Thursday, March 17, 2016


An attempt at a Lorica prayer in honor of St. Paddy...and a nod to St Gerty.

I bind to myself today the wholeness of being

I bind to myself today the giggles of small children
I bind to myself today the hug of one loved
I bind to myself today the bonds of friendship

I bind to myself today the whisper of wind in the trees
I bind to myself today the gurgle of the mountain brook
I bind to myself today rustling of prairie grasses

I bind to myself today the never sleeping sounds of the city
I bind to myself today the smells of the sidewalk vendor
I bind to myself today the crush of millions in community

I bind to myself today the welcoming bark
I bind to myself today the purr of the cat
I bind to myself today the rustle of book leaves

I bind to myself today the bugle of the elk
I bind to myself today the growl of the bear
I bind to myself today the bark of the prairie dog

I bind to myself today the roar of the jet engine
I bind to myself today the air braking bus
I bind to myself today the wind in Skyscraper Canyon

I bind to myself today the sizzle of the frying pan
I bind to myself today the chop of vegetables
I bind to myself today the consumptive crunch

I bind to myself today the icy slush of freezing lakes
I bind to myself today the creaking of thawing ice
I bind to myself today the rush of the freed flood

I bind to myself today the buzz of electric wires
I bind to myself today the quiet of reading
I bind to myself today soft candle light

I bind to myself today the stars of the night
I bind to myself today the stoic cathedral trees
I bind to myself today the grazing fawn at night

I bind to myself today the twinkling town lights
I bind to myself today the lights in darkness
I bind to myself today the smile on her lips

I bind to myself today the wholeness of being hale. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tenure Tales

If anyone is interested in my tenure narrative....a month in the making, 45 pages long and may be viewed here:

Monday, December 14, 2015

Dear Colleagues,

Most of you need no introduction to the splendid work of the Dictionary of Old English and its importance to the work of Anglo-Saxonists worldwide. I am writing on behalf of the Dictionary to enlist your aid.

At the end of 2013, the DOE was awarded a five-year, $500,000 Challenge Grant from the Triangle Family Foundation of Raleigh, North Carolina. To release each annual installment of the grant, the Dictionary must secure new matching funds from other sources. So far two $100,000 installments have been matched and released, but the editorial team is concerned that it will not meet its target to match the third installment by April 1, 2016. In this time of urgency, they have asked me to reach out to people who might be able to support this worthy project.

Such matching means that what you donate now will have maximum impact. Every dollar you give will provide two dollars to the Dictionary; every pound, euro, or yen will be a double gift. Your donation will ensure that the work of the Dictionary continues.

This is a particularly exciting time for the project. The current editorial team -- co-editors Stephen Pelle and Robert Getz and Drafting Editor Val Pakis -- are readying H for publication. This is a large and complex set of entries, many years in the making, and its publication will mark a significant step towards completion of the Dictionary. With the publication of H, the DOE will also make public some significant improvements of its user interface and search functions, as well as the latest updated version of the Corpus of Old English and a fully updated set of entries for A-G. DOE entries are now reciprocally linked to the OED, the MED, and the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies project at the University of Edinburgh. In addition, a number of thumbnail images from Parker on the Web are included to help clarify problematic citations. In these and other ways, the DOE continues to expand its role as a pioneer in the field of digital lexicography and an indispensable resource for scholars in our field.

Your support in the past has done the project an enormous amount of good with granting agencies and foundations and within the University of Toronto itself. You have demonstrated by your generosity that you, who are best able to judge the worth of the DOE because you use it in your research, value it highly. And so we turn to you again. Please help support this important project by giving as generously as you can. Donations can be made online; simply visit 

and fill in the box for ‘Dictionary of Old English’. Donations by check (made out to ‘DOE/University of Toronto’) or credit card can also be sent by mail; a convenient donation form can be downloaded from 

and sent to

Dictionary of Old English
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Toronto, ON M5S 3H1

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Tolkien Class

So this is the summer class on Tolkien I'm teaching.  I hope.  Ulp.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               Bemidji State University
Middle Earth Studies

Faculty: Larry Swain
Office:  HS 333                                                                        email:                                                                Mailbox:  HS 23

Course Description:  J. R. R. Tolkien has been called Author of the Century by one scholar.  Certainly his hobbits have fascinated and captivated millions of readers.  In this course we aim to go beyond a typical reading course and explore the myth making, the medieval template, and related issues in Tolkien’s constructed universe.

