Publication Spotlight: ‘Diverging Paths?: Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom’

“Why did certain sorts of institutionalisation and institutional continuity characterise government and society in Christendom by the later Middle Ages, but not the Islamic world, whereas the reverse end-point might have been predicted from the early medieval situation?”
This question lies at the core of Prof. John Hudson’s new publication, co-edited with Ana Rodriguez, Diverging Paths?: Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom. In the eighth century, government in the Islamic world featured bureaucracy in a way unimaginable in Christendom, and especially western Christendom, in the same period. By the end of the middle ages, however, the latter region was dominated by a number of highly sophisticated institutions. Diverging Paths takes a number of these institutions in the Byzantine, western and Islamic worlds, and explores their formation, in the hope of answering or revising this question.

This book is the product of a collaborative project on comparative institutionalisation across western Christendom, eastern Christendom and the Islamic world in the period c.750–1350. The collaborations began in the late 1990s, between mediaevalists at St Andrews and at the CSIC in Madrid.  Work began by exploring the legitimisation of political authority. Gradually, over time, the group expanded and started to look at broader issues of power and institutions.  In 2008, the group received a grant from the Spanish government which enabled them to focus on the processes of institutionalisation. The project was based primarily on a series of workshops. These led to a conference, which in turn resulted in Diverging Paths.

The use of a tripartite comparison between Byzantium, western Christendom and the Islamic world is central to this study. It was driven, and indeed made possible, by the strengths of the history department at St Andrews in these three areas. John believes this approach has a number of benefits. Examination of similar themes in a number of societies helps scholars to reconsider their assumptions. Furthermore, the study of a process, such as ‘institutionalisation’, is made more meaningful when it is conducted in a number of contexts and cultures.

It was this comparative approach, however, which led to most of the intellectual challenges the project faced. How broad should the comparisons be? The ‘Islamic World’ or ‘Western Christendom’ are, of course, very large categories and a lot of variety can be noticed within them: as in the present day, Iceland and Sicily were very different places in this period, but both come under the umbrella of ‘Western Christendom’. However, these comparisons needed to be broad enough to allow the group to pose the questions they did, and facilitate meaningful investigation.

More specifically for this study, both institutions and institutional processes need to be defined.  Two potential challenges presented themselves here: to get something which was not too vague, whilst at the same time not creating a definition that was too culturally specific. In response to this, the group created a working list of ten criteria, including ‘institutional memory’, ‘identification with institutions’, ‘normative nature’ and ‘self-replication’. Thus, the networks of Benedictine monasticism which came to dominate western Christendom in this period were definable as institutions. The smaller religious communities of sixth-century Francia, on the other hand, which often died out within a few decades of foundation, were less institutionalised.

PIMIC opening workshop, St Andrews

PIMIC opening workshop, St Andrews, 2013

The publication of Diverging Paths is not the end of the process, but in many ways it is the beginning. John is currently involved in a number of projects that have grown out of this one, and which also make use cross-cultural comparisons in their examination of institutionalisation. The largest of these is the EU funded project ‘Powers and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom’, or PIMIC. Whilst PIMIC does still have an academic thrust, it is primarily a training network which was created to fund PhDs and postdocs. Currently two of these PhD students are working at St Andrews, Cory Hitt and Sarah Greer, and you can read more about some of PIMIC’s activities here and here.
In addition to this, John is currently planning another research project which will consider the development of law in Europe between 1050 and 1250. This project will argue that whilst the divergence between the continental civil law and English common law traditions did originate in that period, there were more similarities between English and Continental law than the traditional narrative of difference would lead us to believe. John will also continue to make use of the broader tripartite comparison between Western Christendom, Eastern Christendom and the Islamic worlds in this project: there are plans for a workshop which will bring together legal scholars working on each of these regions.

Diverging Paths does not answer to the question it poses in its introduction; indeed, unusually, there is no concluding chapter. John is keen to point out that this is deliberate. This study is a starting point: it ought to provoke further debate, rather than presenting a solution, or a final word on this topic.

