12.04.22, Cohen and Firnhaber-Baker, Difference and Identity in Francia and Medieval France

Main Article Content

Anne E. Lester

The Medieval Review 12.04.22

Cohen, Meredith and Justine Firnhaber-Baker. Difference and Identity in Francia and Medieval France. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. xvii, 237. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6757-5.

Reviewed by:
Anne E. Lester
University of Colorado, Boulder

For a volume ostensibly about difference this is in its sum a book about community and the creation of an elite social stratum in medieval France. The editors are aware of this paradox, which is the central tension in writing about, what they term, the periphery: it can often illuminate more about the center than about the reality of its margins. The elite center of Francia, later to be called France, was formed around the royal court as it took shape in the orbit of Charlemagne and his heirs, and later in its less peripatetic form at the royal capital of Paris. This royal center crafted an identity by drawing foreigners into its midst, marking out their differences, looking outside its bounds and describing the "others" it perceived and defined. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it maintained its elite central position--in the capital city--by again identifying those who were not of the center and marking them out, often through spatial segregation and legal definition. While the essays contained here do not present a new interpretation of this dynamic, they do offer useful case studies of the margins of Frankish and French life and the more subtle and complex interactions between differentiated and excluded populations and the social elite. Refreshingly, several of the essays address not just dynamics of "disaffection and disgust" as one might expect, but also the creation of social "solidarity and sympathy" particularly across social class boundaries when it meant organizing charitable institutions for lepers, prostitutes, the blind, and sanctioned foreigners. Religious difference--between Jews, Muslims, heretics and orthodox Christians--however, found little to no sympathy and remained the most profound marker of difference and exclusion throughout this period. The center remained Christian and Frankish, a definition that was itself heightened by acts of charity toward those it set at its margins. For while charity, conversion, and court culture could foster closeness and sympathy they did not elide difference.

The volume opens with an introduction by Justine Firnhaber-Baker that lays out the conception of the collection, and situates the study within current historiographical trends, namely a recent interest in marginal populations, non-elites, and outcasts, informed in part by contemporary challenges of globalization and immigration. The volume grew from a core of papers presented in the summer of 2006 at the annual symposium of the International Medieval Society--Paris, an organization founded and convened by the editors several years earlier. Moreover, this volume represents the first in a planned series of publications resulting from the symposia of the IMS-Paris. These core essays were supplemented by invited articles and the composition overall is admirably interdisciplinary, including essays from art historians, linguistic and literary scholars, and social historians. The essays also address questions of difference and identity with case studies pulled from representative regions of France, but in the sum they do not say much about what is distinctly French or Frankish in this theme and its development over the course of the central and High Middle Ages. The main thrust of an argument suggested by this collection comes through the decision the editors made while grouping the essays. Rather than a chronological or geographical organization, the chapters are arranged "according to how they approach the work that difference performed in society, moving from the most psychologically negative and alienating examples of exclusion, to instances in which marginalization was tempered with acceptance, sanctity or even humor" (6). When addressing the work that difference performs, however, the argument offered is more vague and general than one might hope for: "Difference could function in a multitude of ways, marking some people as despised but others as blessed, marginalizing certain constituencies while binding others together" (6). Strikingly, the most stringent cases of irreconcilable difference, or where difference worked with the least mercy, were along religious lines. It proved impossible for Frankish elites to be sympathetic toward or form solidarities with Jews, Muslims, and heretics.

The first section, "Marginalization and Persecution" includes three essays on the topic of religious difference. It begins with a short and subtle chapter by William Chester Jordan, "Exclusion and Yearning to Belong: Evidence from the History of Thirteenth-Century France," which addresses a poem, "Douce dame virge Marie" or "Sweet lady, Virgin Mary," attributed to a would-be Jewish convert to Christianity as an expression of a yearning to be baptized (17). After contextualizing the brief poem in a broader history of exclusion and belonging, Jordan addresses many of the pressures Jews and others may have felt to belong--to be a part of, to be within--the society that so sharply excluded them. This essay offers a suggestive and poignant depiction of the experience of difference and the challenge of persecution that sets the stage for the other articles to follow. Richard Matthew Pollard's article, "One Other on Another: Petrus Monachus' Revelationes and Islam," treats a complicated text that according to Pollard exemplifies the experience of exclusion. The Revelationes by Pseudo-Methodius was originally written in Syriac, translated into Greek and then traveled to Merovingian Gaul, where in the early eighth century it was translated into Latin by Petrus Monachus. It presents the history of the world over six millennia, ending with the Apocalypse, which corresponds to the rise of Islam and the conquests of Muslims, referred to as the "Ismaelites" who would conquer the "Holy Land." Pollard traces the complexities of this text and its translation histories to present a nuanced and at times difficult argument, that "the construction of the Other was often an exercise of self-definition through juxtaposition" (25). In this case, that Petrus Monachus was an outsider within the world of eighth-century Francia was signaled through his choice of Latin vocabulary. While there is some very good close reading in this essay, the argument about Peter stands on less firm ground and ultimately tells the reader little about Peter's world other than an interest in reading and translating texts of a specifically apocalyptic type. The theme of persecution finds a focus in Einat Segal's article, "Sculpted Images from the Eastern Gallery of the Saint-Trophime Cloister in Arles and the Cathar Heresy." For Segal the motifs of the cloister capitals "served as a potent means of exclusion, creating a series of stigmatizing images of the rejected group and affirming the identity of the dominant group in Christian society" (50). More specifically, he sees the sculpted depiction of Judas Iscariot, the Flagellation, King Herod, the Rider and the Temptation of Christ all as images that articulated the Church's condemnation of the Cathar heresy, a message directed specifically at the Augustinian canons who formed the dominant persecuting group in Christian society and who were instructed to share an identity as orthodox believers standing in determined opposition to heresy. In the cloister of Saint-Trophime the justification for persecution resounded--sometimes subtly and sometimes less so--within the carved corridors of the canons' place of repose.

