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22.10.08 Bührer-Thierry et al. (eds.), Les Communautés Menacées au Haut Moyen Âge

22.10.08 Bührer-Thierry et al. (eds.), Les Communautés Menacées au Haut Moyen Âge

In a world where English serves as the all but undisputed lingua franca for international scholarly pursuits, one collected volume defies the odds by presenting articles in no less than four different languages (French, German, Italian and English). On the one hand, one might question this decision, as it might reduce the reach of the book as a whole. On the other, however, it evokes a neat (if unintended?) meta-narrative that addresses the main themes of the project of which this volume is the result. The book stems from the SFB 923 Bedrohte Ordnungen (Tübingen), after all--and as I am composing this opening paragraph, I am all too aware that multilingual academia in itself represents such a “threatened order”. There are many good reasons for this development, and far be it for me to turn this review into a commentary on this phenomenon--let alone the editorial decisions leading to the present book--but in many ways it is almost refreshing to see a book that reminds its readers so explicitly that academia is and remains an international playground. Readers who accept the invitation to play along will find themselves rewarded with an interesting, thought-provoking, and remarkably coherent set of chapters which together showcase many different (inter)national schools of medieval history.

The book as a whole addresses the question how different communities respond to the harsh realities of life in the early medieval west. In order to do so, each author has set themselves the challenge of first defining a given community, then identifying a threat to said community from the extant source material, and finally showing how the aftermath of (or, reactions to) the perceived threat affected life within the community. In the process, they run the gamut of all levels of community from empires to villages, all kinds of threats from internal conflicts, to religious Others, to the weather, and every kind of stakeholder from local farmers to bishops and kings. This variety of approaches is laudable overall, even if it can be confusing to find that the type of “threat” varies from one author to the next. Sometimes the threat is merely perceived, but sometimes it poses a real existential threat. Sometimes the threat is caused by enemies from the outside, but sometimes it is more of an internal conflict and it is up to the sources to turn it in to a (retrospective) threat. In fact, it is not always clear where “threat” begins and “conflict” ends from one chapter to the next. However, the fact that no two articles are quite the same, means that the reader is offered a wide range of methods to identify “communities” and “threats” which they can then try out on their own source material.

The book itself is divided into four parts of unequal length, of which the first part could be seen as a two-tiered introduction to the material, and the last part also contains “a few remarks” by Ewald Frie to draw everything together. At the end, we are also treated to summaries in English of all the articles--and they are exemplary summaries indeed!--capped off by an index.

Grabowsky and Patzold kick off the proceedings with a helpful explanation of the questions set by the SFB (12-19): how communities are structured; how are they delineated in space and time; how they are defined by their members’ relation to the sacred; and how they rely on collective action to counter any threat that comes their way. Then follow Moritz Fischer and Boris Nieswand who offer some critical but supremely useful reflections on the tension between the concepts of “community” and “order” from their sociological vantage point (21-40). Departing from the question “what exactly is being threatened”, they treat a few useful theoretical concepts that could help historians come to grips with the material. Their overview, which touches upon the work of Agamben and Esposito, but also Tönnies and Durkheim as well as concepts like ‘retrotopia’ offers a number of interesting new starting points for people looking to add to the discourse on threatened orders. Especially noteworthy in this regard is their nuanced treatment of Norbert Elias, whose theory of the process of civilisation is often touted as a negative example in present-day discussions. Referring to his later works, however, Fischer and Nieswand show that, if we disregard his ideas about “civilisation”, his thoughts on smaller-scale communities are still useful to historians.

After this methodological opening salvo, we reach the next section of the book, which focuses on “Religious Communities”. Bührer-Thierry starts with a highly interesting take on the question how we might discern pagan communities in Christian writings from the 8th-10th centuries (43-55). Especially in later missionary texts, pagans are not the faceless masses we sometimes see in such texts. They are named communities with agency and agendas--which are then subverted by the imposition of a Christian super-community. It matters not whether these pagan communities actually existed, it seems; what matters is that they were set up to be torn apart by the arrival of the saints on the scene. The author, however, never goes so far as to posit the question to what extent this dynamic also serves as a self-reflexive warning to existing Christian communities in predominantly pagan areas, that have to fend for themselves and be weary of incursions by more dominant social groups. This is a question that is posed in the next article, by Johanna Jebe (57-79). While not dealing with a pagan-Christian dynamic, Jebe’s argument about reform as a threat to existing communities raises the image of different visions of Christianity competing for dominance in the community of Fulda. While the monks never completely suppress the ensuing debate, the fallout of these disccusions leads to a reinvention of certain traditions: as the internal order is threatened, a re-ordering of priorities ensues. Laurence Leleu then follows with a highly conjectural argument about the velatio of Adelheid in Quedlinburg in 995 (81-97). This was, she argues, a highly politicized ritual, framed historiographically as the endgame to an internal threat to the integrity of the community. The ritual, in the end, served not just to tie the Ottonians to the community of Saint Servatius, but also--in retrospect--to ensure that Quedlinburg would remain part of the Ottonian network. Barbara Rosenwein then takes us back to her pioneering work on Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (2007) by looking at Gregory of Tours’ representation of emotions as threats to the episcopal order as a whole (99-108). The big question, which she poses by way of conclusion, is whether “Gregory’s views were shared by the wider community of bishops” (106). The question remains, of course, difficult to answer with any certainty, but Rosenwein’s reminder that Merovingian bishops did not consider royal interference and aristocratic enmity to be the only threats to their order--they should also look into the mirror every now and again, and Gregory is more than happy to hold it up for them. Rounding out this section, we have Andreas Öffner’s re-reading of the episcopal Rescriptum of 829 (109-130). In line with arguments by, for instance, Mayke de Jong’sThe Penitential State: Authority and Attonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (2009) or Steffen Patzold’s Episcopus: Wissen über Bischöfe im Frankenreich des späten 8. bis frühen 10. Jahrhunderts (2008), Öffner wonders aloud to what extent this was a prescriptive document or a reflective one--and to what extent its ideas show a concern for the clergy exclusively or for the ecclesia as a whole. The answer, as always, is that it depends on who would read a text such as these, and what the reader felt threatened by at that very moment.

