19.10.05 Balzaretti et al, Italy and Early Medieval Europe

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Valerie Ramseyer

The Medieval Review 19.10.05

Balzaretti, Ross, Jullia Barrow, and Patricia Skinner, ed. Italy and Early Medieval Europe: Papers for Chris Wickham. The Past and Present Book Series. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2018. pp. 567. ISBN: 978-0-19-877760-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Ramseyer
Wellesley College

This Festschrift consists of 36 articles written by an international group of scholars who work on a wide variety of geographical regions and time periods. The cohesion is based on the scholars' response to certain arguments or themes found in Chris Wickham's work. However, since Wickham himself has worked on a vast array of topics and places, this collection of essays is similarly wide ranging. It would be impossible to adequately review all 36 articles in detail, so instead I will try to briefly summarize some of the main conclusions and approaches of the articles, organized around the following topics: the transition from Roman to medieval, and from a tax-based to land-based state; cities and communes; the aristocracy and ruling elites; rural economy and the peasantry; courts and dispute settlements; feudalism; memory and fame; mountain-based societies; and religion.

Walter Pohl examines how different sources for 6th-century Italy offer contrasting views about the end of Roman rule, making it difficult to fit Italy's experience into the continuist or catastrophist models. Whereas Cassiodorus, representing the perspective of the central government, downplays war and focuses on bureaucratic regularity, the letters of Gregory I represent the perspective of the papacy with an emphasis on violence and social discord, as well as the growing importance of ascetic values. Cristina La Rocca discusses Theodoric's building and restoration program in Italy, showing how aristocrats could demonstrate loyalty to the king by participating in the program or could display opposition by ignoring or even destroying the urban patrimony of Rome. Thus, it was Roman aristocrats, and not barbarians, who were ultimately responsible for the deterioration of public monuments in the city. Patrick Geary examines 6th century Lombard Italy without reference to Paul the Deacon, a difficult task given the dearth of sources, and because archaeological evidence has generally been analyzed with reference to Paul. His conclusion is that the Lombards entered Italy as much as refugees as invaders, and that their success should be attributed to the lack of military resistance in the region. Ian Wood reevaluates the origins of the Northumbrian kingdom, claiming the kingdom of Bernicia owed as much to its Roman past as it did to Germanic settlements. Rather than viewing Northumbria as a fusion of the two tribal groups of the Deiri and Bernici, he links it to the fragment of the once united Roman military command in the region. Mayke de Jong focuses on the ways in which the publicusremained important in the early Middle Ages, seen in institutions such as law courts, assemblies, and royal offices. She also demonstrates how the secular and ecclesiastical realms existed as two independent yet overlapping spheres. Kings relied on bishops to rule, armies were sustained by church lands, and monasteries focused on prayer, seen as necessary for the well-being of the kingdom.

Paul Fouracre looks at how churches provisioned lighting in the era when large-scale oil production was replaced by locally-sourced oil. Churches relied on a variety of public and private sources, including donations of olive groves, peasant tribute, and the fisc. Because lighting was viewed as a moral and religious obligation, it was necessary in both weak and strong states, thus complicating Wickham's tax-to-rent/public-to-private model. Joanna Story also focuses on lighting, and how the ways in which Popes Gregory I and Gregory II procured oil for Roman churches reflect broader changes to the economy. Whereas Gregory I transferred rents to religious houses, Gregory II donated olive groves. Thus Italy saw a shift from an economy based on the centralized collection of services and rents in a single unit of account to one based on the acquisition of raw materials from many places. Caroline Goodson examines urban gardens in early medieval Italian cities, which provided populations with a steady supply of fruits and vegetables in a time with few regular markets and little specialized farming. However, the author warns that we shouldn't necessarily view this shift as a sign of decay or decline but rather as a deliberate shift in production related to changing power structures and new strategies for putting food on the table.

Alessandra Molinari examines the mechanisms of economic growth in Palermo and Rome over the long 12th century, using archaeology to reconstruct exchange networks, production systems, and settlement hierarchies. Both cities saw increased specialization and economic expansion, contrary to the traditional historiography that posits a stagnant economy for 10th-century Rome. Nonetheless, Palermo was a manufacturing city in the 12th century with commercialized agriculture linked to the trading networks of the Islamic world, whereas Rome was neither a manufacturing nor a commercial city. Paul Oldfield uses urban panegyrics to trace the new emotional and ideological understanding of the city beginning in the 12th century. Traditionally cities had been viewed through the contrasting lens of the heavenly city of Jerusalem and the sinful city of Babylon, which meant they were generally seen as places of moral decline linked to avarice. With the re-emergence of urban pride and civic consciousness, the city became revalorized as a locus for moral Christian living, although urban panegyrics both praised and at the same time condemned cities. Frances Andrews looks at the phenomenon of religious men holding office in the communes of Como and Padua, c. 1200-1450. Whereas religious officeholding was common in Como, in Padua fratres appear as arbiters and witnesses, but not as officeholders.