Part II is given over to the topic of "Foreigners and Outsiders." For the most part, the three essays that fill this section, however, are devoted to foreigners within elite circles and mostly learned worlds, whether in royal courts or in Parisian school rooms. In "Wanderers between Two Worlds: Irish and Anglo-Saxon Scholars at the Court of Charlemagne," Linda Dohmen applies a very modern sociological line of questioning to her Carolingian sources: "how much did birth and origin constitute identity?" and relatedly, "what is the relationship between 'being a stranger' and 'being a foreigner'" (78)? Certainly the latter distinction is an important one to make, though her definitions are too amorphous to be satisfying for one cannot have strict modern sociological specificity in the medieval world. In the article she defines strangers as "a person fixed within a certain context but whose position is defined to a large extent by the assumption that originally he or she did not belong to this context." On the other hand "foreigner" she says "shall mean every person who was born and grew up outside his or her current country of residence and, specifically, a person who was born and grew up outside the borders of the Carolingian, that is, the Frankish realm" (80). Within these terms, she argues that for Anglo-Saxon and Irish scholars in Francia their "foreign" origin played a prominent role in their characterization and self-identification. Not surprisingly language too marked out difference, but it could also foster attempts to overcome difference and through the medium of Latin--the common language of elites at court--to become part of the in-group. The presence of foreigners did something more, as Dohmen concludes; it created a sense of diversity at court that was itself a clear marker of the nature and function of the royal court as a place where people from all over the realm--even outside its borders--could come and gather. Yet, even as one could be marked out by dress and language, what really mattered was a closeness and familiarity with the king as that is what determined membership at the court of Charlemagne, among his elite circle.

In "Temporary Otherness and Homiletic History in the Late Carolingian Age: A Reading of the Bella Parisiacae Urbis of Abbo of Saint- Germain-des-Prés," Nirmal Dass offers a careful and subtle reading of the first three books of the title's poem. Dass begins by carefully parsing out what is meant in this context by otherness--a term often left incautiously ill-defined. By situating otherness historically, Dass notes that in the European context "[t]he Other is not entirely a negative summation of the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner. Rather, the Other is unstable in that Otherness is imagined as temporary because Others can be incorporated into Roman civilization by the conduit of Christianity, through which the disparate people of Europe put aside their Otherness and become full and essential members of a common culture" (102). This in turn reflects an idea of identity that is culturally rather than ethnically defined. Dass concludes that the Bella Parisiacae Urbis is a poem that must be read within the context of Abbo's ideas of salvation history and of the individual's progress towards redemption, not as a chronicle or an eyewitness account of the Viking incursions between 886-897 as is so often done. In this way, the text makes clear that Otherness, specifically Viking savagery, can be "overcome, or redeemed, by Frankish civilization" (112). Clare Weeda's essay takes up similar themes as she analyzes "Ethnic Stereotyping in Twelfth-Century Paris." While her exploration of ethnic stereotypes, which were apparently frequently invoked in the schools and streets of Paris and among the student populations, is interesting it does not change the common assumptions about the world of Parisian students as one that was diverse, driven by language differences, class differences and all in pursuit of an intellectual goal that was meant to elide those distinctions. Her conclusion that "often [students] extolled their own superiority by debasing the Other" (133) is not particularly surprising and does not tell us much that is new about these ideas or categories in this context.

