Kim Esmark

title.none: Hill and Swan, eds., The Community, the Family and the Saint (Esmark)

identifier.other: baj9928.0002.022 00.02.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kim Esmark, Roskilde University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Hill, Joyce and Mary Swan, eds. The Community, the Family and the Saint: Patterns of Power in Early Medieval Europe. International Medieval Research, Vol 4. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. xviii, 427. 2017 BEF. ISBN: 2-503-50668-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.02.22

Hill, Joyce and Mary Swan, eds. The Community, the Family and the Saint: Patterns of Power in Early Medieval Europe. International Medieval Research, Vol 4. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. xviii, 427. 2017 BEF. ISBN: 2-503-50668-2.

Reviewed by:

Kim Esmark
Roskilde University

This volume is a compilation of no fewer than 22 individual essays, the majority of which were originally given as papers at the first two meetings of the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 1994 and 1995. According to the editors the papers were selected "for their varied but complementary approaches to the investigation of the organising forces of social identity and power in early medieval Europe" (xi). The result is a book of great and for the most part stimulating diversity that very much recaptures the general atmosphere of the IMC. Not only do the essays make use of very different kinds of source material, ranging from literary and historical texts to artefacts and archaeological evidence, they also cover a broad timespan as well as a wide geographical area. Most significantly, however, they differ markedly in their theoretical and methodological approaches: while many of the papers present solid but fairly conventional historical handwork without troubling the reader, the best pieces are highly original and thought provoking analysis of crowds, community, ritual and sexuality that reflect the recent "anthropological turn" in medieval studies.

The papers are divided into four sections. The first one, entitled "Community and Family" , comprises seven essays devoted to some of the important social groupings that made up the framework for "the organisation of society and for the construction of identities" (p.xi) in the early medieval period.

Mary Alberi opens the section with a view of Alcuin's concept of the Imperium christianum. Through his letters and other writings we see how Alcuin, worried about the Avar mission and trying to offer moral correction to Charlemagne, gradually redefined the concept of a Christian empire from something akin to "the military hegemony of the Carolingian dynasty and Frankish populus" (15) to a vision of a transnational community of the baptised based on service according to the ordo of each individual, including the emperor.

In the second paper Stefan Brink takes a narrower view as he investigates the processes of Christianization and early state building in Scandinavia. Brink specifically points to the Anglo-Saxon impact on Scandinavian parish formation and discusses whether the word sokn (parish) was actually introduced from England.

Italian civic life in the communal period is the object of the two following studies by Edward Coleman and Matthew Ellis respectively. Coleman shows how imperial threats to Lombard communal interests in the second half of the twelfth century contributed to the construction of a common civic identity. Important elements in this development were not only warfare and defense but also religious symbols and collective rituals centered around the leadership of the bishop and the cult of the patron saint. Ellis takes us from Lombardy to Rome to explore how the position of the city's leading families depended as much on kinship and clientage networks as on estates and fortifications. Using cartulary evidence Ellis traces the complex links between family groupings and uncovers the vital activities of minor families which are often neglected in the narrative sources.

In a somewhat complicated language Harald Kleinschmidt goes on to discuss the relationship between on the one hand changes in the meanings of the word gens and on the other hand changes in the social structure of tribal groupings. In the Migration Age, Kleinschmidt argues, the word gens had a whole variety of meanings ascribed to it, reflecting the varied and fluid structure of the migrant groups. In the post- migration period of territorial settlement, however, "the concept of the gens became narrowed down to that of an 'ethnic' group which was understood as the group of settlers under the control of a ruler over land and people." (86) The concept was then retrospectively imposed onto earlier times in order to construct a legitimizing sense of continuity. This process of 'invention of tradition' and the way the name of a particular group could become an asset in the internal struggle for domination between different lineages is illustrated by Kleinschmidt in an in-depth (and very technical) analysis of Bede's report on the Geuissae.

