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Saintly Monarchs and Cities of Strangers at the Annual ‘Orme Day’

The Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter is well-known for its sense of community, and for the value it places on the exchange of ideas in an informal and relaxed setting. One of the key events in our research year, the annual Orme Day, aims to achieve exactly that with a postgraduate symposium followed by the Nicholas Orme lecture, a public lecture on medieval studies by a visiting speaker. This year’s event – affectionately known as the ‘Feast of Orme’ – took place on Tuesday 12th March. After the unfortunate disruption to last year’s event caused by industrial action, we were delighted to be able to run the event in its traditional format once again.

The day began shortly after lunch, with a series of 20-minute presentations from current postgraduate students. The topics of these presentations reflected the wide range of research undertaken at the Centre. Philip Wallinder’s talk, ‘Apocryphal? Who, Me?’, examined John Trevisa‘s approach to translating the Gospel of Nicodemus into Middle English and was informed by both translation theory and the close-reading of Latin and Middle English texts. Trevisa’s concordance of several distinct calendar systems and his use of intertextuality offered fruitful topics for discussion, as Philip drew on texts from St. Jerome’s Chronicon to recent editions of the Latin Nicodemus to illustrate the relationship between the Middle English ‘Nicodemus’ and its sources.

Q&A for the speakers (standing), under the watchful eye of Prof. Orme

By contrast, Ekaterina Novokhatko, a visiting PhD student and member of the HERA After Empire project, focused on more geographical questions in her presentation. She outlined her attempts to map the spread of martyrological texts (and their attendant communication networks) in eleventh-century Europe. Her talk showed how Catalonia functioned as a zone of contact, within which French interest in the life of St. Gerald met the northern Italian focus on St. Alexius; using mapping tools, she neatly illustrated how these two ‘models of the layman saint’ circulated together in the area in which a contemporary pope, Silvester II, had studied in his youth.

There was a similar saintly focus to Henry Marsh‘s talk, albeit in a less conventional sense: Henry explored the Gesta Henrici Quinti (1413-16), a text that has typically been interpreted as a paean to his namesake’s celebrated martial prowess. Henry, however, focused squarely on those readings that emphasise the almost-hagiographic elements of the text, arguing that in order to grasp the anonymous author’s full understanding of the king, it is necessary to acknowledge those readings that look beyond the commonly-cited sources of chivalric texts and to consider the Gesta as a response to challenges posed both by France and by Lollardy. The text, Henry noted, frames the King’s physical struggles as spiritual struggles, down-playing traditional ‘hack-and-slash’ romance-inspired elements and aligning the monarch, perhaps counterintuitively, with saints who had faced off against temporal power. While the Gesta might be useful for analysing myth-making, Henry suggested, it is equally important to ask precisely which myths its author was attempting to create.

Following a short break, the gaggle of medievalists reassembled in the plush surroundings of the Business School for the keynote Orme Lecture, delivered by the inimitable Miri Rubin. Prof. Rubin’s talk concerned urban societies in the Middle Ages and was entitled ‘(Italian) Cities of Strangers: Some Ways Medieval Cities Thought About Their Diversity’. As she explained, this topic was just one of many that would have paid tribute to the work of Nicholas Orme, but it was probably the most effective in allowing the assembled audience to engage with the ‘search for the human’ that has been at the heart of his research.

Prof. Miri Rubin giving the annual Orme Lecture

Over the course of her lecture, Prof. Rubin examined attitudes to ‘strangers’ and ‘foreigners’ in medieval Italy and beyond, charting how the ‘Great Transformation’ of the fourteenth century led to a shift in views on non-locals. Thinkers and legal theorists, she stressed, increasingly moved away from ‘pathways to citizenship’ and embraced a ‘rhetoric of exclusion’. Her startling final slide – showing a post-Black-Death ‘ideal’ city as one that appeared to be empty – left us all with plenty to think about. It was a talk that talk invited comparisons with contemporary attitudes towards immigration and integration, and stressed the complex relationship between medieval and modern attitudes to the ‘other’.