Publication Spotlight: Rab Houston

The past few months have seen a new blog post series, which focuses on the many and varied publications which have recently come out of this School of History. In this post, Prof Rab Houston explores the thought patterns and connections between his three most recent monographs.

My publications in recent years are linked to an interest I have had since I did my PhD: a fascination with the similarities and differences between the three historic realms that made up early modern Britain, as well as with the significance of regional differences within England, Wales, and Scotland. My other agenda over the last thirty something years has been to realise a version of British history that gives Scotland its proper place. What I have been trying to do is not simply to add Scottish experience to the main line of English history and so create a more comprehensive British perspective, but also to open up new questions and debates within British history, using Scotland as a starting point for comparison.

I published three books about different aspects of this agenda during 2014.

The first book, Bride Ales and Penny Weddings: Recreations, reciprocity, and regions in Britain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, looks at a single cultural form: contributory weddings.

When I first started my career as an historian I came across Scottish penny weddings in my documents. Lively, open events where guests paid for their own entertainment and gave money to the couple, they evoked a strong sense of community. That provoked my curiosity and they have been in the back of my mind ever since. Then, when researching my last book, I found similar sorts of marriage celebration in both Wales and the north of England.

Penny weddings and their English and Welsh equivalents were occasions of hospitality, sociability, and reciprocity. Good spirits and abundant food and drink often made them boisterous events. Relatives, friends, and neighbours all attended, showing their approval of the couple and helping to establish them in life.

This book asks what a common celebration tells us about shared social values, in what I call Middle Britain – Lowland Scotland, the north of England, and Wales – and how these differed from the social and cultural norms of both the so-called ‘Celtic Fringe’ and the south of England.

Read more of this post

Publication Spotlight: Churchmen and Urban Government in Late Medieval Italy

Prof Frances Andrew’s edited volume, Churchmen and Urban Government in Late Medieval Italy, c.1200–c.1450: Cases and Contexts, is an attempt to understand an intriguing phenomenon. It explores, through a number of case studies, the employment of members of monastic communities in urban government. The focus is, in particular, on paid, fixed service. These men were not involved in council, or high politics. Instead they were engaged in lower level, but equally essential, work: they might be employed in the treasury, for example, oversee building works, or make sure that all the bread sold within a city was edible.

This phenomenon raises interesting questions. How did this relationship between religious communities and urban government work? Why did it work? The answers to these questions have the potential to break down the neat categories between religious and secular spheres which continue to dominate our understanding of the medieval world.

Frances came across this phenomenon in her work on the Humiliati, an order originally dominated by lay people who committed to a religious life. She knew that there was a close relationship between these brothers, the secular clergy (priests, bishops and deacons), and urban government. Indeed, the Humiliati were well known to have been engaged in communal offices. It was during a year-long fellowship in Florence, however, that she noticed that in late medieval Siena and Florence this was also very often the case for other regular clergy (i.e. monks, canons and friars). Bearing in mind the vast number of urban governments in central and northern Italy and the abundance of extant sources, it was at this point that it became clear that on her own it would take decades to get a real sense of how this relationship worked.

The project which arose from this realisation and resulted in Churchmen and Urban Government, began with a conference Frances organised in 2007, funded by the British Academy. This enabled her to bring speakers together from Italy, the US, and closer to home, to discuss relations between regular clergy and public life. This fed directly into the creation of a major research project, ‘Religion and Public Life in Late Medieval Italy’, which was supported by AHRC funding.

The collaborative nature of the work has proved to be especially fruitful. Not only has this approach enabled urban and religious historians to work together and benefit from one another’s approaches, but it has facilitated comparison across northern Italian cities, something which is still relatively unusual. The volume contains an essay on each of a sample of thirteen cities, building on the expertise of each scholar on ‘their’ city. In the second half of the volume experts on religious life then explore the reactions of particular monastic orders, including the Camaldolese and the Cistercians. Thus, Churchmen and Urban Government shows the great variety in the relationship of monks, friars and penitents with urban governments: in Milan, being a Cistercian monk might mean spending some of your time working for the city, in Turin it did not.

