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Interviewers: Tom Douglas and Max Blore (3rd year undergraduates)
On Wednesday 22 November 2017, Professor Conrad Leyser (University of Oxford) visited the Centre of Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Leyser presented a paper entitled ‘The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the History of the Family in the Middle Ages’ and we were fortunate enough to meet him and interview him informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying The Medieval Reformation as our special subject with Professor Sarah Hamilton, we had discussed Leyser’s views on church reform and were excited to hear his take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss broader issues such as periodisation and approaches to sources which are key to understanding the Middle Ages as a whole. We decided in particular to focus on how Leyser’s approach to Medieval history has been influenced by his previous work on Late Antiquity, as well as his concept of reform and how it links to other developments such as changes in family structures and the institutionalisation of the Church. Prof. Hamilton had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and was also present at the interview to contribute some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Leyser in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming coursework essays!
Question: Your previous research is on Late Antiquity. How did you become interested in the Medieval period?
Conrad Leyser: There was a lot about the Medieval period as a whole at home. Both my parents were medievalists, so my interest in the period seemed bizarrely natural, and this continued into my undergraduate degree, when I was most interested in the High Middle Ages — the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But then in my third year I did a paper about St Augustine and this converted me to Late Antiquity. It helped me twig that everything that is there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries came from somewhere. The cult of the saints, monasticism, clerical hierarchy — all of these are formed in that late Roman period. So when it came to doing a doctorate, I felt I needed to go back there, and then eventually go forward again…about 30 years later that started to happen!
Q: How do you think that your research on Late Antiquity has informed your approach to writing medieval history?
CL: Well…entirely! Studying Late Antiquity gave me some sense of the long span and in essence provided me with the basic groundwork that you need and use all the time in studying the later period. Historiographically there’s still a kind of gap, a sense of them and us, even between Late Romanists and Early Medievalists studying exactly the same period. The general feeling is that this issue of periodisation is just kind of resolved, and studying Late Antiquity gives you a sense that you might start to do something about it.
Q: What in your view marks one period from the next? What marks Late Antiquity out from the Medieval period?
CL: Well I would start from the premise that you have to flatten it out. You can’t presume that there is any difference between, for example, the third century and the sixth, or the sixth and the ninth. The presumption right now is that wherever you want to locate it, there is a kind of ‘fall’ into the medieval period (and this is a fall because “medieval” is still a bad brand). People are still trying to locate this drop, and, distressingly, colleagues and ex-colleagues of mine have sought to reinvent a kind of medieval turn, which is really quite destructive. What’s good about Late Antiquity is that it has pushed a kind of continuity in terms of thinking which extends up to the late eighth and ninth, and even into the tenth and eleventh centuries. There’s a culture war that’s been going on since the Renaissance, when the idea of the Middle Ages was invented as a kind of shameless self-promotional move, and now our challenge is whether we can come up with something different in terms of periodisation. Late Antiquity is a start but in economic terms it’s still not fully established. There are very few jobs in Late Antiquity — these jobs are either ancient or medieval — but it’s our best hope yet of offering a different narrative. So, I’m not going to answer the question of ‘when do the Middle Ages start’ because that’s basically an evil, satanic question!
Q: One big word for the Middle Ages is reform, the subject of much of your research. What would be your definition of reform?
CL: ‘Reform’ is a claim — it has no big content. It’s the opposite of something like heresy which is a kind of accusation; like orthodoxy, reform is a claim that people will have to accede to. Who’s going to want to stand in the way of reform?! Some people will make a fuss, but in a sense you’re trying to isolate these people, smoke them out and neutralise them by saying, ‘right, we’re going to have reform’. You see this very much happening in a modern university context — there are constant reforms and they are a way fundamentally to organise people. Reform is not necessarily all top down; in the university context it’s not all managerial. Sometimes you get people on the ground saying we want this to happen, and there’s an attempt to persuade up and say to the hierarchy, ‘look, you guys are standing in the way of reform’. In essence, ‘reform’ is an accusation that’s meant to unsettle people for whatever purpose. It will have a particular context at any given point but that’s what reform does.
Q: You’ve previously categorised the tenth century as ‘pre-reform’. When does reform in the Middle Ages start for you? What are the most important factors and who do you see as most important in it?
