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24.01.06 Booker et al. (eds.), Visions of Medieval History in North America and Europe

24.01.06 Booker et al. (eds.), Visions of Medieval History in North America and Europe

Identity has long fascinated medievalists. How did medieval people understand themselves? How fixed or situational were their identities? How were identities used? The topic is not only tricky, but urgent. Appeals to “medieval” identities still justify hatred and violence. Few have tackled this topic more ably than Patrick Geary, whose searching, humane work on the subject and whose productive career are honored by this collection of fifteen essays exploring “identity in its various manifestations throughout medieval Europe” (9).

Visions does not self-identify as a Festschrift, but as a thematic collection (9) divided into sections on “Ethnic Identities” (Poly, Reimitz, Wolfram), “Inheritance and Identity” (Schoolman, Whitten, Hummer), “Religious Identities” (Beneš, Todorov, Polanichka), “Legal and Political Identities” (Koziol, Brown, Popa-Gorjanu), and “Memories, Texts, and Identities” (Maskarinec, Eldevik, Booker). But Geary’s inspiration is visible throughout (63-64, 76, 83, 124, 129-130, 147, 171-172, 257-258, 335, 358-359, 373), and he graces the first and last footnotes like a scholarly Alpha and Omega (10n1, 411n101).

The editors’ introduction (9-28) opens by defining identity as “how a person, group, or society sees, understands, and expresses itself” (9). Two pages (9-10) ably cover basics (only perhaps understating how much the outside gaze can shape identity). There is an illuminating meditation (10-15) on identitas and persona in the fourth-century rhetors Marius Victorinus and Chirius Fortunatianus, as curated by an eighth-century manuscript (Cologne, Dombibliothek, Cod. 166), with admirable attention to how the medium informed the message. The manuscript’s “obsessive concern with being and the participation in existence that shapes consciousness, meaning, and identity” (15) was fascinating reading. The editors then segue to a contents-summary (16-24) defending the volume’s coherency while hinting at Geary’s influence.

The first essay, in French, by Jean-Pierre Poly (31-62), examines 40 fourth-century military funerary inscriptions at Concordia (plus others). Two souls, Roman and non-Roman, abided in the breasts of these soldiers, to judge by their inscriptions. The observation is familiar, but Poly’s analysis, including attention to onomastics, status, deeds, and religion, is edifying. Those who lecture on this topic will find slide-worthy examples (e.g., 53, CIL 3.1.1 no. 3576: “I, a Frankish citizen, a Roman soldier in arms, / Always lifted my arm most virtuously in war”).

Helmut Reimitz (63-82) examines ethnicity and ethnic identity (differentiated at 66) in what he playfully calls “our...colleagues” (67), Isidore of Seville, Gregory of Tours, and the Fredegar-Chronicle, with a focus on how Gregory and Fredegar, with similar material, diverged. While Gregory’s Histories gradually undermined the centrality of gentes (70-71), the Fredegar-Chronicle, by selective editing, genre, and juxtaposition, used Gregory to say the opposite: the Franks were the culmination of a history of peoples (72-74). The story may be familiar to those who know Reimitz’s excellent 2015 book, but this essay offers fresh nuance, and stresses that our medieval “colleagues” were aware of “alternative world views” (74). [1]

Herwig Wolfram, doyen of the “Vienna School,” discusses the “Nemítzioi” (83-103), a Greek name derived from Slavic “mute ones” (84-85) used to describe Bavarians in an address-list of the De ceremoniis of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (913-959). The Bavarians and Eastern Franks--but not other Germans--were classed as Nemítzioi. Building on his earlier German-language work, Wolfram uses the contingent history of central European ethnonyms to make the wider point that medieval ethnic dividing-lines fall in places we might not expect.

Edward M. Schoolman fruitfully examines (107-128) the framing of self as a component of inheritance in ninth- to eleventh-century Ravenna charters. He studies the “ex genere” formula (111-115, table 5.1), originally referring to ethnic origin (e.g., ex genere Francorum), but encompassing other birthrights (e.g., ex genere consul, 112); family histories, especially involving women (115-122); and profession- or place-indicators (e.g., the personal names Ravennus and Ravenna, 123). Schoolman is especially illuminating on the anchoring role of women in a city that founded its identity on Galla Placidia more than Theoderic or Justinian.