Student Learning Outcomes: 
Upon satisfactory completion of the course, students will be able to:
·                    analyze works of literature
·                    compare and contrast the issues of literature with modern life
·                    evaluate interpretations of texts
·                    learn to do close reading as well as historical-critical reading of literary works
·                    to improve and hone analytical thinking skills
·                    have some fun!

Instructor Objectives:
This is a collaborative effort.  As your instructor, I too expect to learn from you in this course:
·        To gain a deeper appreciation of the processes of thinking, reading, writing and researching.
·        To improve my teaching skills and find better methods of communicating to students the processes of thinking, reading and writing
·        To communicate my appreciation of literature to my students
·        To have some fun!

Text and Materials:
Road to Middle Earth Tom Shippey
Splintered Light Verlyn Flieger
Tolkien and the Invention of Myth Jane Chance, ed.
Other Materials as Assigned

Academic Honesty
All work composed for this class must be written exclusively for this class and be your original work. You may receive assistance on your writing, but submitting someone else’s work as your own or failing to acknowledge sources appropriately will be grounds for plagiarism. Evidence of plagiarism will result in failure.   If you have any questions regarding this policy, however, it is your responsibility to see me immediately.

From our Disabilities Office Director:
“I would like to make sure that all the materials, discussions and activities that are part of the course are accessible to you.  If you would like to request accommodations or other services, please contact me as soon as possible.  It is also possible to contact Disability Services, Sanford Hall, 201.  Phone: 218/755-3883 or E-mail address  Also available through the Minnesota Relay Service at 1-800-627-3529.” 
Discussion-Discussion is a must in this course.  There will be plenty of fodder on the discussion board, room for questions and explorations.  25% of the grade.

Research Paper: 25% of the grade

2 Individual Presentations ,  25% total
Final: 25% of the total


June 2: Mythology for England: Letter 131, Chance book, Introduction and first essay, and essay 13
June 3-4: Discussion questions on readings
June 5: Tolkien the Medievalist:  Language Shippey 1-2, Chance, Essay 4; Auden
June 6: Discussion Questions on Readings

June 8: Discussion Questions cont. Lecture: The Languages of Middle Earth and the Middle Ages Reading TBA
June 9: Lecture on Tolkien, Linguistic Jokes and the Jokester/Accidental Etymologies?
June 10: Discussion Questions
June 11: Tolkien’s Beowulf:  Monsters and the Critics  (Rec. Shippey 6 Chance 3
June 12: Discussion Questions
June 13: Tolkien’s Beowulf: Chance book, 14 and 15

June 16: Tolkien’s Beowulf: Template for LoTR?
June 17: Cartography and Geography in LoTR: Shippy ch. 4; T-Maps Lecture;
June 18: Presentation 1 posted
June 19:  Interlace: West article, Miller article (Lobdell); Shippey ch. 5
June 20: Discussion Stuff and Things

June 23: Middle Earth Story Telling  Lecture, Readings: Chance 12/ TBA
June 24: Discussion Questions
June 25: Middle Earth Book Culture and the Middle Ages: Runes, Books, Libraries Lecture
June 27: Discussion Questions

June 29: Middle Earth Calendrics and the Middle Ages Lecture Reading TBA
July 1: Orcs, ents, trolls, and the monsters of Middle Earth  Lecture Reading TBpA
July 2: Discussion Questions
July 3-4, Holiday!!

July 6: Poetry and Prose: Sagas. Readings TBA
July 7: Flieger chap. 1 and discussion board
July 9: On Fairy Stories and Discussion
July 10: Flieger 2-3

July 13: Flieger 4-6
July 14: Discussion
July 15: Flieger 7-8
July 16: Presentation 2 Posted
July 17: Flieger 9-10 and Discussoin

July 20: Flieger 11-13
July 21: Discussion
July 22: Flieger 14-16
July 23: Discussion
July 24: Flieger 17-18

July 27: Flieger 19-Afterward

July 28: Discussion

July 30: Shippey ch. 7, Chance 7

July 31: Shippey 8-end

AUG 1: Paper Due, Take online exam.