In the next paper Pauline Stafford offers a sound historiographic critique of "la mutation familiale"--the well known "great narrative of family history" (105) ultimately deriving from Tellenbach, Schmid, Bloch and Duby. Pointing to the subtle strategies of families and individuals as well as the implicit ideologies that shape monastic cartulary sources, Stafford warns against the idea of a general transition around the eleventh century from one model of kinship to another. Her basic point is that different models of kinship continue to co- exist and overlap as "people mobilise different family links in different situations" (108 - here one comes to think of Pierre Bourdieu's notion of "practical kinship" which could add some theoretical reinforcement to the argument). Hence, Stafford ends up proposing "not so much a simple narrative of long- established patterns altered in the eleventh century, but rather a model of short term changes and cycles, with some recurring themes and variations." (124) This model further allows for new perspectives on marriage and women's landholding--indeed, Stafford's paper is a wonderful example of the potential of women's history to provide not just additional elements but real challenges to established theses in medieval studies.

From social history to discourse analysis. In the last paper on "Community and family" Lisa Weston focuses on the literary construction of a chaste female community in the writings of the nun Hrotsvitah. In her dramas, Weston argues, Hrotsvitah redefined male conceptions of secular and spiritual marriage and "destabilise[d] the hegemonic discourse on gender and sexuality." (142) Significantly, this enterprise did not take place as an individual struggle but within and for the community of nuns at Gandersheim.

The three papers that make up the second section under the heading "Saints" investigate how the spheres of religion, power and social identity intersect in the cults of particular saints. In a brilliant opening essay Mayke de Jong combines the classic theories of Arnold van Gennep and Mary Douglas with a close scrutiny of Ekkehard's vita of Iso of St Gall to show how ritual penance, sanctioned by the community and the Church authorities, could turn moral impurity into something potentially sacred. "Both being 'out of order' by transgressing cultural boundaries, impurity and sacredness represent two sides of the same coin" (158) and it depends on the ritual handling of the initial transgression which side of the coin turns up. In this case an innovative penance undertaken by Iso's parents for having had sexual intercourse during Lent, i.e. sacred time, transformed pollutio and danger into an extraordinary source of power and eventually an argument for Iso's sanctity.

Purity-and-pollution is a classic anthropological topos, and so is the gift. In David Pelteret's paper on St Wilfred's interpretation of his role as bishop, it seems to be the logic of gift-giving as outlined by Marcel Mauss that provides the bridge between the saint's two conjoining faces: that of the Christian bishop and that of the Germanic lord. Thus Pelteret concludes his essay with Stephen's description of how St Wilfred, lying on his deathbed, divided his estate into four parts: two parts for the church and the poor; one part for the abbots of Ripon and Hexham "to purchase the friendship of kings and bishops"; and finally one part for his faithful men (179- 80).

Hedwig Rockelein closes the section on saints with a discussion of geographical mobility and cultural construction of space in early medieval Saxony. Besides presenting some interesting methodological reflections Rockelein argues from accounts of miracles and translations that the lower strata of society were much more mobile than usually believed.

The third section, simply entitled "Power", is meant to include papers that "address this issue directly" (xiii). As in the previous sections, however, the papers gathered here are only loosely connected, reaching from questions on legal matters to explorations of early medieval world views. The first contribution is an exemplary piece of histoire des mentalites. Philippe Depreux (in French) delves into the images of Louis the Pious and the meaning of pietas as principle and driving force of imperial government in Ermold's poem Elegiacum carmen.

In the next paper Karl Heidecker focuses on the intersection of secular and episcopal authority in marital affairs, taking Hincmar of Rheims' treatise on the divorce of King Lothar II as his example. Heidecker sees Hincmar as the last representative of the Carolingian reform movement, a man for whom the unity of Church and Empire was still a reality despite the partitions. Hincmar therefore not only claimed the bishops' ultimate right to judge even kings in questions of marriage and divorce (provided they assembled in a general council), but also tried to make priestly benediction of marriages obligatory.

In Anglo-Saxon England the corsnæd ordeal, reserved for members of the clergy, consisted in the swallowing of bread and cheese by the accused. So far legal historians have never agreed on how precisely this peculiar ordeal worked, but Sarah Larratt Keefer solves the puzzle in the third paper on "power" by turning from law to liturgy. Taking the spirituality of the involved persons into consideration, she finds the key in a combination of physiological and mental factors and provides in an appendix an edited and translated example of a corsnæd liturgy.