Part III, "Strangers and Neighbors," addresses points where sameness and difference were constituted from within, that is, when neighbors were made strange and different due to disease, poverty, sex, and behavior. All of these essays are firmly rooted in evidence from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, leading one to wonder if these were categories and experiences of difference were unique to those decades (which seems doubtful) or if these were groups of people present earlier, but left out of consideration either in a larger discourse of social definition or within this volume. Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, disease and ill-health became shaping forces in delimiting difference as made clear in both Elma Brenner's study "Outside the City Walls: Leprosy, Exclusion, and Social Identity in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Rouen," and Mark P. O'Tool's essay "The povre avugles of the Hôpital des Quinze- Vights: Disability and Community in Medieval Paris." Bremer analyzes the two main leprosaria of Rouen, Mont-aux-Malades and Salles- aux-Puelles. After examining perceptions of leprosy and contagion generally, she addresses the context of Rouen specifically and the spatial situation of the leprosaria as well as the patronage network of the houses to show that they bespoke the continued inclusion of lepers and their institutions within the wider metropolitan area of Rouen and its hinterland. Here Bremer is able to set legislation about lepers and their exclusion against the sources that speak about social and economic interaction to show that in actual moments of contact--in alms giving, during fairs, and at times of institutional profession--"lepers were neither excluded nor feared: instead, they were still considered to be members of society" (141). This conclusion accords well with other recent work on medieval lepers. O'Tool's article on the poor blind of the Quinze-Vingts comes to a similar conclusion. The author looks closely at the records of this royal foundation in the heart of Paris to complicate our understanding of blindness, disability and its care during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. O'Tool argues that, much like leprosy, which had a spiritual meaning associated with it, blindness "could signify a state of blessedness" (157). It was a kind of divine affliction that made those who suffered from it ever more worthy of charity and care. In turn, when Louis IX founded the Quinze-Vingts (the fifteen-twenties--alluding to the 300 blind people and sighted guides the king intended it to house) in the 1250s, he did so out of spiritual kindness and in recognition of the special relationship the blind had with God. As O'Tool states, "this more positive understanding of disability helped a group of pious, povres avugles [poor blind people]--as they were described in almost every charter--find a place in medieval society in which their physical difference (i.e. their blindness) became a marker of heightened religious status rather than of immorality and exclusion" (158). This brief overview does not capture what a fine social study this article offers of this institution.

Keeping our focus on Louis IX's medieval Paris, Keiko Nowacka's article "Persecution, Marginalization, or Tolerance: Prostitutes in Thirteenth-Century Parisian Society," presents a broad overview of the topic, addressing many different strands of historiography relating to medieval women and prostitution, but does not offer a clear or precise conclusion and what she says sits somewhat uncomfortably with the other essays in the volume. For her, the treatment of prostitutes was "unlike their less fortunate contemporaries [Jews, heretics, and lepers] prostitutes were able to co-exist with their contemporaries in the city" (195). But--as Bremer has shown--this was the case for lepers. For the most part, as we somewhat know, prostitution was treated as a necessary evil, albeit one that could and should be redeemed. Peter Scott Brown's article, "Scoundrels and scurrilitas at St-Pierre de Sévignac," addresses the meaning of the archivolt sculpture of this twelfth-century church in northern Béarn. The archivolts crown a tympanum showing Christ translating the law to Peter and Paul and depict men, "revelers," who "may be rude but are patently not monstrous....outsiders, insofar as they dwell on the edges of the church portal,...wicked and lawless,...an anti-model of authority presented by the apostles accepting the law from Christ in the portal's sacred center" (198). Scott shows how the archivolt's sculpture through its humor and inappropriateness "informs a conventional image of the Other in medieval European culture" (198). The images, according to Brown, are meant to encourage the viewer to identify more with the sacred that will lure them into the church space and in turn to recognize and indulge vicarious enjoyment of the foolish, scurrilous and inappropriate that identifies these "Others." Yet who the "Other" is in this case other than an anti-type is never explored and the term is used at its most general. It would have been nice in this context to have this essay reference some of the categories addressed by the volume's earlier essays.

In sum a more nuanced picture of France emerges, though we are left to wonder why issues of identity, exclusion and marginality came to the fore when they did, in the forms they did, particularly during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Certainly, as Barbara Hanawalt suggests in the "Afterward" that she contributed to the volume, the essays in this collection do offer "new approaches to understanding the subtleties of the ways in which social distinctions were defined." (227) This is true, but in many ways we still face the questions that scholars like R. I. Moore raised decades ago: why did a culture of persecution emerge when it did, and how is persecution constitutive of elite power? [1] Indeed, the role of power is never really dealt with here. The authors hope, it seems, that an anthropologically inflected reading of some of these sources will illuminate the margins without clouding the picture by attending to power. Yet, most of the sources used in these articles to describe heretics, prostitutes, lepers and so forth, are texts created by the elite about those who are being excluded. In this sense, it would have been very helpful to have included a discussion of the source question at the start of the volume. To do so, may also help us discern more rigorously what is specifically Frankish or French about the medieval experiences of difference.



1. It is unfortunate that when R. I. Moore is cited in the introduction he is referred to erroneously as Roger Ian Moore, rather than correctly as Robert Ian Moore. Surprisingly, the editors also cite the The Origins of European Dissent (Oxford, 1985), yet many of the ideas pertaining to this discussion of difference and identity are treated in more explicit terms in Moore's more far- reaching study, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford, 1987; reprinted, 2007).

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Anne E. Lester

University of Colorado, Boulder