Friday, March 13, 2015

ENGL 4183 Intensive Latin Online 2015
Dr. Larry Swain 
Bemidji State University 

 Course Description: This course is an intensive introduction to Latin, covering in nine weeks a full academic year’s worth of the language. This will require a lot of work and dedication on the part of both instructor and student. By the end, however, the student should be able to read Latin prose with the aid of a grammar and a good dictionary or lexicon. There will be a great deal of memorization. Via our online tools, discussion board, online office hours, recorded lectures, live lectures, exercise sharing and corrections, and Q&A sessions delivered via D2L, power point presentations, and other tools, we will go through the entire text and master basic Latin. The course will require a commitment from the student. A MINIMUM of 2 hours and preferably 4-6 hours a day will need to be spent working on the exercises, in class, interacting with the professor etc. Because delivery is online rather than in a traditional classroom, the need for each individual student to apply him- or herself diligently daily is even more important than in a face-to-face class.  We will meet virtually in an online classroom for each lesson to explain the grammar lesson, to do some in class exercises, to correct exercises, and so on, for approximately an hour, more if necessary or if student interest. The rest of your time will be spent working on exercises, translating sample passages of actual Latin, memorizing the forms. 

Texts: Intensive Latin by Floyd Moreland and Rita Fleischer 
Other materials as assigned
(I will have advice about students’ dictionaries, additional grammar aids in print and online and so on as well throughout the course). 
Highly Recommended: English Grammar for Students of Latin: The Study Guide for Those Learning Latin by Norma Goldman and Ladislas Szymanski 

This course is six credits; I think a full year of Latin deserves a full year of credit.  The above URL at the top is the Center for Extended Learning Admissions website.  This URL is for the tuition calculator:  

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Bede's Multiple Textual Communities

The following is the paper I read at this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies.  It is in many ways, the confluence of several projects I have been working on over the last several years, some of which I have shared here.  I am often critical of taking a "cookie cutter" of theory and applying that to a text.  I am critical of myself here for doing just that.  On the other hand, I think in this case it does work: Bede's Historia seems to me to be more than a "source" and an influence on later writers: rather Bede's text stands as such an authority in Anglo-Saxon England that it too could be interpreted and applied in new ways.  The following address is an attempt to outline some of those issues, although much of the ploughing was done by the giants on whose shoulders I stand.