Sarah Whitten (129-150) continues the focus on gender by looking at legal identity among marginal persons, especially women, in early medieval southern Italy. She contends that the socially sidelined found in (Lombard) law a necessary protection and a means of self-assertion. Identity as legal subjects was bound up with agency as persons, but this applied more to women than men (139-40, 146). [2] Whitten shows that legal identity in southern Italy was meaningfully gendered. She also reveals how thoroughly Lombard law shaped case outcomes, with riveting examples from a rich but understudied dossier, the charters of Cava.

Hans Hummer’s essay (151-167) on inheritance builds on his 2018 bookon kinship, which criticized social science for undervaluing spiritual kinship at the expense of blood relations. [3] Here the subject is property transmission. Inheritance, Hummer argues, was not a “zero-sum” game pitting “biogenetic” heirs against spiritual ones (163). Properties donated to ecclesiastical houses only sometimes descended from donors’ blood-relatives (159-160). Even a skeptic, doubting that blood-heirs watching lands go to Fulda really saw the monks as “family,” must acknowledge the power of Hummer’s numerical and discursive arguments for the social centrality of spiritual kinship.

Carrie Beneš offers a riveting study (171-190) of Jacopo da Varagine’s sacred geography. Better known as the author of the Golden Legend, this late thirteenth-century archbishop of Genoa was also his city’s chronicler and holy booster. Beneš examines three of Jacopo’s relic translation accounts (John the Baptist, Syrus, Philip and James), with an eye to how Jacopo used space and materiality to make the saints’ relics specially Genoese. The contrast with the Golden Legend is striking, vindicating Beneš’s contention (also expressed in her research on Jacopo’s Chronicle) that Jacopo was an author of many turns. With vivid examples (e.g., an epidemic-causing basilisk in a basilica), she illuminates questions of civic identity, materiality, space, and memory.

Boris A. Todorov’s essay (191-213) treats the commemoration of the 1346 Turkish invasion of Bulgaria by Slavic hagiography and paterika. Todorov focuses on memory, trauma (esp. 194-195), and the relation of both to rulership. He argues that in the wake of Turkish military success, Slavonic hagiographical authors and--crucially--manuscript-compilers promoted Byzantine imperial values of philanthropy, charity, and piety. Historians have read “hagiography as political theology” before; what is striking here is how those dynamics operated in a literary context lacking the usual genres for Kaiserkritik: panegyrics, princely mirrors, histories (210).

Dana M. Polanichka examines Dhuoda (215-253), a ninth-century aristocratic woman who authored a handbook on proper behavior for her (doomed) son William. Recently Dhuoda has enjoyed a research boom, to which Polanichka has already skillfully contributed. [4] Here she focuses on Dhuoda’s criticism of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which Dhuoda’s lay and female identity forced her to couch delicately. Polanichka’s argument is partly from silence (220-223), partly from Dhuoda’s treatment of connected themes: rituals (223-229), clergymen (229-237), and, fascinatingly, dogs (237-241). Carolingianists will read with interest and pleasure.

Geoffrey Koziol (257-286) addresses a venerable debate about how much or how little the eleventh-century Peace of God Movement built on Carolingian precedents. Koziol’s argument, building on his 2018 book, is that Carolingian mechanisms of peace-maintenance focused on centralized order, whereas post-Carolingian ones focused on decentralized self-help. [5] Despite similar-looking rhetoric, Koziol argues, these were dissimilar projects. With characteristic vim and close readings of primary sources, Koziol assembles a strong case against continuity.

Warren Brown (287-306) compares eleventh- and fourteenth-century France, two periods of more-than-usual reported violence. As in his 2010 book, Brown stresses the embeddedness of violence in notions of order/disorder. [6] What violence counted as ordered? The two centuries answered this question differently, Brown argues. Fourteenth-century writers, because they saw kings as arbiters of violence, unanimously lamented out-of-control violence. Eleventh-century writers, because many of them saw nonroyal violence as legitimate, were less univocal (288). This shift-in-norms thesis is compelling, but in blood spilt and lives upended, the war-, famine-, and plague-struck fourteenth century also strike this reviewer as just more brutal than the 1000s.

Cosmin Popa-Gorjanu discusses (307-332) anti-corruption legislation in thirteenth century Hungary. “Corruption” pits norms against norms, since a “bribe” in statutory law looks like old-fashioned “reciprocity” (310) to a working official. Popa-Gorjanu explores these dynamics (307-310, 328-330) in what is mostly a blow-by-blow account of anticorruption statutes in Hungarian decrees of 1222, 1231, 1267, 1298. There is a nice link with Todorov, Koziol, and Brown in the focus on royal accountability.