So, the big question: why did cities employ monks in this way? The classic interpretation, put forth by Richard Trexler in 1978, places a lot of emphasis on the role of trust. Hypothetically, a religious superior instructed a monk to go and work in the city. The city could therefore trust this monk, because of the bond of obedience which bound the monk and abbot.

Whilst Frances believes that trust and integrity did play a role, there were a number of other reasons why monks were engaged. They possessed technical skills, such as in book keeping and the production of registers. In addition, relationships of patronage between monasteries and certain powerful families seem to have led to the greater deployment of monks in these roles.

Perhaps most importantly, Churchmen and Urban Government highlights the importance of the political context in determining the deployment of regular clergy. It demonstrates that the initial idea of employing people from religious orders or penitential brethren was something associated with the popolo, that is, the anti-magnate group in cities, a factional body closely identified with papal politics. Whilst trust was involved, the illumination of these worldly factors begins to turn Trexler’s model on its head.

What comes next? This work is, in fact, just one part of a larger project, and Frances is currently working on the second volume: a monograph intended to build on the case studies. As well as this, Frances intends to continue looking further afield for other comparisons. Churchmen and Urban Government closed with three colleagues’ case-studies on areas outside Central and Northern Italy, covering Sardinia, the southern Regno under the Hohenstaufen and, in a deeply comparative mode, England. Next year she’ll be in the Netherlands, where she plans to examine Dutch material on urban government. Unlike northern Italy, it doesn’t seem as though regular orders were employed by Dutch cities. Frances will be asking why this was the case, and who was doing these jobs, if not the regular clergy.

Publication Spotlight: ‘The Invention of News’

Spanning four centuries and most of Europe, Professor Andrew Pettegree’s new monograph, The Invention of News, tells the story of news before the newspaper. In doing so, Andrew illuminates a lively and previously marginalised culture which sees news moving in a number of ways, including by word of mouth, and through official announcements, sermons and cheap occasional print. Indeed, in this period, news actually travelled far more successfully in these forms than it did in newspapers.

Andrew was initially drawn to this topic through the research he conducted on cheap print for his previous monograph: The Book in the Renaissance. When researching for this work, it became clear to him that much of the dynamism in early print came from cheap books which gave good returns on investments. This had not been recognised before this point, largely because the survival rate of such print was so low. It was these little books which alerted Andrew to the importance of news in this period, and from which The Invention of News was ultimately developed.

At its core, The Invention of News deals with a technological change, that from manuscript to print. This phenomenon is one which ought to be familiar to us, as we are currently undergoing a similar shift, from print to digital platforms. It is not surprise, then, that Andrew’s work in this field has received a lot of attention, especially from journalists. A number of findings from The Invention of News, however, ought to be reassuring.

One of the most unexpected things that Andrew discovered was the persistence of a lively and lucrative manuscript news services throughout the period in question, in spite of a number of false prophecies that manuscript was dead. These were distributed by professional newsmen to a very small circle of paying clients, and were very popular: indeed, they were viewed as indispensable to those in positions of power. This service was regarded as being much more reliable than other sources of news, largely because it was exclusive and reassuringly expensive. Newspapers initially modelled themselves on these manuscript newsletters, but they certainly didn’t kill them, and they persisted and remained vital up until the French Revolution, 350 years after the invention of printing. The persistence of the manuscript newsletter for such a long period reveals a message which Andrew believes to be relevant today: in a period of technological change people do not tend to pick one format or another, but instead pick the best of both worlds.

