New Medieval Podcast, and Sexual Frustration

So, this week Twitter (@ralphtorta, ladies and gents *winks*) informed me that those good folks over at King’s College London have launched a new podcast dealing with medieval matters. So I went and had a look, and, what do you know, it was pretty interesting:

Leaving aside the inherent oddness of hearing my elders and betters having an extended discussion about dildo use and manufacture, there are a couple of things this podcast raises I thought it would be worth talking about.

The first is a question which comes up towards the end of the episode. The idea behind the show is that they answer question sent in by the audience, and this week it’s ‘did medieval people know other kinds of sex?’. That question itself is framed in a rather eyebrow-raising way (what’s the non-other kind of sex?), but it leads our erstwhile presenters to ask: why do people frame the Middle Ages as being sexually naïve?

Their answer is about Church control over lay sex lives. People think that the Middle Ages consisted of people who don’t have sex telling people who do how to have it, and thus, boom, (or indeed not boom), sexual desert. And sure, that’s probably part of it, but I think there’s a little more that can be said here.

I call it ‘Rearview Mirror Syndrome’. When dealing with stuff outside living memory (nowadays, say, before the turn of the twentieth century), everything becomes an undifferentiated ‘past’, so Victorian and Tudor and Norman pasts get mixed up and amalgamated. Sure, this might not happen at the level of the most basic aesthetics – you won’t see William the Conqueror portrayed in a top hat – but that’s about as far as it goes. Hence why people think that medieval people burned witches at the stake (it’s really an Early Modern phenomenon), for instance.

Exhibit A. (source)


This usually works backwards, because most people know (or think they know) more about the Tudor and Stuart periods than the Middle Ages and about Victorian times than the Tudors and Stuarts. Hence, you get a kind of foreshortening effect.

In this case, I think that there’s a train of thought going ‘the Victorians were unutterably prudish about sex, thus the past was as well, and thus the Middle Ages also covered up their legs and had sex through a hole in the bedsheet’: as in the case of witch burnings, people perceive all the past as being the same. Indeed, whilst it would be hard to argue that it’s the most profound job of historians in interacting with the public, one of our most basic tasks is, I would argue, just to remind people that past societies were chronologically varied. At the very least, this way we might get more interesting movies out of it…

(and yes, I will be reviewing the new King Arthur film. Stay tuned…)

The other point this podcast raised for me (wahey) was a question I’ve been asking for a long time. How did medieval people, and in my case specifically tenth- and eleventh-century people, have sex? It’s noticeable that for the most part, the presenters talk about canon law sources and what they prohibit (as memorialised in the by-now world-famous medieval sex flowchart:)


What this doesn’t tell us about, though, is quotidian sex. This is more important than it sounds, especially if you think about queens. One way a queen is supposed to be important, to have influence at court, is that she has the ear of the king during some pretty intimate moments; and it makes a fairly major difference here whether one envisages royal sex as a bit of perfunctory thrusting or a full evening of candles-and-rose-petals-and-sensual-massages.

Thietmar of Merseburg has a story about Henry the Fowler getting drunk and forcing himself upon his protesting wife St. Matilda. This is interesting for a couple of reasons, not least insofar it indicates that lack of consent to sex was seen as a real problem and a real evil (as Thietmar tells the story, the wickedness of the act allowed the Devil to enter Henry’s semen, impregnating St. Matilda with a baby who would go on to be a prominent and persistent rebel against royal authority); but also because it may, at least to my reading, indicate that this was seen as unusual, and that sex would usually be a more tender affair. Of course, there isn’t anything like enough evidence to tell, at least as far as I know; and there’s also the problem that sex is always particularly charged in medieval histories. Still, it’s one of those things that’s self-evidently sufficiently important to more than just the history of sexual practice that one would like to know…

What Counts As Precedent? Royal Authority over Episcopal Elections

During their heyday, the control that the predecessors of the Carolingian family as kings of the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty, exercised over the choice of bishops within their kingdoms had been quite substantial, both in practice and in theory. In 549, for instance, the council of Orléans had legislated that no-one could become bishop ‘without the will of the king, along with an election by the clergy and people’; and by early medieval standards you can’t say fairer than that. (There was also a long tradition of conciliar statements during this period which were opposed to royal influence in episcopal elections, but they seem to have had less impact in practice.) These conciliar decrees stuck around – the MGH edition is made up of no fewer than eleven manuscripts, which given that someone like, say, Flodoard survives in about three is a pretty generous distribution.

