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16.11.08, Gantner, McKitterick, and Meeder, eds., The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe

16.11.08, Gantner, McKitterick, and Meeder, eds., The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe

This collection of essays is the fruit of a three-year project on "Cultural memory and the resources of the past, 400-1000 AD" sponsored by the European Science Foundation. Its contributors are made up of a blend of senior scholars (Mayke de Jong, Rosamond McKitterick, Walter Pohl, Helmut Reimitz, and Ian Wood), junior scholars (Clemens Ganter, Erik Goosmann, Sven Meeder, Marianne Pollheimer, Giorgia Vocino, and Graeme Ward), and dissertating graduate students (Timothy Barnwell, Richard Broome, Robert Flierman, and Désirée Scholten).

The fifteen essays, which run on average from 15 to 18 pages, are distributed among four sections: "Learning empire," the "Biblical past," "Changing senses of the other from the fourth to the eleventh centuries," and the "Migration of cultural traditions in early medieval Europe." In general, the contributors focus on a particular author, text, or combination of texts, and examine how the said author or text (often a manuscript) has deployed or used earlier texts, usually from the (late) Roman period, to create a usable past in the early middle ages, especially during the Carolingian period.

The collection opens with a discussion of "Cultural memory" by Pohl and Wood, who briskly review some theoretical literature on collective and historical memory which, they argue, has tended both to exaggerate the homogeneity of cultural communities and to ignore the middle ages. The present volume's emphasis on manuscripts and the busy collecting, editing, and re-writing of texts, by contrast, opens up a world made up of "different types of identity" and the manifold "resources of the past" which early medieval writers creatively harnessed in various ways to the idea of "one Christian people and a world of gentes" (8-9).

