus, this latter being a symptom rather than a cause of it. Further, Pirenne's thesis doesn't try to cover 700 years but rather a fairly narrow slice. Your question seems to be taking off from this foundation but in a way that distorts badly that very foundation.

This post was not well-received by the chap asking the question either.  But the next exchange will have to wait for another day or days.  And while my responses are meant to be broad sweeps covering the period the original poster outlined, 600-1300, if we took a narrower slice such as the 5th century, much would admittedly need to be adjusted.  And in future posts, they will be adjusted, because I think we need to discuss that period more fully.  But for now....there's this.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Who Read Bede?

The following is my paper from this past Congress, warts and all including the unifinished ending.  It is an exercise in data mining that is producing some interesting results and will result in something of a study.  Without further preamble, here it is:

            As someone interested in source criticism, one can only be pleased at the renewed interest in Bede.  Sourcing those texts is an ongoing process.  But while much has been done in detailing and rebuilding Bede’s sources and library for his various texts, as well as noting where he was going beyond his sources, it occurred to me as a matter of curiosity to ask who in Anglo-Saxon England read Bede.  Or to put this another way, who in Anglo-Saxon England is using Bede as a source. 
            We are accustomed to think of Bede as a seminal figure not only in Anglo-Saxon England, but as a primary author for the whole of the medieval period with mentions in Biblical commentaries, in the Glossa Ordinaria, in Dante’s Paradiso, and other references and citations.  His influence on the continent beginning with Boniface and then the Carolingians and beyond is well established, but Bede among his contemporaries and own people is less so well established.  These questions three I wanted to explore and answer: who is reading Bede measured and charted chronologically, what are they reading, and where are they reading, that is, the what and who both charted geographically to see what if anything that tells us about reading Bede in Anglo-Saxon England. 
            Of course, a careful listener will have already caught out the problems in addressing these questions, one medieval problem and one modern one.  The medieval problem is the question of survival: both in terms of Bede’s own works as well the survival of potential readers’ works; too often we simply don’t know what we have lost, and in some cases what we might yet find,  and this fact impairs any conclusions we might wish to draw.  Thus, manuscripts may have disappeared through just natural decay, lack of care, during raids, wars, or even the Dissolution of Monasteries or other events that threaten manuscript survival.  So manuscripts of Bede, copies of Bede’s readers’ works, all may have disappeared without a trace in the historical record.  Or they may never have existed.  We don’t know.  We can only see through the glass darkly, and sometimes not at all. 
The modern problem relates to the nature of source criticism: identifying usage of Bede as a source is only as good as the source critic, and should that critic not be up to snuff, that too certainly skews the results, or if a work has not yet been sourced or studied from a source critical perspective, or even has been done well but something missed.  So any project of this source depends to a great deal on an ever changing source critical state of the field in Bedan studies.   Thus, even when this project is complete, and it is still in process, the results can ever only be preliminary: the next critic may find additional citations, or a new manuscript and text found, or worst case scenario, that which is lost to us now is lost forever.  But, in spite of the “futility” of ever coming to firm conclusions, I press heroically, or perhaps fatalistically, onward.
            The method is fairly simple and straightforward.  For citations and references to Bede, I consult and use a combination of my own reading, poring over editions of Bede’s works, articles on Bede from source critics, and the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici web site and Sources Of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture, particularly the work of George Brown on Bede for the latter.  Beyond these tools, I consult manuscript catalogs, chart origin and provenance where those can be known, so Gneuss’ Handlist, Ker’s catalogue of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and every other manuscript catalog looking not only where the manuscripts are, but also examine the manuscripts themselves for signs of reader’s use such as glossing and other tracks past readers left behind for me to follow. 