It certainly was a fascinating and stimulating day for all involved, and a reminder of the vitality and vision that characterise the Centre for Medieval Studies’ research community. The Centre would like to thank all of those involved in planning, organising and contributing to the event, from postgraduates to our keynote speaker; in particular, however, we would like to show our appreciation for Nicholas Orme, whose generous funding of the lecture series allows us to invite many of the leading lights of contemporary medieval studies to challenge, inspire, and invigorate us all.

Ed Mills, PhD student

After Empire: Revisiting Europe’s Iron Age

What happens after empire? In an age in which Europe continues to grapple with its colonial past, there could scarcely be a more timely question. Yet while the Fall of Rome is frequently invoked within political debates (for better or for worse), the same can scarcely be said of the Carolingian Empire, which spanned much of northern and western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, fundamentally transforming the continent’s political landscape.

The Carolingian Empire
The Carolingian Empire

The decision of the HERA partnership to fund a major project investigating the aftermath of the Carolingian Empire – the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’, to use the favoured terminology – is therefore to be warmly welcomed. Sarah Hamilton has already written about the project’s aims and her contribution, so I would like to take the opportunity to reflect more generally on the post-Carolingian period, in the light of the project’s inaugural conference in Berlin last month.

After Empire

As Stefan Esders, our host, explained in his introductory remarks, the core idea behind the project is to view the tenth century not simply as a prelude to the central Middle Ages, but as a development out of the Carolingian age. The focus is therefore on change as well as continuity, on seeing how similar texts and ideas came to take on new meanings in the post-Carolingian world. These themes came through strongly in almost all of the papers (helpful summaries of which can be found by searching #UNUP on Twitter). A common refrain was that texts and ideas developed in the Carolingian period continued to be used and applied within the tenth century, whether in the form of local institutional histories (Koziol), notions of identity (Diesenberger), legal materials (Esders), liturgical laudes (Welton) or normative ordinances (West). Yet such apparent continuity can be misleading, as these (and other) speakers noted: even when copying or imitating Carolingian texts or genres, tenth-century writers repackaged these for the present; this was not a case of stagnation or idle nostalgia, but of strikingly new variations on existing themes. Then as now, invoking the past was a powerful rhetorical tool, but not one which should be mistaken for straightforward continuity.

 

Nor it was not all about continuity either. The focus of Sarah Hamilton’s paper was rites of excommunication, which are first recorded in the tenth century. This raises important questions about the impetus behind such acts of codification. Similarly my own paper touched on some of the earliest examples of imitative script – that is, self-consciously archaic writing – from Europe, whilst Sarah Greer provided a thoughtful consideration of the foundation of Quedlinburg, one of the most important new convents of the tenth century. There was, therefore, plenty new going on in these years. But just as change can often be detected within continuity, so one must be careful not to exaggerate the novelty of these developments: new texts, rites and convents certainly came to the fore, but these often owed much to the past.

Quedlinburg Abbey
Quedlinburg Abbey

The cardinal lesson of the conference – if it might be distilled into one – was therefore that we must be wary of overstated claims about both continuity and change: the same texts and artefacts can mean very different things within different contexts, while different texts and artefacts may fulfil very similar functions. Perhaps most importantly, the papers all underscored the vitality of the ‘long tenth century’ as a period of transition between the early and central Middle Ages. It has long been my belief that historians of the period could learn a great deal from scholars of Late Antiquity – who have transcended the ancient/medieval divide so well – and it is promising to see steps in this direction. Indeed, as Patrick Geary noted in the concluding discussion, it would be nice to see more experts on the eleventh and twelfth century integrated as the project continues. It is only when we start to shed our identities as ‘early’ and ‘central’ medievalists that we will truly start to understand these fascinating and dynamic years.

Quedlinburg Abbey: a tenth-century depiction
Quedlinburg Abbey: a tenth-century depiction

 

Whether there are any lessons to be learned here for a nation facing the prospect of Brexit and dreaming of ‘Empire 2.0’, is perhaps a question best left to a different day. For the time being, it looks as if the future of tenth-century studies is bright; this ‘Age of Iron’ (as Cardinal Baronio once called it) may yet come to be appreciated in its full diversity and complexity.

 

Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History

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