It is difficult to claim to say something new about an author who is thought about as much as the Venerable Bede.  Difficulty aside, though, at least some people have succeeded in recent years, so I’ll give it a whirl.  A few years ago began to wonder here at Kalamazoo who read Bede in Anglo-Saxon England and how to measure that.  The person I was in conversation with suggested that this had already been done, pointing specifically to George Brown’s recent work for Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture.  And he wasn’t entirely wrong: certainly both manuscripts of Bede and Bede’s influence in the Alfredian age or on Aelfric had been at least looked into by George, and Joyce Hill, and others.  Still, I considered the quest worth undertaking to see what if anything I could make of it.
     Last year at this time, I reported the results of a year-long exercise in data mining into the work of multiple scholars to help determine the answering my query.  Among my results, I discovered that contrary to what I had been taught that Bede was considered an exegete by his contemporaries and those in the medieval period, that nonetheless, the most read, cited, and influential work of Bede’s was not any of his commentaries, but rather the Historia Ecclesiastica.  This was certainly something of a surprise to me.
     The next natural question for me to ask and try to answer was specifically who in the Anglo-Saxon period read Bede’s Historia and what did they make of it.  Naturally enough, many of the luminaries in our field in fact have looked into the nature of Bede’s influence at various points in the period.  Was there more to discover here?
     Before answering that question, allow me to reminisce.  Long years ago it now seems one of my first Kalamazoo papers was to consider the notion of Brian Stock’s “textual community” and apply that idea to the education and translation program of Alfred the Great.  It seemed obvious to me that quite beyond the examinations of Alfred’s political schema of forming a “single English nation” and dealing with the new geo-political situation that where there had been many Anglo-Saxon polities now there was one, that Alfred was placing himself in a somewhat unique position as translator of text, as “interpres” of a set of texts to a specific audience: the church and noblemen of Wessex.  After asking myself the question regarding who read the Historia in Anglo-Saxon England, it occurred to me that here in that early work I had an initial answer: Alfred and company not only were reading Bede, but were reading Bede and creating a textual community with the Historia!
     Before getting into the heart of the matter, one more interruption.   And this interruption is simply about what this is and why it is important or why we should care.  Brian Stock back in 1994 wrote a book titled Listening to the Text.  In that book he defined a textual community as a community that is based on an interpreter’s understanding and elucidation of a text.  Three things are required: a text, an interpres to be Latinate on a Sunday morning, and a community that accepts and in some understands itself based on those interpretations.  Stock chose as his medieval example the Waldensians: the text was the Bible, newly translated for Waldo into French, Waldo’s understanding of the text, and the followers he gathered then and afterward who championed his understanding of the Biblical text. 
Stock was interested in some of theory out of which this idea was born; I’m interested in more prosaic methods.  Describing and assessing a textual community gathers its rosebuds not where it may but from the basic medievalist disciplines of source criticism, textual analysis, audience reception and the like.  But we are not here simply saying that a textual community is a fancy way of describing or using these disciplines in tandem.  Rather than merely asking the question of what source or text a particular author is using and so on, defining a textual community if such exists in the particular situation notes and describes stages of deliberitarity: a deliberate choice of text, a deliberate relationship built with an audience, and perhaps even a deliberate choice of what to say about the text.  It is the deliberate nature of the relationship that moves this beyond simply saying that such and such a text is an influence on this author and look that author had an audience. 
Now I must confess that my title is a little misleading.  For I am not speaking today about Bede as interpreter gathering a community, though that topic would certainly be easy enough: for who even in the modern period is not influenced by Bede’s computes in some way, or by long line of descent influenced by his modern historical method that so influenced earlier generations?  Rather, my topic today is to try and look at a text of Bede’s as the text that others are interpreting and gathering a community, perhaps one of many, perhaps a main text.  That is, when answering the question of who read Bede’s Historia in Anglo-Saxon England, the most widely cited of Bede’s work in the period, I noticed not just who was reading this work and how it influenced, but how there was a deliberate relationship being formed at various junctures between Bede’s narrative and a new generation that constitutes a textual community.
     I can only attempt to quickly overview and discuss a few such moments.  Since I have already mentioned Alfred, I will begin there.  And since much has been said about Alfred, I will only summarize.  But there has been little doubt expressed that when Alfred in his Preface to the Pastoral Care looks back over the history of the island and how glorious things used to be, he is taking in large part his information from Bede’s Historia, a text that certainly fits his description with Latin a unifying language, with great saints Christianizing first the peoples of England, but then returning to the continent to evangelize there, a story of Anglo-Saxons Victorious in battle against paganism for Christ, replacing the recalcitrant Brits whom God has judged.  In fact, Bede’s tale is about the only period in ASE history where Alfred’s description would have much meaning, since the rest of the eighth and into the ninth century was somewhat less golorious, less learned, less full of books than what Alfred describes. 