Maya Maskarinec (335-356) tells a detective story about a composite inscription, partly eighth-century, partly twelfth-century, listing properties owned by the titulus of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome alongside a confirmation of this titulus’ rights by a Pope Gregory. With deft pacing, she uncovers “a shrewd attempt to latch onto the past” (335). Maskarinec argues (350-352) that the titulus was responding to claims upon its vineyards from SS. Andrea e Gregorio across the street, using their rival’s great local authority, Gregory the Great, against them. Maskarinec solves a riddle, with Geary-esque insights about memory, but in her own bailiwick: a classic Festschrift-style essay, refreshing as a lemonade on a hot day.

Another gem was John Eldevik’s study (357-377) on the Letter of Prester John. Scholars usually read this forged epistle, from the imaginary Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel, as a reflection of Frederick Barbarossa’s imperial ambitions. Taking a cue from Bettina Wagner’s reassessment of the Überlieferung, Eldevik reads the Letter as the product of a more diffuse context: the (Bavarian) monasteries where manuscripts of the Letter were produced and consulted. While not denying the Letter’s Staufen links, Eldevik argues that it was consumed as a piece of monastic orientalism (361). Eldevik makes his case using codicological close- and far--reading, including the fact that the Letter was often added to already-finished manuscripts (364, with table 15.1). A stimulating, original contribution.

Courtney M. Booker (379-420) looks at the early modern history of a supposed oratio by Boniface to Pippin, the first Carolingian king, in 751. Starting with the third edition (1586) of François Hotman’s Francogallia, where it first appeared in print, Booker follows this text through early modern texts and manuscripts (with excellent images: Figures 16.16). There is an overarching argument about the nexus of law, identity, and power (407-408), but the joy of this essay is Booker’s infectious enthusiasm for the hunt. One is put in mind of Ihor Ševčenko’s tour de force on the Toparcha Gothicus.

The quality of the fare in this smorgasbord of learning is high. Even when contributors build on previously published work (admittedly often), it is always with fresh nuance. The book is well-edited, with good images and end-aids. Still, one must account for its self-proclaimed identity as a book about identity (9). Apart from the first two sections (where, for fresh insights, Schoolman and Whitten stood out), most of the essays are not fully “on topic.” There are gaps: much of the high and late Middle Ages, Spain, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Byzantium (mostly), Islam, minorities, and non-elites. Palaeogenetics, the cutting-edge of identity studies, is absent.

These criticisms are irrelevant if, as one suspects, Visions is really a Festschrift to Geary. But despite many hints that this is the case (the book’s title, for instance, mirrors a well-known essay by Geary), the editors have taken pains not to say so outright. In the introduction, Geary’s words spring up like clover in a field (he is cited 24 times), but in the text (as opposed to the notes) he is not even named. The introduction ends with an elegiac reflection on the legacy of great scholars, but the editors use Georges Duby in Geary’s stead (23-24). No mention is made of a certain 2019 conference in honor of Geary, with a similar title and cast of characters.

Like a butterfly species evolving new colors, the Festschrift genre seems committed to self-concealment. Whether due to publisher disinterest, as posited by another TMR reviewer in a similar case, [7] or to a Festschriftverbot on the part of the mentor, or whatever else, Visions commits to its genre camouflage. In the end, the subterfuge does little harm. But for the record, these high-quality essays are most satisfying not as component parts of a project on identity, but as loving and variegated tributes to a wonderful teacher and colleague, one of the great medievalists of our time.



1. Helmut Reimitz, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550-850 (Cambridge, 2015).

2. This complements her important essay on the occasional un importance of ethnic identity in conflicts among southern Italians: Sarah Whitten, “Franks, Greeks, and Saracens: Violence, Empire, and Religion in Early Medieval Southern Italy,” Early Medieval Europe 27 (2019): 251-278.

3. Hans Hummer, Visions of Kinship in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2018).

4. E.g., Dana Polanichka, “Quasi per speculum: Vision, Vigilance and the Natural World in Dhuoda’s Liber manualis,” Journal of Medieval History 46 (2020): 1-22.

5. Geoffrey Koziol, The Peace of God (Leeds, 2018), esp. 5-42.

6. Warren Brown, Violence in Medieval Europe (New York, 2010), e.g. vii, 8, 120. A closer engagement in this essay with Philippe Buc, “What is Order? In the Aftermath of the ‘Feudal Transformation’ Debates,” Francia 46 (2019): 289-300, could have been illuminating.