               Consequently, looking at things over the long term, it is fair to say that whatever was happening in the late- and post-Carolingian period, it’s part of an ongoing fluctuation of royal control over bishoprics which won’t actually become overwhelmingly dominant until the Early Modern period. That said, one thing which has been striking me lately is how this longer tradition seems to be ignored by tenth-century figures.

               In 920, a dispute erupted over the bishopric of Liège. A cleric named Hilduin, supported by the ruler of Lotharingia, Gislebert, took over the see with support of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany and against the rule of this blog’s old friend and Best King Ever, Charles the Simple. In response, Charles summoned a council to judge Hilduin and impose his own candidate Richer, and to explain his reasoning he sent a round letter to the bishops of his realm. The claims made in Charles’ favour during the course of this dispute have been called a ‘high point of royal absolutism in control over the Church’, and this letter is no exception. Charles calls Hilduin out, citing ‘the book of royal capitularies, which says that “if anyone presumes to a dignity they have not earned from a prince or just lord, let them be considered a sacrilege.”’ Among other things, this seems to equate bishoprics with other honores the king could bestow, which is quite a spectacular claim.

               What’s interesting here, though, is that it comes from the capitulary collection of Benedict Levita, a ninth-century composition. Looking at the authorities which Charles (or the person writing in his name) cites to justify the king’s position, a pattern emerges. For one thing, virtually everything cited is actually a forgery from the Dionysian Collection of canons; but taking them at face value, most of what is cited falls into three categories: Roman church councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, an African council), Late Antique papal letters, and Carolingian-era capitulary collections. What’s doubly interesting is what each type of source is cited to justify. The Roman councils are cited against the crime of simony, and most of the papal letters and Martin of Braga against stealing Church property. The big thesis statement about royal control comes from Benedict Levita. Merovingian canons are conspicuous by their absence, be they never so useful in this case.

               This seems to say something interesting about what Charles’ court considered to be authoritative. When faced with a situation where it needed to make a strong statement about royal authority, it looked towards the traditions of something which was very definitely from its own political culture, not from the Merovingian period. This in turn implies that, whatever one can say about long-term fluctuations in royal authority, Charles perceived himself as doing something that, if not new, exactly, was at least specifically Carolingian.

888 And The Dynastic Crisis Which Wasn’t

Sorry about the lack of posts last week – I was on my way to one conference in Cork having just attended one in Canterbury. I’m back home in Brussels now, though, so this little moment of respite from your drab, wretched lives can once more take up its customary position.

The Canterbury conference provided the opportunity to vent a rant which has been building up for several years now. The end of the Carolingian Empire is usually ascribed to the ‘dynastic crisis’ of 888, when the Carolingian family ran out of legitimate, adult males to be king, and a gourmet selection of new, non-Carolingian, kings emerged. Thing is (to put it as bluntly as possible): I don’t think there’s anything ‘dynastic’ about this dynastic crisis. Carolingian legitimism – the idea that the Carolingian family was specifically owed the crown by virtue of its being the royal family – was either non-existent or the view of fringe weirdos.

Let’s confine ourselves simply to two of the sources most often pointed to as evidence for the legitimacy problem which affected the new kings by virtue of their not being Carolingian. First, Regino of Prüm. Regino wrote his Chronicon in the early tenth century, and here’s how he describes the events of 888:

‘After the death [of Emperor Charles the Fat], the kingdoms which had been under his rule, as though they did not have a legitimate heir, dissolved into pieces, and did not wait for a natural lord, but created kings for themselves from their own entrails.’ [source]

‘Legitimate heir’, ‘natural lord’ – sounds like Carolingian legitimism here, right? Well, not so much. In 887, as Regino describes it, the leading men of Charles’ realm had overthrown him and made his illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia ruler in his stead. Regino is more-or-less a supporter of Arnulf, and the reason that he talks about natural lords and legitimate heirs is not because Arnulf is a Carolingian, but because he’s already been made king! There’s a ‘natural lord’ because a duly-designated king already exists – and it is noticeable that when the new kings proffer due submission to him as their overlord, Regino starts presenting them as legitimate. Their dynastic affiliation doesn’t change, but his presentation of them does – whatever’s going on here, it’s not dynastic.