Part I on "Learning empire" consists of four essays by Pohl, Scholten, Goosmann, and Ward which explore how late antique sources were exploited for models of Christian rulership. Pohl examines the shifting positive and negative portrayals of empire among historians of the Christian Roman empire because "this was the most likely model for a renewed Christian empire of the [Carolingian] West" (17). He then turns to Paul the Deacon as a conduit of imperial language and ideas from Italy to the Frankish north; and finds in Paul's History of the Lombards--and in the ecclesiastical historians of late antiquity--a preference for Theodosius as a model Christian emperor, and a surprisingly ambivalent portrayal of Constantine. Among the works of Christian historiography Pohl takes up is Cassiodorus's Historia tripartite, a compilation of ecclesiastical histories of Sozomen, Socrates, and Theodoret, and whose pre-manuscript history is the subject of Scholten's chapter. While Scholten maintains that the Historia tripartite "is Cassiodorus's answer to the problem of how the church and emperor should work together on the larger stage of empire" (39), the essay is mostly taken up with the immediate theological controversies in the East and the possible network of people that fed into Cassiodorus's compilation. The "proper relationship between emperor and bishops" (80) is taken up more squarely in Ward's "Lessons in leadership: Constantine and Theodosius in Frechulf of Lisieux's early ninth-century Histories." By contrast with Paul the Deacon in Pohl's essay, Frechulf mined late antique ecclesiastical histories (including the Historia tripartite) to promote both Constantine and Theodosius as models of pious emperors during the reign of Louis the Pious when the idea of empire was now supposed to express the solidarity of a single Christian people. An example of this is how the Histories presents Theodosius's penance before Ambrose as a model for understanding Louis the Pious's public penance of 822. Goosmann's chapter turns to what he argues was an earlier public penance, the Carolingian-era conversion of Carloman in 747. By contrast with the other three essays in this sections, this chapter dwells not on the use of late Roman materials, but on how the major hits of subsequent Carolingian historiography down to Regino of Prum's chronicle reflected on the event. The episode, he says, "was an act of public penance that had much in common with the fates of those Merovingian kings who were driven from the political stage through forced tonsure or monastic exile" (53). The argument works so long as one accepts that a forced tonsure can be categorized as a public penance, although they would seem to me to be two different things. "Carloman's abdication and conversion," he says, "came to be presented as an act of penance" in histories after Louis's penance, but Goosmann also wants to argue that "Carloman's conversion had been and act of penance from the start" (59-60), but that we cannot see it because eighth century chroniclers preferred to 'keep silent about the penitential context of his conversion' (p. 64). Part II on the "Biblical past" includes essays by de Jong, Meeder, Pollheimer, and Vocino. De Jong's contribution moves the spotlight from rulers to "three members of [the] highest echelon," Hrabanus Maurus, Dhuoda, and Radbert, to show how the Bible "provided a constant yardstick against which earthly experiences were measured, interpreted and justified" (89). In particular, she examines Hrabanus's supposed treatise on filial piety, which she argues has been misleadingly titled On Honouring One's Parents. She shows that it is more accurately amounts to an argument--based on Old Testament examples--that "Louis's public confession in Soissons in 833 should have merited forgiveness, rather than punishment" (93). Similarly, Dhuoda held up for her son the biblical fathers, and Radbert reproduced examples of the prophets in his defense of Wala. Meeder explores how an obscure, early eighth century canonical collection, the Collectio 400, wove together Roman law, older and younger canonical tradition, and patristic authorities "into a tradition with the biblical past" (114), and thereby put forth an "imagined community centered on the Bible" (116). Pollheimer's chapter explores the manuscripts and reception of Junillus Africanus's Handbook of the Basic Principles of Divine Law in the Carolingian period. Originally composed for Justinian in the sixth century, it was copied and recopied "in the Carolingian period in places where there were similar interests in rulership, law and exegesis" (119) as Carolingian rulers and advisers pondered the biblical foundations of secular law and authority. Vocino's chapter is an outlier in the section, and perhaps would have been better placed in part one, since it assesses the late antique and early medieval sources of the Carolingian Life of Ambrose, rather than biblical ones. She offers a compelling argument that the vita, written for the archbishop of Milan, casts Ambrose as the ideal bishop who defended the church and "advises, admonishes and corrects the ruler" (146)--a model fit for the prominent role played by the archbishops of Milan during the long reign of Louis II. Part III on "Changing senses of the other" is distinguished by its attention to the nearer eighth and ninth century texts, rather than those of the late antique past; as well as to the ambiguous and seemingly contradictory portrayals of non-Frankish peoples. Broome's treatment of the "otherness" of "Pagans, rebels and Merovingians" in the early Carolingian period, and Flierman's of "Saxon (in)fidelity in Frankish historical writing," are less examinations of how "resources of the past" were deployed than straightforward analyses of how "others" were constructed in Carolingian texts. Broome concludes that Carolingian authors presented "an idealized world," but also images which "allowed for ambiguities in their portrayals of others, partly by focusing on scapegoats, but more generally by allowing that others could be (re)integrated in the Carolingian Frankish community" (171). Similarly, Flierman charts the shifting perceptions which did not "fully 'exclude' or 'other' the Saxons" such that their infidelity was "an erasable trait" and "the Saxons could, and did, become part of the Christian people" (205). Ian Wood explores "Bede's readings of Old Testament peoples" in his commentary, In Genesim, but especially his depiction of Philistines in his commentary on I Samuel, as a way to understand "one of the key notions employed in understanding the success and failure of individual peoples of the early medieval peoples: that of the New Israel" (173). Bedes's depictions of people could be contradictory, but in the end what mattered to him was "not the descent of peoples," i.e. ethnic otherness, but "their salvation and their role in the salvation of others" (186).