Further and far more importantly, it is Bede’s Northumbria with the relationship between royal power and monastic power described by Bede that is the source for Alfred’s own model.  Not only so, but Bede often describes the royal figure as making or breaking the success of the church in Christianization or even Christians among the populace.  And so Alfred uses text, as did the royals in Northumbria, not only to further his power and control, but to create his power, and create a new textual community.  Translating the “gens Anglorum” into a native concept of the Angelcynn and Englalond and even styling himself king of the English are all concepts contained within Bede’s pages that are not found elsewhere.  Further, like Bede’s Oswald, it is Alfred who stands as “interpreter” between the texts of old, those most necessary to know, and the new community he and his court are creating in Wessex. 
Now at this point the hearer might say, “Swain, you haven’t mentioned the obvious yet, the Old English Bede!”  And you would be right.  For I no longer think that text belongs in the Alfredian circle.  As many here will know the debate surrounding the misnamed Old English Bede, or the Old English Historia, is whether it is a production of the Alfredian effort to translate necessary books or whether it is an independent Mercian production.  No third way has been considered until recently.  Long years ago now, even before that Alfred paper I mentioned above, I dared write a short paper on Anglo-Saxon translation “theory” built from the ground up, so to speak, by observing how they did it.  I reacted negatively then in 1999 to the depiction of the Old English Bede as a “fairly accurate and faithful translation” of the original as Greenfield and Whitelock had it and even Donald Fry who looked at certain miracles in Bede’s original and argued that Bede’s translator not only understood the original but rendered it with a certain heightened emotive power.  I noted at that time the fact that first, the Old English translator reshaped Bede’s narrative, not only by getting rid of the Latin “books” schema but instead a single unbroken narrative of chapters which changed the flavor of the whole.  I continued on observing that the well known excisions of the majority of Book I of the Latin Historia, and any reference to the Easter controversy, were not faithful translations, but changes chosen by the translator.  I did not reach any conclusion about the reason or nature of those conclusions, still being rather positive that the work belong to the Alfredian period and most likely to Alfred. 
After my fledgling attempt at real scholarship, Sharon Rowley began a project looking at the Old English Bede that began at the first Marco Institute conference held at the University of Tennessee Knoxville with Roy Liuzza and culminating in her 2011 book on the text in question.  In that book, Rowley, to my mind at least, argues that the reshaping of the Old English Bede gives the text a whole different theme, a different purpose, and a different message than the Historia.  This does not mean that the Old English translator did not understand Latin; quite the contrary the Old English translator knew very well what he or she was doing.
     The translator has changed Bede’s triumphalist Anglo-Saxon replacement theology with a story that simply says the Anglo-Saxons came in and took over.  Gone are the indictments of the British church and suggestions of God’s judgment upon them.  Gone also are the majority of papal letters and other information regarding the papacy.  Thus, for example, when the leaders of the British church and Augustine meet at Augustine’s oak, Augustine’s papal authority is not included in the Old English text and there has not been an indictment of the British church, so both parties simply come across as stubborn adherents to tradition rather than the Augustinian side as the side of divinely, and papally, sanctioned right.  This is a much different message than Bede’s original.  Further, the Old English translator avoids expressions such as Angelcynn and Englalond, which suggest that the translator is not part of Alfred’s efforts.  The translation also focuses on key Anglo-Saxon saints and overall suggests a more ecclesiastical center, less a royal one, and focuses on royal SAINTHOOD rather than royal power over church and state, and less emphasis on one people and retaining the emphasis on one church.
     The foregoing has important implications.  First, not only does Rowley challenge over a century of discussion of Old English Bede, a rereading I think necessary, but also calls into question the very tools we use: Thomas Miller’s much vaunted EETS edition of the Old English Bede minimizes the differences and reshapes the text to match as nearly as possible the Latin text.  In fact, let me issue the call here that if someone is not already doing it, a new critical edition of this text is needed. Don Fry’s ironic title some years ago “Bede Fortunate in His Translators” should no longer have the weight it once bore, though his article there helps elucidate the very emphasis on ecclesiastical concerns mentioned a moment ago. 
     Returning then to the notion of the “textual community”, the Old English translator, nee adapter, of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, is again, obviously to me, creating a textual community through the process of translation and adaptation of Bede’s original.  We have our text, we have our interpretations, we have our interpreter.  The question is, who then constitutes the community, the audience? 
       The earliest evidence of the Old English Bede comes to us in the form of London, British Library, Cotton Domitian A.IX folio 11.  This folio contains a few excerpts from the text that I will return to below.  The manuscript has been dated to late ninth or early tenth century, more specifically the years 882-930 by David Dumville.  Dumville also posits a London origin as probable.  Thomas Miller, whom I have already criticized, I will now praise for his demonstration that the language of the Old English Bede is Anglian.