We then turn to the next section, on “Urban Communities”. This section starts with a comparative analysis by Marco Stoffella of the responses to the Frankish conquest in the cities of Verona and Lucca in the early ninth century (133-150). He presents an interesting argument, showing how different emphases on continuity or change also necessitate the amplification of Frankish or Lombard identities in the sources. In the end, however, the vast difference in the number of extant sources from the period make the comparison between cities inevitably a bit muddled. One wonders if a comparison based purely on the texts would have yielded clearer results. Giorgia Vocino follows with something akin to a companion piece to Stoffella’s chapter, as she offers a sharp analysis of how the tension between “real” pasts and “idealised” histories played a role in the establishment of the authority of the episcopal see of Modena (151-171). Taking into account narratives, manuscripts, archaeology and an aptitude for bringing together these interdisciplinary strands, she convincingly shows how the bishops of Modena effectively created a community in order to govern it. Staying in Italy, Vito Loré then takes us to Salerno to give us a taste of the reverse situation (173-184). His chapter shows us what happens one when communities are strengthened due to threats from within, and where collective protests against those in power end up consolidating the social order rather than subverting it.

Finally, we reach the final group of chapters, on “Rural Communities”. We start with an ambitious article by Elena Ziegler, who traces the influence of extreme weather on Frankish legislation in the 820s (187-201). It is a fascinating, innovative and important approach to the long-term (but still largely reactionary) policies formulated by the Carolingian court. As such, it deserves more expansive treatment than we witness in this contribution--the author is wise to raise questions and hypotheses instead of presenting us with outright answers. In such a longer treatment, this reviewer would like to see more attention given to the fair number of contemporary hagiographical sources and the perspectives they offer on climate, weather and the threats posed by the elements. Nicholas Schroeder does dwell on hagiographical narratives in his chapter, which should definitely be read as a companion piece to Ziegler’s chapter (203-215). His sharp and very convincing analysis of the Miracula sancti Huberti argues that the author of the text used the threat of storms (nature as controlled by God) and the mediating influence of Saint Hubert (also controlled by God) to not only raise the profile of the saint, but also of the monastic community around him. They, after all, were responsible for the safekeeping of the relics responsible for the safekeeping of the region. The final chapter in this section is by Thomas Kohl, and takes us back to the real world of conflicts between and within regional communities (in this case the familiae of Lorsch and Worms). In an intricate reconstruction of the various ways in which they were seen to threaten each other, and how perceived wrongdoers were subsequently punished--and how such punishments affected the authority of those higher up the hierarchy--he concludes that even institutionalised communities like these familiae could scarcely be controlled when their members felt threatened. Immediate responses to immediate threats only affected social practices in the longer term.

As was to be expected, the authors in this volume each have a slightly different interpretatin of the big concepts in the title: what is community really? And how exactly could they be threatened? Most chapters clarify this, but it behooves the reader to pay attention to the methodological framing in order to discern how the contributions fit together: some communities encompass entire empires, after all, whereas others remain at the level of face-to-face interaction. Some threats are real, others only exist in the eye of the historiographer, and not all of them could be avoided by proper conflict management. This makes the volume as a whole a sometimes challenging read--and the code-switching needed from one chapter to the next might add to that challenge for some readers. In the end, the coherence is ensured by the fact that all authors clearly started from a similar set of questions. The diversity of their answers should serve as an inspiration to other scholars working on similar topics to apply the same mode of thinking to their sources. If anything, it will serve as a reminder that even the most elusive communities crystallize in the sources the moment someone feels threatened.