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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

Using the Past to Negotiate a Time of Change: A Medieval Perspective

Brevnov monastery, Prague, founded 993
Brevnov monastery, Prague, founded 993

Last month in the baroque splendours of the Brevnov monastery in Prague, HERA launched its third joint programme of European research on ‘Uses of the Past’.  Amongst the 18 projects being funded for the next three years is one based, in part, at Exeter on Europe in the long tenth century: After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, c. 900 c. 1050 (UNUP).

Louvre
Louvre

Charlemagne (768-814) is remembered now as the ‘father of Europe’, establishing an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the frontiers of modern Hungary, and from the English Channel to Catalonia and Central Italy, which came to an end only in 888.   In the century and a half which followed frontiers shifted, established centres became peripheral and peripheral regions became central within new power structures.   A time of turmoil, social and political change, the tenth century has also, since at least the seventeenth century, been seen as witnessing the emergence of  modern nations.   This project seeks to go beyond these modern nationalist teleologies to provide a comparative and cross-European perspective on developments, an aim which has acquired fresh resonances since it was orginally conceived in a pre-Brexit world.

In recent decades the period of Carolingian rule has attracted a good deal of attention from scholars, but the time between the end of empire and the mid-eleventh century remains largely ignored.   This three-year project (2016-19) will investigate the social, political and cultural developments in this century and a half from a fresh perspective.   In early medieval Europe the absence of clear structures meant that action in the present often drew authority from claims about the past.   Crises and change led to a search for legitimacy in the past.   Our hypothesis is that the changing landscapes of Europe and the increase in instability and uncertainty in the long tenth century are connected to the variety and complexity of attitudes to the past manifest in sources from the time.   Our aim is to explore that relationship from a number of dfferent perspectives (social, political, cultural) in order to offer a case study of post-imperial transition in a time of rapid change, and to allow comparison with uses of the past in other periods.  Some members will focus on materials from areas which had been the Carolingian heartland in the ninth century whilst others will investigate the ways in which people in regions which had been peripheral, including England and Catalonia, looked to the ninth century and the Late Antique pasts to legitimise their authority.

This is a collaborative project with other members being based in Barcelona, Berlin, St Andrews and Vienna.   It is an international team of 5 established scholars with 3 PhD students and 2 postdocs, and together we come from Austria, France/Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK.

The Exeter-based team comprises myself and Lenneke van Raaij, who has just begun her PhD, having recently complete her masters at the University of Utrecht.  We will both be focussing on the plentiful liturgical manuscripts produced in this period.  We’ll explore the ways in which Carolingian texts were taken up both in prestigious manuscripts, like this prayerbook made for Otto III (980-1002):

Otto III Prayerbook, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 30111, f. 90r
Otto III Prayerbook, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 30111, f. 90r

and in seemingly more practical manuscripts like this one made for Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (960-78):

Paris, BNdeFr, Ms 943, f. f.17r
Paris, BNdeFr, Ms 943, f.17r

Now almost two months into the start of the project we have (almost) cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles of government and university bureaucracy to do with new appointments, and begun research, developing our plans for engagement (including a website, to be launched in the spring, and a public exhibition) and a ‘kick-off’ international conference in Berlin in May 2017.

Prof. Sarah Hamilton