Prof Pettegree receiving the Goldsmiths award

Prof. Pettegree receiving the Goldsmiths award

A similar finding of the Invention of News, which was equally surprising to Andrew, was how difficult early newspapers found it to make money. Andrews sees many new technologies being propelled by fascination, and not by economic reality, and argues that this was certainly the case for newspapers. Initially they popped up in a number of places, but the economics were dire. An average manuscript newsletter might have had twenty customers, who would each have been charged £10 a years for the service. This resulted in a very decent income for the newsman in question. The same newspapers, however, could only charge around 1 or 2 pence, as they had to match other cheap print. In order to make money, therefore, they would need to sell between 300 and 400 copies, and even then the profit would only be around ¼ of a penny on each copy. Some newspapers subsidised this paltry profit with alternative forms of income, such as advertising. The vast majority, however, survived primarily on government subsidies. This led to prestige for the government, but also meant that the newspapers were very reticent about criticising power!

So what comes next? There is the potential for a sequel, which would continue to look forwards to our digital age and the changes news experienced from the nineteenth century onwards. Returning to the early modern period, Andrew also sees potential for more interest in the ‘multimedia’ transmission of news, and for future studies to focus more on the relationship between print and oral culture. In the meantime, however, congratulations are in order. This work has received attention from quarters other than journalists wondering about their job prospects. At the beginning of March, Andrew travelled to Boston collect the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize given by the Harvard Kennedy School, Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Publication Spotlight: John Wyclif on War and Peace

The cover image of Dr Rory Cox’s John Wyclif on War and Peace is initially surprising. The image is taken from a fifteenth-century French bestiary (The Hague, Museum Meermanno, 10 B 25, fo. 32r) and does not depict a warlike creature, but instead a pelican, who feeds her chicks using blood from her own breast. According to the tale behind the image, the chicks of the pelican attacked their mother, who killed them in retaliation. In order to revivify her young, the mother pecked her own breast and fed her chicks the blood which flowed forth. Pelicans were often represented in this way throughout the Middle Ages as this image was used as an allegory for God’s forgiveness and the resurrection.

Rory’s thesis, that John Wyclif was an “out and out pacifist”, is equally surprising. Wyclif, who died in 1384, was unique among his fourteenth-century contemporaries, and stood in stark contrast to the philosophical and theological traditions he inherited. He was the first to promote pacifism since early Christian thinkers, such as Tertullian and Origen. For much of the Middle Ages, ‘just war’ theory was dominant. This was based on the idea that war could be justified if it was based on three pillars: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Wyclif completely dismantled this theory throughout his writing, and advocated a theory of pacifism based on a blanket condemnation of all violence, including self-defence. Thus, reflecting the pelican on the cover of the book, a good Christian ought to sacrifice oneself and suffer, in imitation of Christ, for the sake of others.

Wyclif’s political ideas, which Rory terms “Christian anarchy”, were every bit as radical. Based on the New Testament, these ideas focused on the essential sinfulness of human government, law and society. Instead, an evangelical state, in which all private property would be held in common, was viewed by Wyclif to be the ideal. Here, traditional secular government would be unnecessary: there would be no sin, so no need to punish crimes; no property, so no need for laws protecting property; and because everything would be communally owned, there would be no need for territorial defences.

The presence of this ideology in Wyclif’s writing has, until now, remained unrecognised. There are a number of reasons for this. Wyclif’s views on the Eucharist, papal authority, the translation of scripture and religious reform have received significantly more attention. In addition, previous scholars have focused primarily on a set of English sermons which, thanks to the work of Prof. Anne Hudson, can no longer be confidently attributed to Wyclif. Rory focuses his research on Wyclif’s lengthier, more complex, and indeed more marginalised Latin writings: his theological, philosophical, political tracts and, importantly, his sermons.

It was in these works, in his MA thesis, that Rory began to notice Wyclif’s unusual views on war. The thesis focused on criticisms of war during the Hundred Years War, and looked at the works of a number of writers, including John Gower and Chaucer. Rory’s supervisor, Prof. David D’Avray, suggested that he look at Wyclif, and quickly Rory saw there was more work to do. It was during his D.Phil that the full extent of Wyclif’s pacifism was explored. Originally the doctorate, completed at Oxford, was to focus on Wyclif’s angelology and the war in heaven, but soon it became apparent that Wyclif’s criticisms of war were both more far reaching and radical than Rory had initially realised. Thus, this topic soon became the focus of the doctoral thesis and, ultimately, the monograph, John Wyclif on War and Peace.