            One of the surprises for me was what Bedean work in ASE is the most read.  I have been telling my students for years a little truism that I learned: while for us moderns the first Bede text we encounter and the most important is the Historia, that isn’t true for the medieval period.  I tell them that Bede was better known then as a biblical commentator and it is for his commentaries that he is best known.  This truism I can no longer maintain.   The plain fact of the matter is that the most quoted and cited and even influential work of Bede’s in the period is the Historia.  Now, some in my audience might be thinking, Swain, of course, if you’re just counting citations, the Old English Bede is obviously going to skew the total.  Silly Swain.  And of course those thinking that would be absolutely correct.  But even treating the OE Bede as a unit rather than a large collection of Bede citations, by a clear margin the Historia Ecclesiastica is the most referred to work from Bede’s desk by Anglo-Saxon writers. 
            The uses to which the Historia is put are also interesting.  Some are unexpected: the Historia is used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, particularly version E as an immediate source, and to a lesser extent as an immediate historical source in Asser’s Vita Alfredi, and a few other places beyond the Old English Bede.  But the interesting, at least to me, uses are the number of texts that use sections of the Historia to construct a “saint’s life” or combine material from the Historia with other material in the construction of the same.  Examples of this procedure include Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, the Old English homily on the life of St. Chad, the Old English Martyrology, and similar texts.  Often Bede is the chief if not the only source in England about these figures and so his text becomes the basis for a sermon or vita with little change.  Our two other readers today will examine two such texts, so I won’t go any further down this path. 
            Turning to manuscript survivals, the Historia survives in almost twice as many manuscripts as any of Bede’s other works: 21 manuscripts contain all or some portion of the HE, surviving from dates as early as the mid 8th century all the way through to the end of the 11th, though the majority are from the 10th and 11th  centuries.  The texts whose survival comes closest to this record are De temporum ratione and the verse Vita Sancti Cuthberti.  Both the latter survive in 11 manuscript copies ranging in date from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 12th.  The Old English translation of the Historia survives in six Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, so if we add those to the Latin, 27 copies of that one text.  The unmistakable conclusion which rather surprised me given that I’ve taught that Bede is more important as a biblical commentator is that Bede’s history is in fact if not in perception a far more important text in Anglo-Saxon England that it has been given credit for. 
            If we treat them as a collection, Bede’s Homilies come in the next place as the most cited and read of Bede’s texts.  Interestingly though, citation of these texts is limited to a few authors.  The chief author is Aelfric who often throughout Lives, Catholic Homilies, and the so-called Supplemental homilies will “reckon” into English one of Bede’s homilies or a part of one and then add some additional material from elsewhere.  Some homilies appear cited elsewhere: Bede’s homily on the Nativity in Book 1, #3 shows up in the first Blickling homily on the Nativity as well as in the gospel of Ps. Matthew.  Without question though, in spite of the smattering of citations such as the one just sampled, Aelfric is the author who seems to have read and used the homilies in ASE. 
            The homilies on the gospels also only survive in two manuscripts from the period.  Both come from the Benedictine Reform, the late tenth possibly early 11th centuries and from Glastonbury and Abingdon.  So if we put together the fact that it is largely Aelfric who uses the homilies in his own collection, and that the two surviving manuscripts come from Reform centers where Aethelwold’s name would be important, it suggests that Bede’s homilies were part of the Reform’s rediscovery of Bede and little read otherwise.  From here they spread to be cited by the contemporaneous Blickling and Vercelli homilists (once each so far as I can find), the Ev. Ps. Matthew (late 10th), and a few other 11th century homilies.  The only fly in that ointment is Cynewulf Christ II about whom so little is known in terms of debated date and provenance: he cites Bede twice, the first being homiliy 2.15, the second I hope to come back to. But if we say he is ninth century, he at least knows this homily and another of Bede’s works, whatever his provenance may have been.