Pauline Stafford looks at the giving and receiving of high-status women through marriage in early medieval England. The offering up of a woman could either confirm or threaten the equality between two high-ranking men, and when it was a way to bring peoples together, it became part of the political argument in chronicles. Maria Elena Cortese studies changes to the middle-level military aristocracy of six cities located in the march of Tuscia from the late 10th through the early 12th centuries. The chapter shows the diverse experiences of the families in the 11th century in terms of their relationships to both bishops and marquises, and to cities and rural landholdings. Nonetheless, the families were all part of traditional hierarchies, participated in urban politics, cultivated the same types of political links, and exhibited similar social behaviors. In the 12th century after civil war and the collapse of the march, these families took diverging paths: some built rural lordships, some stayed within traditional hierarchies, and some participated in the formation of the first communes. Eduardo Manzano Moreno examines coinage in Islamic Spain, positing that the Umayyads, similar to rulers in other pre-capitalist societies, did not issue coins as part of an economic policy or as a means to facilitate economic exchanges. Instead they used coins as a source of prestige and as a means to fund building activities, to acquire luxury goods, and to pay soldiers and officials. Coinage was also a tool utilized by the ruling elite to create and shape political ties of reciprocity, establish social relations of dependence, and appropriate surplus through extra-economic coercion.

Marco Valenti discusses changes to rural settlements in early medieval northern and central Italy. He sees the Ostrogothic era as a time of population decline and economic regression as production facilities were simplified and trade slowed down. The 8th-10th centuries, on the other hand, saw economic growth with the establishment of new settlement networks and the expansion of lands under cultivation. Landowners began exercising tighter control over rural centers with the goal of maximizing profit. Production became centralized, food stocks were accumulated for consumption and markets, and rural families became increasingly dependent. Sandro Carocci examines villages and rural inhabitants in Norman Italy, stressing both the agency and diversity of the rural population. He uses the example of a mid-13th century rebellion in which rural communities in the Abruzzo region allied with the king in order to limit the power of their lords. These rebels were wealthy individuals with military ability, demonstrating the vast range of dependencies below the level of royal and seigneurial power. Even the peasantry enjoyed many rights, including access to open lands, ownership of property, and low exactions. G. A. Loud examines labor services and peasant obligations in southern Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries, noting the difficulties of making generalizations due to regional variations. Nonetheless, the author believes that labor services were probably more widespread than previously recognized, although he points out that dependent peasants owing light labor services may have been better off than free tenants who owed one-half of their crop. Laurent Feller examines wages and wage earners in the Middle Ages. According to the author, wages did not follow the laws of supply and demand but were instead arbitrary, serving to reaffirm the lord's power over workers. Thus salaries represented not freedom for the wage earner but the consolidation of a relationship of dominance, which for the worker meant exploitation, servitude, and poverty. Ross Balzaretti examines chestnut trees in the regions of Genoa and Milan, which local populations utilized as a source of both food and wood. He sees evidence that in Liguria chestnut cultivation became specialized in the 10th century, but no such indication for the territory of Milan. Giovanna Bianchi looks at mining operations in the Colline Metallifere area of Tuscany based on recent archaeological research, and in particular the use of slag to measure mining activity. Mining began as early as the 8th century and was in the hands of public powers, such as bishops and counts. However, when mining activity intensified starting in the late 10th century, operations went under the control of private entities based on castles and feudal lordships.

Wendy Davies reexamines the meaning of two terms found in documents from northern Iberia: boni homines and adstantes. Boni homines had a variety of definitions before the 11th century, although over time participants in court proceedings were increasingly referred to by the term. Adstantes was used for members at an assembly who conferred legitimacy, and who may or may not have been boni homines. Over time, however, it was no longer large assemblies but boni homines that conferred legitimacy, similar to Italy. Marios Costambeys looks at dispute notices in Italian archives c. 900-1100 from the perspective of preservation rather than content, viewing the decision to conserve documents as a response to specific moments of social pressures and political actions. Using the examples of the monastery of San Salvatore on Monte Amiata and the bishop of Piacenza, he contends that San Salvatore's archives stressed the monastery's relationship to the Aldobrandeschi family, while the episcopal archives emphasized the bishop's link to the comital aristocracy and other lay lords. Thus these archives demonstrate how in the 10th and 11th centuries the concern was not about property rights, but about formalizing the power of new groups, which included both ecclesiastical institutions and seignorial families. Edward Coleman examines a 12th-century dispute between the convent of San Sisto in Piacenza and the commune of Cremona over two rural communes in Cremona's contado, Guastalla and Luzzara. The dispute lasted almost 100 years, and although the commune of Cremona had no historical claims over the locales, a compromise was eventually brokered by the papacy whereby San Sisto renounced its rights over the rural communes in return for a payment. The dispute shows the fluidity of political boundaries, the effectiveness of Cremona's aggressive strategy, and the growing power of the papacy to resolve disputes.