CL: I have a lot invested in the tenth century. But for me, there’s a bigger fish to fry than ‘when does reform start’ which is ‘when does the Church start to exist as an autonomous institution?’ Right now I’m interested in testing the hypothesis that the tenth century is when this starts to happen. Up until the tenth century, the Church is a network of households. There are points, notably in the fourth century and then again in the eighth and ninth, when it has a massive steroid injection of imperial patronage to make it look a lot bigger than a network of households, but then in both cases that patronage drops away. But when the Carolingian empire falls in the Latin West, churchmen, especially bishops, and in particular in north Italy start to think, ‘this empire falling apart thing happened before when the Roman empire fell apart, and it’s happening again now. Let’s look what happened back then. Oh! The Church kept going while the empire fell apart…we can do this!’ In the fifth and sixth centuries when the Church kept going it’s not really self-conscious. Someone like Gregory the Great had no interest in constructing a church; he thinks the world is going to end and is just concentrating on getting to tomorrow before the Last Judgement. But in the tenth century they are building a new world. Churchmen are thinking ‘we can do this and we don’t need imperial patronage, we’re a cosmopolitan network of highly educated men, on we go.’
This is constitutive of the Church’s free-standing thing in the Latin West and reform is a consequence of that. Whereas the eleventh century is stereotypically seen as a move away from, and reaction to, the so-called corruption of the tenth century’, it is instead a product of that tenth century formative moment and it’s to do, crudely speaking, with globalisation. If your priest or bishop is somebody you know, then they can be married, they can do all sorts of things with yours and their property, but it’s fine because you know them and trust them. But if you don’t know them and they’re a career cleric who is part of this mobile, cosmopolitan elite swanning in, then it becomes critical that they don’t have any dependence and that you scrutinise their financial transactions very carefully, and then you can trust them. So in other words I’d then place reform roughly in the second half of the tenth century as a kind of criteria by which to assess the productivity of the clergy who are no longer operating in a face-to-face society. Certainly, reform is not the consequence of tenth-century corruption; that’s the function entirely of eleventh-century propaganda.
Q: Your lecture today is about the history of the family in Medieval Europe. How close does our modern perception of family come to how it was understood in Medieval Europe and how does the concept of the family change from Late Antiquity to the Medieval period?
CL: I think that the Medieval period, and specifically the tenth and eleventh centuries, is formative of the modern notion of the family. I think that the key transition that I will attempt to set out is from the family as a legal unit which it is in a Roman context to the family as defined by blood ties, which is how we think of family today. We presume the family is a natural collection of people related by blood, but that’s a historically specific notion. I’m not a family historian and I’ve come to this by working on the clerical hierarchy, but a key index in this shift is the development of a group of men who reproduce without having sex i.e. priests. And so you get a nature versus culture split-out. There are two groups of men, some of whose property transmits through their generation biologically of heirs and some of whose property transmits institutionally. And the Virgin Mary is the kind of god-mother of this shift.
Q: A lot of your writing goes into great depth about rhetoric and interpretation of sources. What is it that you look for when you first approach a source and has your approach to sources changed across your career?
CL: I did my research in the second half of the eighties when the linguistic turn was happening in the UK in the humanities. Although I lived it more vicariously than I actually read it, I had friends who were skimming through Derrida and the rest of it, so that was, I guess, formative. I’m not at that level, but someone like Foucault is a key presence and there is an intuition behind this thinking that’s come to seem more and more important — that people writing in the past are different and we cannot understand them. Especially when you work on the history of religion, it is critical that you not presume that a Christian now has anything to do with a Christian then. There is also a wider premise that the self is not the same. Without saying that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have interiority, I would say that when we pull of all these ideas together what we have is a sense that the words people in the Middle Ages said were always a public performance and they are not telling us how they felt. Any attempt to say that you really knew what it was like to be, say, Augustine, is already a methodological fail. Whereas in the ‘80s there was a sense of the need to ‘forget all this crusty old scholarship’, I’m now as interested in manuscripts than deconstructionism, which are key to understanding how culture and memory really work. Now I use a bit of culture theory and a bit of manuscripts whilst retaining the sense that all of the record we have is a highly mannered performance. You have to start with the presumption that it’s a show and in decoding them have to try to catch who the audience are, what the effects of that performance might have been. Especially in the context of religion, finding a way to render that that doesn’t trigger people to say that’s reductive is certainly something to strive for.
Gregory the Great or Gregory VII?
Well I really love Augustine but Gregory the Great. Gregory VII was a maniac!
Peter Damian or Liudprand of Cremona?
Well that’s a tough one. A few years ago I would have said Damian but now Liudprand. He tells better stories. He’s also Augustinian.
Cluniac or Cistercian?
Cluniac. Cistercians are nasty, Starbucks-empire builders!