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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What the Summer is Shaping Up For

So, the official school year is done, and now I move into summer mode.  Summers for me are not "lazing about" but are very full: I expect a lot of academic service since I am chair and have 25 duty days.  And of course I am teaching summer courses, including a summer online Latin course, previous versions I have advertised here.  But I still have high hopes of accomplishing something over the summer.  Here's the plan:

Academic Projects:
1. Finish OEN Archaeology and start the next one.
2. Finish editing book for Witan Publishing and get it published
3. Read 2 books and write reviews
4. Finish 2 articles (both needing essentially being put into "house" style) and submit
5. Move forward on SASLC Bible project
6. Write encyclopedia article on Aelfric
7. Finish one of my in process Tolkien articles

Teaching/Univ. Svc
1. Tenure and Promotion Packet Done
2. Autumn Personal Development Done
3. Medieval Studies Minor developed
4. Find grants
5. Coarse Prep for Summer and Fall

1. Improve Latin, OE, and ON skills by working in those languages
3. Watch some fun movies!
4. Do some writing.
5. Visit my wife!  Academic career separation.

Ambitious I know, but we'll see what I can do. 

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.