The second source is a letter from Archbishop Fulk of Rheims seeking the aid of Arnulf in overthrowing the West Frankish king Odo on behalf of this blog’s favourite, Charles the Simple. Fulk refers to Odo as ‘not a member of the royal family’, and says that he ‘chose to have for his king he… who was from the royal bloodline [i.e. Charles the Simple]’. This is Carolingian legitimism here, but what’s interesting is that it appears to be fringe weirdness. Fulk’s professions of loyalty to Charles are somewhat disingenuous. In 888, he hadn’t supported Charles – or even Arnulf – but his own relative Guy of Spoleto, who became king of Italy, and whom Fulk had invited to become king in the West without any particular success. Fulk clearly indicates that his readers knew this, because he fills a good half the letter with rather weak justifications for why he did this, and it’s clear from context that what he refers to as the slanders and lies surrounding him at Arnulf’s court are in fact the well-justified scepticism of people whose memories stretch back longer than five years.

Fulk, it seems, disliked Odo intensely. He spent most of his reign in rebellion against him on any pretext, and it looks like his support for Charles was yet another one of these. (There’s more to his rebellion than personal dislike, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the main point.) It’s worth saying that his arguments don’t seem to have convinced many people – Arnulf didn’t join the war on Charles’ side, and Fulk’s party was consistently outmatched and defeated.

Carolingian legitimism, then, did exist, but its influence doesn’t seem to have been very great. Viewing 888 as this massive, seismic shift in the politics of Frankish Europe is somewhat misleading – in everything except which womb the king had come out of, the kingdom of Odo and that of the man reigning ten years before him, Louis the Stammerer, were basically similar. The imposition of later ideas about royal succession – and royal families – onto 888 has meant that historians have spent centuries seeing a gap where there isn’t one.

Magnates and Elections, or were there West Frankish ‘Princely Churches’?

Well, I’m now back from Paris, and the usual stately progression of Thursday posts can resume. For a couple of weeks now, in and around manuscripts and actually medieval history, I’ve been trying to do some comparative reading about kinship and patronage networks and their relationship with what you might loosely term ‘recruitment’. The reason for this perhaps unusual choice in recreational literature goes back to that question of the Reichskirche we looked at a few months ago. One of the points which has subsequently been raised in response to that was the question of how much control of the church is simply a feature of politics in general. This seemed fair enough, so I’ve been looking at how far the great West Frankish magnates controlled the bishoprics in their spheres of influence.

The tomb of Arnulf the Bad of Bavaria, whom I mentioned in the last post in this context… (source)

Turns out, if you read about this, the answer people give is ‘yeah, duh’. If you ask why people are saying this, though, direct evidence is in most cases non-existent (and I’d argue in a lot of the cases it exists it doesn’t say what people think it does, but that’s another story…) so it rests on inference from indirect evidence. So the question became, what counts as good grounds for inference?

Hence why I was reading about eighteenth-century German elections, specifically Carola Lipp’s article on local elections in Esslingen, a large town in southwest Germany. Esslingen was reasonably significant, but its council elections were not subject to any particular degree of high-political interference: the (in this case) duke of Württemberg was not imposing his own candidates onto the town government. Instead, the people who got chosen seem to have had strong local ties, usually kinship ones. Alternatively – particularly amongst the artisanal class – the key political bond appears to have been the guild. This fits with what one might assume based on simple common sense: all other things being equal, the choice of local officials in a situation where recruitment is based on the decisions of a relatively small group of locals is probably going to be based on who-you-know, and that mean family or institutional ties. After all, if you know someone from family gatherings or guild meetings, you have a reasonable idea of their character, resources, competence, and whether or not they can be made to owe you favours.