       So, the question is where in England would a text that includes information on the traditions of the British church, but not in a condemnatory way, information on the Irish church, but not in a condemnatory way and minimizes the charges of heresy and disobedience to divine in both, while emphasizing ecclesiastical rights against royal control, avoiding over emphasis on relations with the papacy, and has an Anglian dialect?  Why, Viking East Anglia might just be the place, an area that included Ely, the home of one of the saints emphasized in the Old English Bede.  Further, in the process of Christianization of the Danish invaders, it is from this area that the first Danish archbishop of Canterbury hails….Since the Viking leaders were nominally Christian, the church would want to maintain some independence.  And since the Vikings also had holdings in Wales and Ireland, deemphasizing the past wrongs of those fellow Christians would be desireable.  Also, the earliest manuscript excerpts items of concern about marriage and the number of bishops to be consecrated: both of concern after the Viking takeover.  East Anglia came under Wessex control again 919.  Thus, the textual community of the Old English Bede are a group of churchmen, particularly monks who live in East Anglia under Viking rule reading a text for devotion and information that though an old text addresses very much their present.
       In the mid-, tenth century we find a new audience for the Old English Bede.  London, British Library Cotton Otho B.XL is one of those burned badly in the Ashburnham fire.  Fortunately for us, early Anglo-Saxonists made transcriptions!  It is a West Saxon production, most probably from Wessex.  Now we should ask given the message of the transformed text of the OE Bede, what is a copy doing in Winchester, the capital, in the mid-tenth century.  Included in the manuscript are a copy of the ASC, lists of popes and bishops, Laws of Alfred and Ine, the Burghal Hidage, a poem on the seasons of fasting and herbal recipes, all in Old English.  This copy, among others, testifies to the importance of the Old English Bede, but also that the translator has found a new audience.  We know, for example, that later Aethelward and Aelfric both will use copies of the OE Bede to establish historical information in their respective works.  In short, by the middle of the century just as the Benedictine Reform movement is getting started that a text that emphasizes church authority rather than royal control would be a most welcome work, and undoubtedly because the name of “Bede” goes with the text, that lent it a greater authority.  This manuscript miscellany though seems to be intended  seems to be intended as a collection of Old English covering chiefly history of the late ninth century, the Age of Alfred.  The Old English Bede has moved from being a somewhat radical text to a mainstream one, and created a new audience. 
       As a final example, I would like to draw our attention to the Benedictine Reform movement and to one moment in particular.  Abbo of Fleury c. 884 wrote a story that comes down to us as the Martyrdom of St. Edmund of East Anglia.  I have argued elsewhere that this wee tale is an invention, more of the modern kind than the medieval.  But it does bear witness to the power of text: according to Abbo the monks with whom he has been staying say they know this story, but few other do, and they beg Abbo to write it down.  It is only after the writing of thss text that the story becomes more widely known.  But what is interesting here is a specific instance of the use of Bede’s Historia as the foundation for a textual community in a wider context. 
       But let me start with Abbo’s text.  Abbo begins interestingly enough with Bede’s historia!  The first section of Abbo’s text is a description of the island of Britain taken directly from Bede’s Historia, bk I ch I, focusing then on Bede’s later statements about East Anglia before we get into the story proper.  When we do become acquainted with Edmund, he is presented to the audience in terms the same as those Bede uses of another royal saint previously mentioned, Oswald.  Both men are humble, righteous, good to the poor.  Both have posthumous miracles.  Both face a pagan foe. Now it should be mentioned that the only historical information we have about Edmund comes from the 869 entry in the ASC that states simply that Edmund fought the Vikings in East Anglia and lost.  There is nothing in the text about spectacular events around that death that are talked about in Abbo’s text.  In addition to the front matter and the analogy with Oswald, there are a number of other citations and references to Bede.  In short, I argue that Bede’s hagiography provides the direct template for almost everything we find in Abbo’s tale.
       I suggested above that the Martyrdom of Edmund actually is an invented story in the modern sense.  I argue that in part because the origin of the story is not the monks among whom Abbo has been staying but Dunstan who has kept the story to himself for some 60 years.  But Dunstan is no fool.   He has a message, a message gleaned from Bede’s Historia: the role of the church and the role of royal power move in tandem, a good, successful kingdom rests on Oswald figure who gives heed to his bishops, for example.  And everywhere we look at the Benedictine Reform in England we see the hand of Bede guiding it.  Attitudes toward royal power, attitudes toward marriage, the interest in the past….that Dunstan’s student and fellow reformer, another Oswald, travelled Northumbria  to collect relics and the number of refoundations of monastic houses mentioned by Bede in this era are simply the fingerprints to see that the Benedictine Reformers figured out long before modern scholarship did the reforming ideal which Bede preached and embedded in so much of his work.  One can easily see Bede’s ideal of reform living a successful life in the reigns of Dunstan, Edgar, and Aethelwold.  The Martyrdom of St. Edmund is part of a whole textual community of reformers who have rewritten England in the tenth century.  And if we must look closely to find an intepres in the issue, that must be Dunstan.

