John J. Contreni

title.none: Cohen and de Jong, eds., Medieval Transformations (John J. Contreni)

identifier.other: baj9928.0205.001 02.05.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John J. Contreni, Purdue Univ.,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Cohen, Esther and Mayke de Jong, eds. Medieval Transformations: Texts, Power, & Gifts in Context. Cultures, Beliefs, and Traditions, Vol. 11. Leiden: Brill, 2001. Pp. iv, 284. 79.00. ISBN: 9-004-11728-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.05.01

Cohen, Esther and Mayke de Jong, eds. Medieval Transformations: Texts, Power, & Gifts in Context. Cultures, Beliefs, and Traditions, Vol. 11. Leiden: Brill, 2001. Pp. iv, 284. 79.00. ISBN: 9-004-11728-8.

Reviewed by:

John J. Contreni
Purdue Univ.

This smart book's title, subtitle, and series title provide an adequate preliminary impression of what the book is all about. Esther Cohen's introduction further specifies that "medieval transformations" refers to the "shifts and changes that take place when things or ideas, or writings, are transferred from time to time, place to place, or one ideological realm to another" (1). Eleven of the volume's thirteen essays present case studies of such shifts and changes from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries, predominantly in the Latin Christian West, but also in Islam and Judaism. Two essays cast a historiographical eye on contemporary research centered on gifts and disputes.

In "Reflections on Canonization and the Authority of the Written Word in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: By Way of Comment," Marco Mostert underscored the common experiences of the three monotheistic religions in framing their Scriptures. Their sacred writings were all written down and their texts systematized. There was an awareness that written traditions were limited and thus complementary oral traditions developed. Some of these traditions were subsequently legitimated in what Mostert called "secondary canonization". Similarly, certain manuscript traditions of each religion's Scriptures enjoyed privileged status.

Monique Bernards examined one of these Scriptural traditions in her "Holy Scripture and the Transmission of Knowledge in Early Islam: The Inception of Arabic Linguistic Studies." Arabic grammatical studies developed very early in Muslim culture as linguistic exegeses of the Qur'an, exegeses that explored lexicography, variant readings, inflection, and meaning in the sacred text. The grammarians helped to codify and interpret the Qur'an while at the same time standardizing its language. As Islamic intellectual culture later developed in the direction of the sciences, proper understanding of correct Arabic and thus grammar remained its bedrock.

Yitzhak Hen asked in "Martin of Braga's De correctione rusticorum and Its Uses in Frankish Gaul" what relevance Martin of Braga's sixth-century anti-pagan tract had in seventh- and eighth-century Gaul where it was very popular. One use was to serve as a source for the continuing struggle against pagan practices. But Hen detected a more subtle use of Martin's text in its different context. Later Merovingian authors appear to have been interested in the text not for what it said about pagan practices, but rather for what it taught about Christian practices. Paganism, for them, was a "mental reality" (45) that helped them to define Christianity.

In "Religious Instruction in the Frankish Kingdoms," Rob Meens focused on the role of the clergy in education to locate the source of their authority as teachers in the Bible and in the exemplary conduct of their lives as "living sermons" (58). Yet, Charlemagne scolded monks who impressed people by their appearance, but who were deficient in grammar and thus ill prepared to impart Christian wisdom. Status required substance. Texts, such as penitentials, that capture for us only part of what the clergy taught, reveal that a supposedly fixed tradition could be manipulated to fit new circumstances. One suspects that unrecoverable oral instruction considerably manipulated tradition as well.

When Hrabanus Maurus composed commentaries on the biblical books of Judith and Esther for Judith, the second wife of Louis the Pious, it was as if he had the theme of Medieval Transformations in mind. Mayke de Jong argued in "Exegesis for an Empress" that Hrabanus's commentaries were tailor-made for Judith as a woman, as a heroine and leader of her people in the biblical mold, and as a gift in a time of deep political and personal stress. Hrabanus, in de Jong's nuanced account, used ancient biblical heroines to counter the deeply gendered contemporary image the Carolingian Judith's opponents had fashioned of her. (One wonders what Judith's parents were thinking, or expecting, in the previous generation when they settled her name on her?)

