I Swear The Tenth Century Was Around Here Somewhere: Part 3 and last of the Tübingen not-conference-report

For all I enjoyed going and thought that the individual papers were thought-provoking and interesting, something about overall thrust of the Tübingen conference I have previously blogged about failed to add up for me, and during the last panel it became fairly clear what that was. At one point during the question and answer session, Charles West opened a question by stating that he and Steffen Patzold, the other conference organiser, had deliberately left out the tenth century in order to focus on the ninth and the eleventh. I have an almost-embarrassing amount of respect for the organisers – indeed, I have embarrassed myself in front of Charles with excessive fanboy-ing – but in this case, I thought this was the wrong decision, for a very simple reason: setting things up this way tended to give a picture of the tenth century that was more static than was the case.

Charles’ paper itself is a good example of this. Its point was fairly simple: that the rhetoric of Carolingian reform was scrutinised with great interest by eleventh-century and later Church reformers (the case study was Hugh of Flavigny), and that the two have many points in common; hence his formulation, which I paraphrased in the previous post, that eleventh-century reform could be seen as ‘Carolingian ecclesiology with added pope’. As it goes, I have no problem with the content of that, but I dispute the presentation.

By leaving out the tenth century, one is implicitly presented with a kind of ‘misunderstood genius’ picture of Carolingian reform, where Carolingian churchmen – usually but not always Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims – came up with such-and-such an idea – in this case, the importance of removing lay influence from episcopal elections – but, unable to be appreciated in their own too-worldly times, languished unread until the eleventh century emerged, ‘cloaked in a white mantle of churches’, and implemented all these reform ideas which we know to be Good Things.

The Consecration of Deodatus, from Wikimedia Commons: a 17th century picture of a 7th century bishop, but hey, at least it’s royalty-free.

I caricature, but separating the ninth and the eleventh centuries in this rather inorganic manner does decontextualize developments in thought. After all, at some point these ideas, having initially been proposed, were weighed in the balance and found wanting; and at some later point, other trends emerged (say, a kingship which became increasing active in influencing episcopal elections) which might provoke their re-examination. Leaving out the tenth century, though, these important factors are passed over, which, at least in my case, doesn’t help understanding; and it meant that the conference called ‘The Transformation of the Carolingian World’ had a starting point and an end point, but no actual transformation in the middle…

I would be interested in hearing what other people who went to the conference thought (for I understand there are some reading this). I worry that I may be projecting here. In any case, my unease about the set-up of what was, as I said, a good conference hopefully doesn’t detract either from the utility or the interest of the subject matter.

2 thoughts on “I Swear The Tenth Century Was Around Here Somewhere: Part 3 and last of the Tübingen not-conference-report

  1. Great post, Fraser: critical reflections are always welcome! A hasty response: the omission of the 10th was as you say designed to bring out more starkly the from-what-to-what, to give a black and white picture of change. But in addition: I confess to having a sneaking sympathy with the ‘misunderstood genius’ theory of the Carolingian reform… There are plenty of parallels for texts resting ‘dormant’, so to speak, before being ‘reactivated’ (or being ‘repurposed’) in new contexts. E.g., rediscovery of Gottschalk in Reformation; e.g. for that matter classical texts in the ‘Renaissance’. But I’m guessing that the real 10th-c. fans will object to this analogy, and say we just need to work harder with our 10th-c texts (to bring out implicit theories of kingship from chronicles, to pick a (not entirely) random example).


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