            Surprisingly, given again the above mentioned truism about Bede’s importance to the middle ages as a Biblical commentator, there is only one author who actually quotes from or refers to several of Bede’s commentaries: Aelfric of Eynsham.  This author refers to the commentaries on Canticles, Luke, Mark, and if we include the Bede’s works on time and the temple as Biblical explication, to both of these works as well.  Aelfric is in fact the only author to refer to the commentary on Mark, though several others also refer to the Lucan commentary, particularly the Vercelli homilist who cites that work more than three times.  Quotations from Luke also show up in the Old English Exodus poem, the old English Gospel of PS. Matthew, so whomever that translator may have been, he was not shy about including references to other material.  One surprising place that seemingly cites the commentary on Luke is a Charter, Sawyer 742, a gift of land from King Edgar to his wife Aelfthryth in 966.  However, this quote illustrates one of the problems of source criticism that I mentioned above.  The phrase in question is ideo debemus excutere mentis nostre desidiam ut etiam exteriora nostra dampna per similitudinem non deducantur—therefore ought we to shake our minds of idleness, so that our exterior stuff does not lead astray through similarity.  It is true this line does occur in Bede’s commentary on Luke, but it also occurs in Bede’s source, Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Gospel on Luke; between Bede and the charter it is cited by at least one important Carolingian whose works were present and read in 10th century England, Smaragdus.  Thus, the question is, when the charter cites the line, is it cited from Gregory, Smaragdus, or Bede and do we have any mechanism to tell?  Since the charter writer did not leave any clues, attributing this citation to Bede is problematic: nor is this the only such citation often attributed to Bede that Bede is actually deriving from his own reading. 
            A related difficulty with determining readers of Bede’s homilies and commentaries is that they were anthologized, particulary in the homiletic collection of Peter the Deacon.  That Carolingian collection proved to be extremely popular and long lived.  So, for example, in one of Aelfric’s sermons that depends on Bede, it has been shown by Smetana that Aelfric there is using the homiletic collection rather than a copy of Bede’s homilies.  But to make matters even more complex, Joyce Hill has convincingly argued that not all of Aelfric’s sermons from Bede are solely dependent on the Carolingian collection, but that Aelfric also knows a copy of the homilies.  So in any particular case of citation of the homilies or the commentaries of Mark and Luke, somehow, if possible, a methodology should be developed to differentiate between use of the homiletic anthology and actual knowledge of Bede’s own writings.  The problem is akin to someone who quotes a lot of Shakespeare, but all the quotations come from what is included in the Oxford Book of Poetry.  So does our Shakespeare quoter know Shakespeare or should we say instead that he knows the Oxford Book of Poetry?  The same issue pertains to Peter the Deacon’s collection: when an author is seemingly citing Bede is that author citing Bede or citing Bede’s work as included in the collection, and if the latter, is that then a “reader of Bede”?  Good question, and I have no definite answer.
            A related issue occurs especially with the homilies but also with other works.  Bede, as is well known, often cites previous authorities, like Gregory the Great for example.  So in the example related a few moments ago with the charter writer citing a line of homily that is transmitted from Gregory to Bede to Smaragdus, how do we determine if reading Bede was involved.  This issue is further complicated by the fact that Smaragdus often is reading Bede, but when he cites Bede citing someone else, he cuts out the middle man: that is to say, if he is quoting a line that Bede says comes from Gregory, then Smaragdus says it comes from Gregory even if he is reading Bede to do so.  We know this for example because the form of Smaragdus’ quote matches how it appears in Bede contrasted to the slightly different forms the quotation will have in Gregory’s actual work.  So when Smaragdus or another author makes Bede a silent intermediary, we must be triply careful in uncovering that fact and giving correct attribution.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Something HELish