       The examples above illustrate a few of the textual communities created around a reader of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica.  In each case, the reader as interpreter has used Bede’s work to create a community that in some way or other is utterly dependent on the reading of Bede’s Historia offered by the interpreter in question.  This goes beyond source critical issues and beyond audience reception to note a deliberative, considered relationship between text and community.    

Monday, May 26, 2014

Did Rome Fall: The Dark Ages Redux

The Renaissance Myth depends in its more modern incarnations upon one notion: The Roman Empire in the West fell.  And it fell hard.  But did it?  In most of these conversations and debates I've had, this is of course the marker: the Roman Empire fell, cities were depopulated, roads ruines, libraries and schools closed, roads destroyed, cross-empire trade came to a halt, economic life became "local" and in some folks' words, "feudal."  The next several posts I want to explore these issues.  Let's start with politics.

Here's an excerpt from a textbook I've written for one of my classes:

This brings us at last to a discussion of the traditional end of the Roman empire in 476.  As mentioned so many pages ago, the traditional story is that the German warlord Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and sent the trappings of empire back to Constantinople.  Well, Odoacer did that.  But that’s not the whole story.
The death of Ricimer introduced a quick period of many quick Western emperors and really no one strong enough to take control, either as a leader of armies or of the government apparatus.  Eventually, a man named Orestes became leader of Rome’s armies.  Little is really known of his background.  It is believed that he was part Roman, part Germanic.  It is known that he served as a secretary for Attila and was sent twice to Constantinople on Attila’s behalf.  After the death of Attila and the breakup of the Hunnic federation, Orestes returned to the empire and over the years rose up the ranks until he was appointed head of the armies by the Western Emperor early in 475.  It only took Orestes a few months to take over the government; the emperor fled.  Orestes was ineligible by birth to become emperor.  So he appointed his 12 year old son to the throne, Romulus.  Orestes had married well.  The point, however, is that Orestes was in no position to appoint an emperor.  Thus, by Roman law, Romulus was not an emperor.  And though he had fled from Orestes, there was a living emperor legally installed still living in exile.  So what I am saying here is that the first problem is that Romulus was not a Roman emperor, giving the lie to the traditional 476 tale.  But while the Eastern Empire pointed out this fact, they could not do anything about it since there were two men vying for the Eastern throne on the battlefield, and neither wanted to spare the troops or time from their civil war to put down Orestes.

Enter Odoacer.  Odoacer is another barbarian military leader who rose through the ranks to top of the Roman ladder.  His ethnicity has been much debated over the years and is far from certain.  What is clear is that the Romans did not consider him to be Roman.  Not much is known about him before 470.  When Orestes became leader of the Roman forces, Odoacer became leader of the German allied forces in Italy.  To these forces Orestes had promised land as well as money.  This was not merely a bribe.  The catastrophe in the late 460s of the failed mission against the Vandals bankrupted the Western Empire, as mentioned.  This resulted in an inability to pay or feed the troops for long periods of time.  Orestes’ promise of land meant that soldiers could settle their families on land, farm it, feed themselves and their children regardless of the state of the treasury.  The German troops did support Orestes.  They were disappointed.  Orestes reneged on the deal.  He minted money, causing inflation, had no food stores to distribute, and did not anger the Roman senatorial class from whom those promised lands would be taken. 

Needless to say, hungry, cheated, and angry Germanic soldiers are not the sort of neighbor one wants.  They elected Odaocer their king, and marched on Orestes. To make a long story short, they won.  Orestes was killed; Odaocer deposed the young Romulus and sent him home to his family.  He then sent to the Emperor of the East with a simple message: the West did not need a second emperor.  There was only one emperor, he was in the East, and Odoacer served him and him alone.  And that last important detail is what is too often overlooked in the traditional tale of 476.  Odoacer deposed an illegal ruler and swore allegiance to the empire.  As we will see in chapter three, he did a great deal to stabilize and uphold the Empire over the next two decades.  The significant change from our point of view is that Italy, the last real stronghold of Roman power in the West, was now ruled by a German supporting the Eastern Roman Empire. 