So where does this lead? Rory highlights a numberof remarkable similarities between Wyclif’s ideas and those circulating in Bohemia in Hussite writings of the fifteenth century, and sees this as a fruitful direction for further research. One branch of the Hussite movement – the Taborites – did not oppose violence, and indeed made use of it enthusiastically. However, other Hussite theologians, such as Petr Chelčický, remained peaceful and employed pacifist ideals which were strikingly similar to those put forth by Wyclif. Whilst Wyclif may have stood alone in fourteenth-century England, it is possible that further research will reveal other medieval and early modern pacifists, and see his ideas making an impact beyond the spheres of lollardy and Hussism.

Publication Spotlight: The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages

Regular features of the School of History blog are the two ‘Spotlight’ series, which focus on members of staff or postgraduate students. In these posts the research and teaching interests, as well as pursuits beyond academia, of both groups are discussed. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring a number of posts which will shine a spotlight on the varied and fascinating monographs and edited volumes recently published by members of the School of History. To kick this off, Dr James Palmer discusses the process of writing The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages.

I wrote The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages for a good reason: it was a book I wanted to read, and yet it did not exist.

My interest in the apocalyptic began when I was still teaching at the University of Leicester back in 2006. I had the fanciful idea of writing a cultural history of time in the early Middle Ages, examining the intersections of historiography, theology and ‘computus’ (the science behind Easter calculations). That unwritten study lurks in the background of The Apocalypse and a number of accompanying essays. It meant that my interest in the apocalyptic was not grounded in the fascination with messianic movements and irrationality which defines many other apocalypse scholars.

The ‘apocalypse’ I see in the early Middle Ages is really a discourse about change and reform. The Bible is pretty clear that the end will come, and the timing is left deliberately vague. What do you do about that? Late twentieth-century secularist fashions would encourage us to imagine that no one thought about it because it was ‘irrational’ to believe the world might end. Modern debate about the apocalyptic has often been surprisingly tetchy and defined by scholars arguing either that it was very important everywhere or not important ever. You of course have to take a position somewhere in the middle. Some people thought it was important; some people didn’t. Lots of people thought it was important some of the time but had a lot going on in their lives. What is inescapable is that the apocalyptic frames language and discourse in a significant number of sources, and it is mostly to do with stimulating and directing change urgently. The end might be coming: we’d better put the world right.

This does not lead us to looking at crazy people in the Dark Ages. What we find are strategies for understanding a complex and unsettled world – strategies which often seem familiar to us. The book starts with the example of an earthquake which affected Constantinople in 557. Many people did not know what had happened (the author of our principal source sneered, being a clever lawyer type). Self-proclaimed experts announced that the end was coming. Some people were scared. Some people gave money to the church, while others vowed to live purer lives and even began to do so. Then the crisis passed and everything went back to normal. How familiar does that sound?

Part of the fun was, unsurprisingly, the quest for new material. A good critical synthesis of existing scholarship could happily have filled the gap the book was intended to fill. Yet even a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions of key texts – with time spent in manuscript reading rooms in London, Paris and Berlin – showed that allegedly ‘unorthodox’ material circulated more widely than many people had thought. That needed explaining. There were also gems to uncover, such as an Irish treatise on time and apocalypse, buried unstudied in two manuscripts in Florence. Quickly, the book became both research monograph and a guide to the subject more generally.

Few projects are ever really completed, and I hope that the publication of The Apocalypse stimulates wider debate about the role of the apocalyptic – and belief more generally – in early medieval society. On-going collaborations are important here, particularly with Matt Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who is visiting the department in March 2015. Together we have co-ordinated a number of sessions on ‘Apocalypse, Prophecy and Reform’ for this year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds, working with Felicitas Schmieder from the FernUni in Germany. Further projects will follow. In many ways, the book stands at the middle of a process, rather than at the end.