The unexpected surprise and real treat of the entire collection for me was Timothy Barnwell's admirably self-aware "Fragmented identities: otherness and authority in Adam of Bremen's History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen." Barnwell takes up the problem of Adam's use of the Carolingian witnesses to the northern lands, but instead of reflexively interpreting Adam as a shrewd and calculating manipulator of resources--a conclusion that manuscript studies have a tendency to leap to; he has tried to situate him firmly within an indigenous ontology of history that saw the past through the lenses of biblical exegesis. Credit for this is assigned in the conclusion to Wood's and Meeder's essays, but the implications more thoroughly imbue Barnwell's contribution. In Meeder's essay this is assumed rather spelled out; and although Wood dwells on the issue a bit to show how exegesis informs an often contradictory depiction of peoples, his essay reverts to a standard--and excellent--modern, Niebuhrian dating and contextualization of Bede's commentary on Samuel. For Barnwell, exegesis raises important issues which go to the heart of Adam's disposition as a writer so that we really can take very little for granted about his intentions. We cannot assume, he says, that Adam believed he was manipulating the world through his writing because for him "the author was secondary to past literary authorities and the standards of the genre" (210). Nor can we jump to the conclusion where Adam did alter a source, e.g. Einhard, that he was deliberately contradicting or debating anyone, when in fact he seems to think he was confirming his sources. We also have to jettison our desire for consistency, rooted Barnwell notes in modern "literary analysis," which assumes some consistency in the "author's aims, the shape of their society, or whatever other paradigm the historian chooses to apply" (212). Adam was comfortable with paradox and contradiction because the underlying logic of his approach was exegetical, which meant that barbarians, Christians, pagans, and various peoples could be used at once to make multiple salvific or cautionary moral points.

The last section on the "migration of cultural traditions" is made up of articles by McKitterick and Ganter on Rome and the papacy, and a third by Reimitz on the rewriting of history at Lorsch around 800. McKitterick's chapter on "Transformations of the Roman past and Roman identity" focuses on the Liber pontificalis, in particular on how the topography of the city of Rome impacted the Liber, on how the Liber helped "shape perceptions of a specifically Roman and Christian identity" (227), as well as how the Liber relates to the Eusebius-Jerome Chronicle, which "presents itself predominately as the history of the city of Rome" (240). The juxtaposition of the Liber and the Chronicle in a later manuscript at Lucca shows that both were important in shaping "a wider sense of the Christian past and Christian identity in the early Middle Ages" (244). Ganter offers a complementary examination of the eighth century papacy "as cultural broker" within Italy, and between the Latin West and Greek East, and Italy and the Frankish North. Similar to Broome's and Flierman's chapters, the essay dwells less on texts as resources of the past, and more on the image of the popes as it is reflected in councils and especially the Liber pontificalis. Ganter's papacy come off as looking something like a Wall Street investment house--we might call it the Brokerage Firm of Zacharias, Honorius and Silvester. His papacy is not a "producer of resources," but rather a "broker" of "transactions" of "cultural and social" and "political" "capital," and "cultural resources"; and thus is able to "profit even more from the exchange' (245, 247, 249, 250, 253, 255-257, 260-261). Reimitz offers a rich, literally textured, examination of the "writing and re-writing of Church history at the monastery of Lorsch," which was close to the Carolingian court and whose monks engaged in "serious research and careful selection" of manuscripts. From this trove of biblical and historical materials the monks devised their own ecclesiastical history: "a new Church history in which the Lorsch historians combined Gregory of Tours' Histories with the fourth book of Fredegar's Chronicle and its Continuations" as well as "models of earlier Church histories" such as Bede and Rufinus (268, 271). He argues that there might have been a connection between this historical project and the revisions of the Carolingian genealogy at Metz, both of which emphasized not the Trojan origins of the Franks, but rather the "formation of a shared Christendom" (281) in the Carolingian empire.

The volume closes with a conclusion by de Jong and McKitterick who sum up the articles as a collective demonstration of how late antique and early medieval writers "integrated and transformed" Roman, Christian, and biblical history. The contributions they argue show that "cultural memory...cannot be restricted to small communities, nor to the 'popular' history of the 1970s that excluded anything reminiscent of...ecclesiastical culture" (288-289). Nor, they say, do the investigations attest to a clean division between "normative and formative" texts, since many do both. Texts "do more than reflect ethnic, social and cultural identities;" they also "contributed to the creation of identities, gave meaning to social practice, and were often intended, directly or indirectly, to inspire, guide, change or prevent action" (290).

In sum, this volume's greater focus on the manuscript evidence makes it a worthy, if sometimes uneven, complement to Cambridge University Press's earlier The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. M. Innes and Y. Hen (2000); and contributes to the profession's ongoing, and increasingly successful effort, to conceptualize the distinctiveness of early medieval European culture as something much more than an unimaginative pastiche of inherited traditions.