Social drama, ritual invention and textual representations of crowds and community are central themes in the following essay by Joaquin Martinez Pizarro. According to a ninth century account treason and murder one day turned a customary wargame between different neighborhoods of Ravenna into uncontrolled violence that threatened to divide the urban community. Only through an improvised ceremony led by the bishop was social order and unity restored, and Pizarro takes in Elias Canetti ( Masse und Macht) to explain the particular power of ritual to "provide a weakened, watered-down equivalent of the crowd experience, and by so doing rob the crowd of its distinctive irrationality and power." (282)

Rob Meens goes on to discuss the extent to which clerical texts on magic reflect actual beliefs and practices. This question leads to some general but interesting observations on the fluid demarcation between magic and religion. Ecclesiastical bans on magic served to promote greater unity and authority through the exclusion of rival religious beliefs but at the same time "at least some clerics participated to a much greater degree in what we call popular culture, than we tend to admit." (287) Lay people probably did not distinguish between the one and the other; they simply adapted Christian ideology to their own practical needs. Perhaps most interesting is the observation (which provides a link to Mayke de Jong's paper) that impurity was regarded as an important source of power. As Meens shows, people sometimes consciously transgressed Christian taboos related to food or sexuality in order to gain magical power. In the end the paper once again leaves the reader with a serious doubt about the theoretical usefulness of the old magic-religion dichotomy.

Patricia Skinner also addresses the question of popular beliefs and practices, this time with regard to the problem of healthcare in Southern Italy (ninth to thirteenth centuries). In hagiographic texts she finds what she calls "a creative tension" (303) between doctors and saints. Both competed for patients who would offer pious gifts when seeking cures for sicknesses.

Martina Stein-Wilkeshuis closes the section on "power" by pointing to a possible Scandinavian influence on a tenth- century legal charter found in the Old Russian Nestor Chronicle.

The final section on "Death, Burial and Commemoration" opens with a paper by Guy Halsall on Merovingian funeral rites. Halsall's contribution--perhaps the most original of the volume--is a most suggestive testimony to the potential of interdisciplinary research. Taking gravegood deposits from the region of Metz as his starting point, Halsall draws on the theories of a.o. Stanley Tambiah and Pierre Bourdieu to show how the funeral functioned as an "important space for the writing of a symbolic text" (327) about the social world. In times of ever-insecure power the death of some important person always posed a potential threat to existing hierarchies. Thus, when the Merovingians buried their dead they staged an elaborate symbolic display which served to mark status, play down crisis and present a picture of normality. By focusing on "the performative, ritual aspects of the practice (including time and audience)" (335) Halsall is able go beyond the traditional archaeological question of whether burial customs reflect or mask "real" social relationships. Rather we see how material culture is employed as a "ritual language" to create and recreate social relationships. In Halsall's paper dead mortuary remains become living social practice.

Ritual transfer of gifts between the living and the dead in Merovingian society is also the subject of another essay in this section, but this time the other way around. Building on surviving testaments Dominic Janes shows how members of the elite expressed friendship and power through the publicly witnessed gift of a bequest.

Besides Halsall's and Janes' essays the fourth section comprises three different pieces on stone inscriptions. In a highly technical study Mark Handley first addresses the social functions of stone inscriptions in Western Britain which he suggests were not only personal memorials but "something very similar to charters" (340), marking boundaries and articulating power. Bertil Nilsson goes on to discuss what runic memorials in Sweden tell about Viking activities in England while finally Mark Redknap evaluates both the impact of Nash-Williams' work and more recent studies on early Christian monuments of Wales.

It is difficult to evaluate "The Community, the Family and the Saint" as a whole; the 22 essays are simply too diverse. The book does not build up to anything like a general argument and neither have the editors made any attempt to synthesize the individual contributions into some kind of conclusion. Compared for instance to the Davies/Fouracre volumes on early medieval power and dispute settlement (Cambridge 1986 and 1995) the book therefore appears more like a catalogue of possible perspectives, leaving the reader free to pick her own favorites.

Nevertheless, a number of the papers are clearly related in their basic conception of power as something involving social processes, relations and identities rather than law and government. These papers particularly share a great sensivity to the symbolic aspects of power; the way status, hierarchy and cultural meaning is strategically generated, negotiated and transformed by living people in ritual performance, in the writing of texts, etc. This sensivity to the constructive element of power takes us a long way from the rules and structures pursued in much earlier thinking, and definitely makes The Community, the Family and the Saint a book to be recommended. For non-specialists, however, the volume is heavy reading, as all quotations from primary sources are given in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Scandinavian etc. while full translations must be looked up in the footnotes. One more complaint: a brief introductory note on the contributors would have been nice.