So. I've thought for years I ought to do something about the History of English Language book choices out there, frustrating as they all are and far too expensive. But I haven't. Then after discussions earlier this year with Mary Kate Hurley and Nicole Discenza and others on this and related HEL matters, I really though I ought to do something about it. Finally, at SEMA last weekend during the HEL roundtable I volunteered. So under the auspices of the Heroic Age journal (because my co-editor has her own dedicated server), we're opening and developing an open source History of the English Language textbook and workbook. So if you have materials written, exercises composed, homepages constructed, links, etc and you are willing to share them with other HEL instructors, send them to me at and me and my minions will begin organizing and constructing an open source, web-accessible text book out of our collective materials.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Carnivalesque: At last, sort of.

Well, tardy, overdue, and underdone, but the Carnivalesque is below.  More to come!

Hello and welcome to the slightly tardy Carnivalesque, Pre-Modern Edition. Honestly, I miss the old days where we had enough posts to fill an ancient and medieval and renaissance carnivalesques! Ah, the nostalgia.....

So, here we are. Before starting, I'd like to give a shout out to three blogs that keep us all up to date on all kinds of field related news. First, David Meadows and his Rogueclassicism ( keep us up on Classics in the News, Classics news, and other materials from the ancient Mediterranean world. David also sends out a weekly email newsletter of news related to Archaeology and so on called Explorator.

Second, covering things Medieval, operated by Peter Konieczny and Sandra Sadowski, who consistently update us on medievalism, medieval news, articles old and new, and a host of other related things (and they do other blogs too!).

Third is Jim Davila's Palaeojudaica ( ) that purports to be a simple blog about ancient Judaism and its context, but in reality covers the news and issues on a much broader canvas.

Now that the kudos are done, let's take a look at what the blogosphere has been up to of late. Starting in the ancient world, let me start with Judith Weingarten writing at Zenobia, Empress of the East; in a two part post on graffiti in Dura Europos, ( )a city of never-ending fascination and interest, (and I learned a new adjective, Durene, which of course describes things from Dura Europos). Nor is Zenobia's the only one....she references 3 recent studies on Durene graffiti.

Over at concocting history, we have an interesting post about breast feeding; while the focus is on modern research, a good bit is on the ancients and what they knew about the health beneifts of breast feeding. Galen, Hippocratic treatises, and Dioscorides make appearances in the discussion ( ).

Friend of this blog Curt Emanuel over at Medieval History Geek has been blogging an occasional series of posts on his reading in Early Christianity. I encourage readers to go on the journey with him, even if not particularly religious. His observations are interesting and perceptive. The journey begins here:

Mary Beard's “A Don's Life” is a wide ranging blog by a world-renowned classicist. Though always interesting, Dr. Beard does restrict herself to commentary on matters classical often enough. In this Carnivelesque I'd like to highlight her post on the ancient Pompeians, were they just like us? Read it here:

A little further in time is Professor Grumpy at Historian on the Edge (aka Guy Halsall I believe). Halsall has been doing quite a bit of thinking about notions of the “state” in late antiquity over the last couple years. Earlier this month he shared a pre-circulated version of a paper he recently delivered on The Crisis of the State ( ), perfectly timed at least for those USA readers whose own state is undergoing a shocking crisis at the moment. If I've understood him aright, and I may not have, he suggests that to ask the question of whether something in late antiquity is or is not a state distracts and detracts from other key questions and issues. See if I'm right and give it a read.

With Grumpy tipping us over the edge, we can enter into a review of the good Medieval posts of the last several weeks. Let me start by pointing to “theculturegirl” who gives us an excellent post on “How Medieval Monasteries Made Money”, a title with enough alliteration to attract a poet ( ). She gives us a nice overview of the issue, and I am both happy and ashamed to learn the word and the practice of “multure.”

The Lost Fort weighs in with three posts I'd like to highlight. Just returned from a trip, our blogger shares some pictures of the castles visited on said trip in a two part post. The photo essay is fascinating and the pictures are good quality. Last month before the trip I was educated on the Imperial Palatine Seat Tilleda-Fortifications, a medieval fort that I'd not known about previously. Good photos, interesting post, and I learned a thing or two. ( )

The British Library blog asks the questions “What Did Medieval Kings Look Like” ( ) and gives us a number of kingly images mostly from BL Royal MS 20 A II, the newest upload to the BL's Digitized Manuscripts. Beautiful images, interesting description of the contents and history, this is a one of the good posts of the last month.

