Sophia Menache

title.none: Mostert, ed., New Approaches to Medieval Communication (Sophia Menache)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.004 00.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sophia Menache, University of Haifa,; Fax: 972 4 8260153

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Mostert, Marco, ed. New Approaches to Medieval Communication. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, Vol.1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. Pp. xi, 318. 250 FRF. ISBN: 2-503-50814-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.04

Mostert, Marco, ed. New Approaches to Medieval Communication. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, Vol.1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. Pp. xi, 318. 250 FRF. ISBN: 2-503-50814-6.

Reviewed by:

Sophia Menache
University of Haifa; Fax: 972 4 8260153

During the past twenty years, and especially from 1990, the history of communication has focused the attention of medievalists, who have tried to understand the gradual development of literacy, the diffusion of books, and the different communication channels used in medieval Christendom. As scholars' interest in communication grew, new perspectives of research were opened and new questions raised, to the point that our perspective of medieval society as a whole gradually changed. The Dutch "Pionier Project Verschriftelijking" has taken a leading part in this historiographical process. Since 1996, it has been researching the uses of the written word in medieval Europe in relation to other forms of communication, especially during the Early Middle Ages. One of the byproducts of the project is the Utrecht Series in Medieval Literacy, of which New Approaches to Medieval Communication is the first volume.

The book, edited by Marco Mostert, has three sections: (1) two introductions, by Michael Clanchy and by the editor himself; (2) a series of essays by members of the Utrecht "Pionier Project"; and (3) a bibliography consisting of some 1500 titles on medieval communication. Marco Mostert, in his "New Approaches to Medieval Communication?," refers to the most challenging problems of terminology, such as the use of words like "literacy" and "orality"; he also presents the main methodological questions that still face researchers in the field of communications, especially but not only from a historical perspective. As editor of the rich bibliographical list presented in the book, Mostert provides an extensive approach, checking the correlation between theories about literacy in anthropology, sociology, and psychology and historical surveys of literacy in Europe and the world.

The bibliographical appendix includes interesting titles and subtitles, such as "Forms of Non-Verbal Communication" (smells, colors, gestures, clothes, visual arts, music), "Political Ritual and Ceremony," "Oral and Written Memory," and "Book Production and Use." Although the editor himself declares (p. 194) that "this bibliography is not meant to be inclusive; it is merely hoped it will be of some service to the scholar who wishes to investigate certain aspects of medieval communication," it is difficult at times to understand the key to the inclusion and, more notably, the exclusion of some pioneer works in the field. Thus, the list refers twice to Antiquity (6.1; 7.1) and even reaches the Early Modern Period (15.1). On the other hand, the rich contribution of French scholars at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries in the field of preaching, for example, is relegated to a secondary role. Additionally, such important subjects as stereotypes, propaganda, and manipulation, all of which were part and parcel of medieval political life, are absent. The same may be said about the basics of rhetoric and the influence of Classical authors in medieval discourse. Another field that should have deserved much more attention concerns the Jewish communities and the dialogue between them and their neighbors in medieval Christendom. Both the fragile security situation of most of these communities and the occupation of many Jews in international trade turned them into pioneers in the development of fluent communication among faraway communities, not only in Europe but in Northern Africa, as well. The peculiar historical situation, moreover, caused the Jews to become pioneer factors in the development of pre-modern communication, in both its written and oral forms. Sadly, reference to this field in the bibliography is only fragmentary (2.14). True, any attempt to cover the main trends in the research of medieval communication may prove abortive. Perhaps, then, the solution should be a more selective approach, focusing a priori on clearer, better-defined issues. In this context, the title of the book itself seems rather equivocal. This collection deals not with "medieval communication" as a whole, but -- with the exemption of a few lines in the last article -- with the Early Middle Ages, up to 1100. As Michael Clanchy points out, "at a guess, at least three quarters of all medieval manuscripts date from after 1200" (p. 7). Perhaps the period from 1200 onwards will be the subject matter of another study to be published in this series, but there is no indication of such an intention in the present volume.

The book contains five articles, all of them written by members of the "Pionier Project": "The Audience of Early Medieval Hagiographical Texts," by Wolfert S. Van Egmond; "'Send More Socks': On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Medieval Letters," by Mary Garrison; "Communication by Written Texts in Court Cases: Some Charter Evidence (ca. 800 - ca. 1100)," by Karl Heidecker; "Between the Imperial and the Sacred: The Gesture of Coronation in Carolingian and Ottonian Images," by Marielle Hageman; and "The Introduction of Writing in Central Europe (Poland, Hungary and Bohemia)," by Anna Adamska. As Marco Mostert declares, "the contributors to this volume do not claim to have themselves developed highly original approaches to medieval communication. Their approaches are not 'new' in this sense. Rather, they address questions which have been raised fairly recently in medieval studies about communication, literacy and orality, in the hope that their provisional answers might show others ways in which to arrive at some cogent answers" (p.16). Indeed, most of the authors refer to their conclusions as provisional. Nevertheless, their fresh approach, their careful reading of documents, and the up-to-date bibliography that accompanies the texts make this book an important contribution to the field of communication in the Early Middle Ages.