Esslingen today (source)

This fits neatly onto earlier medieval bishoprics. To take as an example my pet area of Tours, between about 920 and 1050, there were eight archbishops. Of those, we know nothing about the background of one. Of the other seven, three were from the local nobility and one from the regional nobility. Four had held positions of importance in the abbey of Saint-Martin – the dominant institution in Tours at this time – one in Tours cathedral, and one more can be tied to their predecessor’s ecclesiastical networks in a somewhat indirect way. In short, Tours looks awfully like Esslingen: the overwhelming majority of the archbishops have strong family and/or institutional ties to the see, with the latter being particularly important.

You’d never guess this from the literature, though. I’m going to single out Boussard’s article on the Neustrian episcopate as a particularly egregious example of the sort of thing I was complaining about at the start: he gives the family and institutional background of each of the archbishops, and also spends a few lines speculating about which prince appointed them. Is there any evidence for this? Is there heck. Not only is there no direct evidence, there is – as the above indicates – no reason to think that anything other than local dynamics are at play here.

My research is showing that this is reasonably typical. How this relates to specifically royal authority over the Church is something I will probably blog about at another time. For the moment, can we please stop saying that episcopal elections are being influenced by the great nobles unless there’s a reason to say it?

Source Translation: “We’ve established what kind of bishop you are, now we’re just haggling over the price”

Bishop Rainald of Angers was, like many of his fellow prelates, heir to a fortune. Bishop of Angers since 973, he was famous for his piety and his campaigns against simony (the practice of buying Church offices) and lay misappropriation of church property. Around the turn of the first millennium, at the end of 1001, he decided to make his biggest-yet charitable gesture: he would give all of his landed fortune to his cathedral, Saint-Maurice in Angers. This generous move, however, was not unopposed. I’ll let Rainald take over the story:

We judge that everything we want to call to mind should be written down in sacred arrangements of letters, so that it might be considered more memorable and believed more firmly by those to come.

And so I, Rainald, bishop of the Angevins, want it to be known to all the faithful of the holy Church of God, both present and future, that Count Fulk [Nerra] and his brother Maurice inflicted on me a calumny concerning my inheritance, which I had held solidly and quietly after the burial of my father, and which, for the remedy of the soul of my father and my mother and also my own, I had conceded with a devoted heart to the holy mother of God Mary and the holy martyr Maurice and the holy confessor Maurilius. They said that my father Rainald [Torench, viscount of Angers] gave it to their father Geoffrey [Grisegonelle, count of Anjou] as part of an agreement to gain the bishopric.

Since they remained obstinate about this, I released a certain serf of the same inheritance to the judgement of God, so that God might through him deign to reveal His virtue and declare the truth. By God’s grace, when he was sent for on the third day of the ordeal (as is customary), he appeared unharmed in the sight of all the onlookers.

Therefore, if anyone, filled with the Devil’s incitements (God forbid!) might from this day forth dare to do anything presumptuous or inflict any calumny concerning this matter, by the authority of God the Father Almighty and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the holy mother of God Mary, and the prince of the apostles Peter, and all the saints of God and Our own, let them remain damned and excommunicate and sequestered from the whole company of the faithful forever.

So, Rainald had held his personal inheritance perfectly happily since his father died in the early 990s; but come the first decade of the new millennium, who should pop out of the woodwork but Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou, famous for his temper and ruthlessness; and his brother Maurice, heir to the county of Chalon, accusing Rainald of breaking an agreement between their respective fathers? There are in fact several things going on here, one to do with Angevin expansion southwards towards Aquitaine, and the other to do with comital control over the church within Angers.