Vikings! Everyone loves Vikings! Viqueen over at Norse and Viking Ramblings offers a post
on Norse Vágar in the Lofoten Islands. The post covers some history, some ramblings about stockfish, and other items of interest.

Tim Clarkson over at the Senchus blog gives us an examination of the Battle of Dun Nechtain, 658 ( ). One of the more well-known battles in the early medieval period, the Picts defeat of the Northumbrians and the death of Ecgfrith and a good portion of his army in the process, this one stands as a game-changing event at least for Northern England and Scotland.

The Contagions blog gives us confirmation of yersinia pestis, the bug responsible for the Justinian Plague and the Black Plague, as responsible for plague in 6th century Bavaria. Near Munich, a cemetary containing some 483 graves was independently studied by 2 labs, and then there was a lot of science over my head. But those intelligent enough to follow should head over to and have a read.

No fewer than three of Steve Muhlberger's posts have been nominated from his Muhlberger's World History blogs. In the first, Steve ponders the notion that men-at-arms were hostile to archers and crossbowman. He reflects on a story in the Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon that confirms the notion. 

First Update:
In addition, Steve announced that some of the Freelance Academy Press and La Belle Companie reenactments at Kalamazoo were recorded and are available. Check them from his post:

Finally, Steve makes a point about the Crusades by pointing to something that modernism in contrast to Medievalism? In any case, Steve reacts to those who fail to understand the Crusades since religious wars seem to be so distant from Jesus' statements about peace and love. Steve's rejoinder points to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a more recent example of Christian drum-beating....and this against a Christian foe! See it all here:

The Incuncabula Project Blog at Cambridge University Library brings us a discussion of the four copies of the Ninth German Bible of 1483. The post gives the origin and provenance of the four copies, including a couple of intriguing puzzles. Learn all about it (and see the photos) at: .

The blog unifinity gives us a couple of interesting posts on things from the Far East. First up is an interesting post, though a little late perhaps for inclusion here, but where the hay, on the Taiping Rebellion. What's that you say? You know, the “Jesus' Other Brother” one:

But back to the medieval, Unifiniti also gives us a post on the Mongol invasions, Best in fact is the nice map that reveals the growth and break-up of the Mongol empire from 1206-94.

Turning to the modern period, Katherine Butler of the Early Modern English Music blog gives us a post reviewing Crisis, Creativity and the Self 1550-1700, a one day conference of musicians and literary scholars discussing notions of the self in the period. There's assessment of papers, of particular ideas, and if you like what you read, papers were recorded and a podcast is available:

Early Modern Thought Online gives us a blog entry on Defining Philosophy in Early Modern Germany ( ). Melancthon seems to be the central figure since the authors/philosophers who are talked about in the post all encountered him and were taught by him in the mid 16th century. Interestingly at the height of the Reformation, thinkers could agree on something: The first interesting aspect to note is that in the middle of the 16th century, the definition of philosophy as cognition of Divine and human things was acceptable across confessional boundaries....” So something good in the 1500s anyway.

The many-headed monster blog (because hydra is too specific) gives an interesting study of the science of astrology in early modern Europe. The use of astrology was widespread and governed everything from health to when to mow the hedge. Fascinating stuff.

David Rundle gives us some aspects of palaeography reviewing an inaugural lecture given by Daniel Wakelin on the care with which a scribe took to form words. This frankly is one talk I do wish had been recorded for podcast.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Carnivalesque will hopefully be up on the morrow (June 9).  Thanks for the nominations and the patience!

Friday, May 31, 2013


Hey ho,
The next Carnivalesque covering ancient, medieval, and early modern "history" (and I'm just sayin', I'll take anything in the periods) will be hosted by me right here on The Ruminate.  So if in the last 6 weeks or so you've read, or written, a post you like quite a bit, send it on to me to include in the Carnivalesque.  Email or include in the comments.