Thomas F.X. Noble found in "The Varying Roles of Biblical Testimonies in the Carolingian Image Controversies" that from the 780s to the 840s Carolingian authors were not especially creative in using biblical texts in their various treatises on images. Aside from Claudius of Turin, they tended to build their arguments on relevant biblical passages culled from patristic texts. Theodulf of Orle'ans suggests why. As Noble astutely pointed out, Theodulf's strategy in his response to Byzantines in the Opus Caroli regis contra synodum was to attack how the Byzantines read the Bible. The biblical text could not be impugned, but how one read or understood it could be. Given such potentially contentious ground, it may have seemed a stronger, irreproachable argumentative strategy to build one's case on biblical passages already sanctioned by the fathers. Only Claudius, it might be said, thought "outside of the box" and mined the Bible directly.

Arnoud-Jan A. Bijsterveld's "The Medieval Gift as Agent of Social Bonding and Political Power: A Comparative Approach" initiates the second half of the volume which concentrates on the period from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. Bijsterveld's contribution charts the modern fortune of the "gift exchange" as an analytical tool increasingly favored by historians who study the ties that bound monasteries, bishops, and nobles. Bijsterveld observes that from its first modern articulation in the sociologist Marcel Mauss's "Essai sur le don" (1923-24) to the present, gift exchange has been particularly useful to American medievalists whose work he briefly reviews. The comparative approach he advocates was advanced by the sociologist Ilana F. Silber who urged scholars to consult "research on religious giving in large-scale, literate traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism" (138). Bijsterveld also invited readers to think about the periodization of medieval gift giving when he questioned positing the growth of a money and market economy after 1050 as a turning point in the "gift economy" (144). What changed was not the gift economy, but the political and social connotations of gift exchange.

Timothy Reuter argued in "Gifts and Simony" that the eleventh century was revolutionary in at least one respect, its "moral panic" (160) about simony. As to why panic should have arisen in the eleventh century, Reuter suggested concern with "liminality and purity" (162). Money polluted the clergy, a concern, one might note, familiar to the Carolingian church as well. He also noted that attacks on simony aimed to free clergy from the entanglements of the proprietary church. Gifts increasingly came without strings, or the strings led to a church's patron saint and to heaven, but not to reciprocal action here below.

With Stephen D. White's "The Politics of Exchange: Gifts, Fiefs, and Feudalism," the focus shifts to gift giving in a secular context. White was especially concerned to rehabilitate gift-giving "as an important feature of medieval politics" in the wake of Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), an important and influential book that minimized the role of gift exchanges in political strategies. White makes his case with a close reading of the Conventum (ca. 1030) between Count William of Aquitaine and Hugh of Lusignan, a reading that lays bare the multiple models of constructed meaning that eleventh-century politicians used in relationships subject to "continuous renegotiation" (185).

Hendrik Teunis also explored a particular flashpoint in the perennial contest for power in his "Presenting Respect in the Eleventh Century: Odo of Blaison and the Canons of St.-LeÚzin." Here, the parties were secular and religious. In the 1080s Odo of Blaison was called to task for the second time for misusing the property of the church of St.-LeÚzin in Anjou. Earlier, Count Geoffrey Martel took the lead with the support of the bishop of Anger in settling the dispute. In the second go-round of the 1080s, it was the bishop of Angers who settled the dispute in his great chamber, this time with the support of the count, Fulk le RÚchin. These disputes have attracted the attention of historians before, notably O. Guillot (Le Comte d'Anjou, 1972) who noticed the seeming role reversal between count and bishop. Teunis, however, stressed the initiative of the canons of the church. Their "humiliation" of their patron saint's relics was decisive in Odo's attendance at the meeting that settled the dispute. When it came to Odo himself, the goal of the canons' strategy was reconciliation rather than humiliation. Both parties emerged from the dispute with their respect intact.