Two chapters focus on the theme of feudalism, and whether or not it is a useful concept. Susan Reynolds returns to her argument that the term is anachronistic and leads to a misunderstanding of the medieval sources, especially when the "language of feudalism" is forced to fit the medieval evidence. Peter Coss, returning to his 1989 challenge of the traditional view of bastard feudalism in 14th-century England, reaffirms that the best way to view the long 13th century is through the lens of a "power-fuelled triangle" between crown, magnates, and knights. Unlike Reynolds, Coss upholds the usefulness of the term feudalism if utilized as a malleable concept able to accommodate different perspectives.

Elizabeth Fentress focuses on topographical memory, meaning how groups create and remember built places according to the changing needs of the times. She examines two places in Italy and one in Morocco, comparing documentary evidence with the archaeological record. For the Roman municipium of Cosa which became a Cistercian abbey, she demonstrates how a forged privilege from the 12th century represented a constructed memory about possessions, while for the site in Morocco she traces the movement of two bodies in the later Middle Ages that resulted in a repression of topographic memory when the new burial sites were created. Antonio Sennis looks at fame through the life of Zanobi da Strada who was crowned the first poet laureate in 1355 by Emperor Charles IV. Whereas an individual achieves glory during his or her lifetime, fame is bestowed on someone after death and can oscillate widely over time. The author also looks at how monasteries cultivated reputations for holiness in their quest to please God and attract donations and burials.

Two chapters focus on mountain-based societies. Patricia Skinner compares Wales and Calabria, noting how both locations had access to a sea and mixed economies in which pastoralism was an important component. Neither region was heavily urbanized, and churches in both places tended to be poorer and less prestigious than other areas. Nonetheless, Calabria differed from Wales in that it was not made up of small, separate polities. Chris Callow believes that medieval Iceland was similar in many ways to mountain-based locales in western Europe such as Wales, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Norway, and Iceland. It lacked political unity, had an economy based on tenant farming, and political power dependent on social skills, material wealth, and inherited power. However, Iceland had less sophisticated social structures and an elite that was not as powerful or wealthy as its European counterparts.

Although Wickham's scholarship has tended to stay away from religious topics, a number of the chapters in this volume focus on religion. Rosamond McKitterick examines a disputed papal election in 768-69 in which rival noble factions fought over who would become pope, with Stephen III eventually winning out over Constantine II. The author shows how Stephen and his supporters used the conflict to create new rules about papal elections. She also contrasts this view of Stephen with his depiction in the Liber Pontificalis, which emphasized the pope's professional loyalty in the face of political intrigue, aristocratic factions, and clerical parties. Rosemary Morris looks at the monastic meaning of water with a focus on Athos in the 10th and 11th centuries. Water was an important resource for the monastery that had to be acquired, managed, and guarded. Yet it also had a religious meaning: it was necessary for ablutions before services, utilized in liturgical celebrations, and in hagiography, it exhibited divining abilities. Paolo Delogu examines the motivations behind religious donations in Lombard Italy. The author views donations as rational acts with practical results: donors gave wealth in exchange for divine mercy. In addition, since good works were rewarded in heaven, wealth was not viewed negatively but as something to be used for pious ends. Nonetheless, donors did not aim for larger social goods or societal change but merely sought their own salvation. Julia M. H. Smith examines an 8th-century text from Rome describing the exorcism of the daughter of a wealthy Syrian bishop, drawing a number of conclusions about religious practices in Rome at the time. First the story demonstrates the fluidity between religion, magic, and superstition. It also shows the anxiety about dismembering saints and placing their relics in different locations. Finally, it reveals the differing religious practices of Roman and Eastern Christians, and how certain eastern practices, even when condemned, were nonetheless accommodated in the papal city. John Haldon looks at the link between warfare and religion in Christendom. Whereas in the west the idea of military action leading to a heavenly reward appears as early as the mid-8th century, in Byzantium the idea is first seen in a military treatise from the second half of the 9th century. The author notes how the 9th century is also the era when Byzantine authors began to show a better understanding of both Islam and jihad. Julia Barrow investigates the use of the term "reform" in medieval sources, where it took on a wide array of meanings, usually focused on the idea of restoration. It could mean the return of health, the reestablishment of peace, the reinstating of a person back into an office, the restoring of property or privileges, or the repair of buildings. It could also refer to the implementation of institutional change applied to specific houses, or to the restoration of ordines within the church. However, the author points out that the word is used less frequently in medieval sources than it is in English today. RĂ©gine Le Jan examines Matilda's gifts to the papacy, viewing donations as part of a large system of exchange centered on the afterlife. Donations created liturgical memory, offered assurance for salvation, and provided support for religious houses. They were also used as a means to negotiate fidelity with vassals and redefine political equilibrium. However, Matilda's donations did not mean she was breaking with her kin or giving up her patrimonial right, and Henry V was later recognized as her heir.

The authors of this volume have produced well-researched and stimulating studies on a variety of topics and regions. They interrogate the innovative frameworks and paradigms found in the prolific writings of Chris Wickham, and many of the chapters take an interdisciplinary approach. The volume is a fitting celebration to the wide-ranging and thought-provoking scholarship of Chris Wickham.

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