Wolfert S. van Egmond refers to important topics, such as the audience of medieval hagiographical texts and available channels to propagate their content. Although the question of whether authors of medieval hagiographical texts were aware of the homiletical use of their writings is still open to further research, it is clear that they wrote for a clerical audience, which was at least semi-literate (p. 66). Van Egmond points to three main ways used to disseminate hagiographical knowledge; namely, reading aloud (in the framework of the monastery, the church, palaces, or village squares), private reading, and hearing the content of some text narrated by somebody who had previously read or heard it. Another issue discussed concerns the transition from Latin, the authoritative language of the Catholic Church, to the Romance dialects. Focusing on the dioceses of Auxerre, Utrecht, and Wuerzburg, the author discerns the use of Germanic vernaculars prior to 1100. He further claims that considering the fact that probably the whole population of the (later) Romance-speaking areas in the sixth and seventh centuries could understand Latin texts read to them, the transition point in time from Latin to the vernacular and its causation deserve further research.

In her enlightening article on the preservation of medieval correspondence, Mary Garrison deals with the many vicissitudes that plagued the preservation of medieval correspondence and the problems inherent in the prevailing reliance on letters that have been deliberately selected for the use of posterity. Moreover, there are perhaps fewer than half a dozen Latin letters that survive in their original form before the year 1000 (p. 74). Researchers rely in the main on letter collections, which are usually one-sided because of the segregated storage of incoming and outgoing letters. Garrison maintains that letters that were deliberately discarded or those that authors failed to keep and were subsequently recovered from archaeological sites may change our current evaluation of the extent of written communication in early medieval Christendom. She selected three main examples to prove this premise: the letters excavated at the Roman fortress at Vindolanda (ca. 100 AD), on Hadrian's Wall, on the northern frontier of Roman Britain, which were written on slivers of wood; those at the Bryggen harbor site in Bergen (12th-14th centuries), which were actually sticks inscribed with runes; and those at Novgorod, impressed on birch bark. These letters differed from the customary Latin epistles not only because of the hard materials instead of parchment, but primarily because of their content, which ranges from the customary religious vocabulary to mundane matters (such as "bread is cheap") to obscenities and insults in the vernacular. The question whether the lost wax-tablets of the early medieval West could create a bridge between the clerical culture of the Latin letters and ordinary people's daily lives, with which Mary Garrison finishes her article, seems to be a feasible possibility. In this regard, one should mention the monumental study conducted by S.D. Goitein about thirty years ago of letters found in the Cairo Geniza. These crucially improved our knowledge not only of Jewish daily life but also that of their Moslem neighbors (A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab Word as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols., Berkeley, 1967-93).

Karl Heidecker investigates the use of judicial charters (Gerichtsurkunden); i.e., charters drawn up in the course of lawsuits. As to the predominance of written documents in juridical processes, he mentions the 550 charters still extant from the territory of the former Carolingian Empire north of the Alps prior to the year 1000. The author describes a dozen charters from Burgundy and Switzerland dating from the mid-ninth century to the beginnings of the twelfth that deal with matters of possession and status. Although the cases selected show interesting aspects of medieval life, remarkable regional and chronological differences prevent any generalizations as to the predominance of written documents in the juridical process. Thus the author's inevitable conclusion: "Charters, when available, could play an important role in making an argument prevail in court; but they were never infallible, definitive argument. They were most often reinforced by other means of proof, and could almost always be challenged" (p. 124).

Mariëlle Hageman analyzes an important facet of medieval communication, but one very difficult to examine, that of gestures. She defines gesture "as a movement of the body or part of the body through which a person, intentionally or not, expresses a thought, emotion or disposition or creates a certain impression. Lack of movement, too ^Åcan be understood as 'body language' and be meaningful" (p. 128). Her article focuses on non-verbal rituals of the Carolingian and Ottonian rulers: the attitudes and gestures surrounding these monarchs as represented in the visual arts and in written sources. Thirteen plates accompanying the text exemplify the use of crowning gestures in Carolingian and Ottonian miniatures. According to Hageman's interpretation, these gestures attempt to project the image of the ruler "by the grace of God," thus emphasizing the divine nature of his authority. The author emphasizes, however, and rightly so, the need to combine the analysis of pictorial images with that of narrative sources, such as biographies, annals, and other historical works. Such a combination seems imperative when one considers the weight of imitation and stereotyping in medieval art. A combined analysis of pictorial representations and narrative sources may provide clues to the challenging questions posed by Michael Clanchy, such as the intended audience of medieval miniatures and the degree of their influence in shaping the image of the medieval monarch.

The last article in this volume deals with the introduction of writing in Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia), which was concomitant with the evangelization of this area. According to Anna Adamska, this process created a new axiom: Christianization = literacy = Latin. In the mid-ninth century, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodios introduced not only a new faith but also a new language, Latin, which was transmitted through written texts. Notwithstanding the competition presented by Greek evangelism, which encouraged the use of vernacular languages, the Catholic Church by the eleventh century reached a position of preeminence, first in Poland and Hungary, and later also among the Czech. This development was closely connected to the political process, especially the focus of power in these territories, which was a crucial factor in shaping the language of communication as well as its channels of transmission. Still, up to the fifteenth century, the use of the written word was limited to a very narrow social stratum. It was only by the late Middle Ages that "the written word permeated the fibre of Bohemian, Polish and Hungarian social life -- even if there remain certain areas in which orality continues to be preeminent" (p. 188).

In the editorial note on the book cover, New Approaches to Medieval Communication is presented as a "textbook for studying the field, and as an introduction to current research. [This volume] is written in accessible language for non-specialists." One may doubt, however, the accessibility of such a book for readers who lack a basic knowledge in medieval history. Moreover, one may expect from a textbook on medieval communication some general conceptualization, which in this instance, despite the introduction, remains rather obscure. Research into medieval communication also requires the investigation, lacking here, of available routes, forms of transportation, and many other aspects of daily life that could facilitate or obstruct the diffusion of messages. One may expect that these and similar subjects will give inspiration for further research.