Angers Cathedral as it appears today (source)

Rainald of Angers’ father Rainald Torench had been a pretty big deal in western France. It is possible his family had been entrenched there for generations, although the evidence for that is based on arguments about patterns of personal names I’m fairly sceptical of in principle. More certainly, though, Rainald Torench himself had built up a pretty large fortune in land in the region around Angers, particularly in the area of the Mauges, a region south of the river Loire between Nantes and Angers, centred around the modern town of Cholet. This region, however, was strategically significant for the counts of Anjou, who were expanding south into northern Aquitaine, attempting in particular to win over the viscounts of Thouars, whose loyalties wavered back and forth between the dukes of Aquitaine and the counts of Anjou. The Mauges, as the western neighbour of the Thouarsais, was strategically important to these efforts. Consequently, Rainald’s inheritance – which, as I said, appears to have been very substantial – was also significant.

Within Anjou itself, this charter is taken as evidence that the counts of Anjou enjoyed control of appointments to the bishopric. One historian in particular, Olivier Guillot, has noted that Rainald isn’t disputing that his appointment as bishop was obtained through simony, but only what exactly the cost of the appointment was; other historians have tended to follow this. In my opinion, though, this is a complete misreading of the document. Fulk and Maurice’s accusation was clearly meant not simply to dispute the property with Rainald, but to discredit him, painting the anti-simony campaigner as a simoniac himself. Rainald isn’t saying that the calumny was that his father paid his whole inheritance for the bishopric, he’s saying that the calumny was that he obtained the bishopric illegitimately. He did not submit his case to the judgement of God to prove that his father was good at haggling!

Historians have been oddly ready to be cynical about what is clearly a politically-motivated accusation aimed at gaining control of a large inheritance in Anjou’s southern marches. In fact, this document doesn’t say nearly as much about Angevin control over the church in Angers as it does about their desire to expand into Aquitaine and their willingness to spread what we can probably be safe in calling slanderous allegations to ensure it.

A User’s Guide to the Paris Archives, pt. 2: The Archives Nationales

I have returned triumphant from looking at actual physical manuscripts at the Archives Nationales, so here’s the second and final part of the guide to the Paris archives.

Unlike the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is fundamentally a research library for scholars, the Archives Nationales cater to a more general audience. This is good, because basically everything about setting up there is substantially easier. The first thing to do is to register an account on the website, for which you’ll need an e-mail address. Then, go to the CARAN building on the Archive’ actual site. (Note that the Archives have multiple sites both inside and outside Paris; this guide deals only with the Paris site.) There, you can register for your reader’s ticket. Happily the only document you’ll need is a passport.

As with the BnF, it’s pencils and computers only in the rooms. Everything else has to be left in the lockers. Unlike the BnF, no money is required – these are code-operated.

Then, go upstairs. Again unlike the BnF, there are different procedures for manuscripts and microfilms. For microfilms, go to the microfilm reading room on the third floor. If it’s your first time, introduce yourself at the front desk and the librarian will show you round and explain the procedure. It’s a fairly simple set up: sit at any microfilm reader you like. The microfilms themselves are in draws in the room, and you just go and help yourself to the one you want – bear in mind you can only have one at a time. This is beautifully simple and convenient, but there is a catch: all the microfilms I saw, including those I saw others use, were in inverted black-and-white (black page, white text), which gave me a headache after a while.

For manuscripts, as I said, things are different, although still fairly easy. You need to order the manuscript you want online first; unfortunately, this means that you do need to know the classmark. Also, the system is slightly oddly set up, so that to search for (for instance) the manuscript with the classmark LL 50, you have to enter it into the system with two slashes, like so: LL//50. Once you’ve ordered the manuscript, at 3pm the same day or on the following day, go to the second floor reading room. There’s an issues desk on the right, go to it, show your card, and they’ll give you a place and hand over your manuscript. Sit at the assigned place. Once you’ve done with the manuscript, hand it back at the desk and they’ll give you a new one. At the Archives Nationales, both with the MSS and the microfilms, it appears that one can take photos with impunity.

And that’s it! It’s quite simple.

There are catches, of course. The two big ones are these. First, the Archives Nationales online catalogue is nowhere near as good as the BnF. Whereas with the BnF you can look at the catalogue and have a reasonable idea of what you need to look at, at the Arch. Nat., you might get handed a box full of papers and have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to find what exactly in them is relevant.