Stephen D. White's second contribution to the volume, "From Peace to Power: The Study of Disputes in Medieval France," offered a trenchant historiographical analysis of a research field whose inception he dated to Louis Halphen's essay of 1900 on eleventh-century judicial institutions. White follows the thread through Marc Bloch and Georges Duby to a host of late twentieth-century historians (working primarily in the U.K and U.S.) who have enriched the study of disputes while at the same time pushing its earlier chronological boundary back into the Carolingian age. The implicit challenge raised by this recent work to Duby's contention that dispute-processing changed radically around the year 1000 was, in its turn, challenged by Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel who criticized "American optimistic functionalism and psycho-sociology" (211). What ultimately is at stake, of course, is "mutationism". White's own analysis of the future agenda of research on disputes urged historians to broaden and reconceptualize their inquiries by following the lead of legal anthropologists. When historians attend more to legal discourse, blur the distinction in their own work between disputes and political conflicts, and study disputes and conflicts involving parties located at different sites on the stratigraphy of power, they will be less "vulnerable" to criticism. White suspects, correctly I think, that work taken in this direction will further undermine "mutationism", a notion built in part on overoptimistic assumptions about the Carolingian age.

With Valentin Groebner's "Accountancies and Arcana: Registering the Gift in Late Medieval Cities," readers jump ahead three or four centuries and into Swiss and German cities where gift exchanges still remained a prominent feature of the social and political landscape. Groebner's principal sources emerge from city registers in which office holders were required to record gifts received. These documents were mined in the nineteenth century for administrative history, but Groebner returns to the quarry with gift exchange in mind. And what a quarry it is, strewn with meticulous records that list not only gifts (wine especially), but a host of civic officials from judges to messengers who participated in the thriving gift economy. When was a gift voluntary and when was it obligatory? When was a gift a gift and not a bribe? When did a gift amount to extortion or when were gifts considered a legitimate part of revenue (tips to doorkeepers, for example)? (These were important questions: officials convicted of bribery in Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Strasbourg had their fingers chopped off!) Groebner's study attempts to get at the various levels of meaning associated with gift-giving and gift-receiving by analysis of the language of the registers and other documents, a language redolent of corruption, poison, secrecy, heresy, and sexual excess.

Gadi Algazi takes the reader from the city back out into the countryside and from talk of chopping fingers off to cutting peasants down to size. His "Pruning Peasants: Private War and Maintaining the Lords' Peace in Late Medieval Germany" studies the large topic of the "social use of private wars" (245) with particular emphasis on the need nobles felt to periodically put uppity peasants in their place. The metaphor of pruning not only referred to the cutting and wounding that took place, but also to the notion that such activity amounted to "productive violence" (249: Algazi's emphasis)--the social order, just as trees and vines, was better off when peasants were corrected and noble honor was defended. Systematic assaults on peasants also had the effect of harming one's noble enemies economically, while not physically harming one's social peers.

All the essays and their accompanying footnotes and bibliographies are informative on their subjects and provocative of further questions and comparisons across regions and even centuries. Two of the essays raise important questions about the conventional periodization of the divide between the early and central Middle Ages. The volume as a whole seems to have been conceived with its own implicit divide in mind. The first six essays (Mostert--Noble) in Part One appear under the rubric, "Text, Scripture, and Authority in the Early Middle Ages." The next seven (Bijsterveld--Algazi) in Part Two line up behind the banner, "Gifts, Violence, and Bribes, High And Late Middle Ages." This conceptual division of labor surely is only an artifact of the 1996 Utrecht conference that inspired the volume. Perhaps a second conference will focus attention on gifts, violence, and bribery in the earlier period and on texts, scripture, and authority in the central and later medieval centuries.