It must be made clear that from the point of view of the average person in the  late fifth century, the change here meant practically nothing.  After nearly twenty years of instability, the promise of a longer ruler who at least was pledged to Rome rather than his own power was something of a relief.  Other than that, day to day life remained the same.  To the Romans, this event was rather insignificant.  And it should be for us as well."

Odoacer asked the eastern emperor to have no more intermediaries between West and East, they needed only one emperor, the one in Byzantium.  Though he styled himself as "king of Italy", in large part because his men so declared him, it was clear that Odoacer considered himself a Roman acting in Rome's interests.  The Roman Senate supported him throughout his reign; he convinced Gaiseric the Vandal king to cede Sicily to him making the Mediterranean passage once again safe for Roman shipping.  When the retainers of Julius Nepos murdered him, Odoacer took it upon himself to pursue them, try, and execute the murderers of a Roman emperor....of course extending his reach into Dalmatia in the process.  Odoacer made treaties with the other Roman and Germanic leaders in the West.  In the East, Odoacer and the Emperor Zeno had a difficult relationship.  Odoacer, though quite eager to avenge the death of Julius Nepos, refused to recognize Nepos as Western Emperor, a point in direct violation of Zeno's commands.  Later, a rival of Zeno's asked Odoacer for help which Odoacer gave attacking Zeno's forces.  Zeno responded by getting a tribe called the Rugians to attack Odoacer's territory.  Odoacer was swift, defeated the Rugians, and then sent the spoils and booty to Zeno  There were other successes on behalf of the empire as a whole, enough that Zeno became concerned that he had another rival for the throne in the making.  Zeno turned to his childhood friend now leader of the Goths, Theodoric, and sent him off to Italy to deal with Odoacer.  

In other words, the events to which Gibbon pointed in 476 as the "fall" of the Roman Empire, the last Roman born emperor being deposed is false.  In theory, the Western Empire served the emperor in the East: each of the subsequent kingdoms save the Vandals in North Africa was in some way recognized by the East in an official capacity as "Roman", like Odoacer and his title as Roman Patrician.  In reality, the Roman empire in the West over the course of the fifth century had politically transformed: the provinces in Britannia had been abandoned, large sections of Gaul and Hispania had been ceded to Germanic tribes as reward for services rendered.  The problem with the latter policy is that this means taxes from those ceded areas would no longer flow into the central govt's coffers but instead stayed local.  But this was new: this practice of client kings and ceding territory was Roman policy from the Republican expansion period all the way through the empire.  While this practice was usually done at the edges of the empire, the Romans simply continued their own policies.  I'll return to these notions later.

Returning to Odoacer, J. J. O'Donnell in a recent book assessed Odoacer as too Roman, too traditional and simply not Germanic enough for his followers to succeed in the long run.  Rather than ending the rule of Rome in the West, Odoacer continued it, protected it, and tried to extend it through both military and diplomatic means.  So if Rome "fell" it was not because of Odoacer replacing Romulus Augustulus who was never a valid emperor anyway.  

In fact, one can certainly detect a certain kind of racism and classism in Gibbon's take and in those who still take their cues from him.  Their concern that Romulus Augustulus was the last "Roman born" emperor in the West shows a concern that had little to no meaning in the late Roman Empire: race.  Certainly such questions mattered to the elite who were interested in maintaining power within their families: but one could be of a different race and marry into these families and be accepted.  Being an Arian was of more concern than being German.  In any case Odoacer was born in the empire, was a Roman citizen, married a Roman citizen, and like Diocletian, emperor in the late third century, worked his way through the ranks to become the head of the Roman government in the West.  Rather than being a usurper and a Germanic king, he was a Roman Patrician whose career and whose rule was too Roman for the times.  

That part of the myth taken care, next post we'll look some other arguments regarding the political "fall" of the empire.