I mean, look at this…

The second, and bigger, issue is that there is no wi-fi at the Arch. Nat. At all. So bear that in mind…

I hope these guides will prove helpful, especially to junior scholars (such as myself!) going to the archives for the first time. If you think I’ve missed anything, or something should be added, let me know! My archive needs have been relatively simple, so there may be things I’ve left out or wouldn’t think to include – do leave a comment or send a message.

A User’s Guide to the Paris Archives, pt. 1: The BnF

It occurred to me the other day that, as far as I know, there’s no equivalent of this piece on the National Archives in Kew for their French equivalents, so this is a short stab at producing one for people who might be as unsure of what they’re doing as I was the first time I came.

The Bibliothèque Nationale is, for most purposes, split over two sites: the Francois Mitterand site on the left bank of the Seine, near Gare d’Austerlitz, and the Richelieu site on the right bank, near the Louvre. It is in the latter site that the manuscripts department makes its home, and so that’s what I’ll be focussing on.

To get in, first you need to register. Actually, first you need to go through a security check – make sure your wallet, phone, keys, etc. are in your bag and that your bag is open – but then you need to register. To do this, you need different documents based on whether you’re a student, a member of the public or a professional researcher. Everyone needs proof of identity – bring a passport. Students will need proof of student status – a student card will probably do the trick, but just in case it might be worth getting a formal letter from your institution to the effect that you’re legit. You’ll also need a letter from your supervisor. Members of the public will need, basically, a list of what they need and a good story at the reception desk, the former being critical. It’s easier for professional researchers (I must say, pleasingly so comparing this time to the last time I came here) – all you need is a staff card from your institution (although to be on the safe side I bought a copy of my employment contract as well).

Then, you need to get in to the manuscripts reading room. First, drop your bags off in the locker room. The lockers run on money – you need a 1 or 2 euro coin, which is refundable. If you haven’t got one, ask at the front desk – they give out little tokens which can be used in place of coins; just be sure to return them at the end of the day. Bags, pens and jackets aren’t allowed in the reading room – leave them in the locker. Happily, the BnF provides nifty plastic laptop-holders which make carrying computers around much easier.

Neat, huh? 

To get into the reading room, you first need to pass the front desk by the reading room door. To do this, have your reader’s card to hand. You will have to hand it over. Specify as you do so what kind of material you’re here for – manuscripts, books, or microfilms, and whether or not you’ve already reserved them. Then, you’ll be given a laminated red card with a number on it, and a blue piece of paper which lets you pop out to go to the loo (and things like that). The card is important – that is your place. Sit at that place, and not at any other.

Now you can begin to order the documents you want. (Fun, isn’t it?) There are two main types of form: white and green. The green is for reservations in advance. Various documents can’t be ordered for the same day, and are subject to various seemingly-arbitrary periods of delay – check the website to find out the specifics, but most of them are the regional or erudite collections. The white for is for ordering manuscripts and microfilms. Unless you have a special need to see an actual manuscript, you have to see a microfilm if one is available. Fill it out and hand it in at the desk at the back of the room. Here, you will have to hand over your red laminated card. You will be told to sit at your place. If you ordered a microfilm, they will bring it to you. If it’s a manuscript, you’ll get a little piece of paper which you should bring back up to the front desk.

The Salle de Lecteur, taken from the issues desk at the back of the room (image source)

As microfilms are, if not exactly self-evident, something the librarians usually explain to how to use, let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’ve ordered some physical manuscripts. Once you have it, be sure to rest it on the cushions at each desk, and don’t use pen while taking notes. If you want to take photos of the manuscripts, you need to seek permission from the head of the reading room. I found they were fairly good-natured about this personally. Taking photos of the microfilms appease to be something you can just do, or maybe the staff simply didn’t catch me at it…

Once you’re done with your manuscript (or microfilm), take it up to the desk at the back of the room and swap it out for the next one. You can order five of each type of document per day. After finishing with all of them, tell the staff you’re done and they’ll give you back your red card. Take both your red card and your blue piece of paper back to the front desk, hand them over to the member of staff there, and your reader’s card will be returned to you.

Congratulations! You have succeeded in seeing manuscripts at the BnF. Once you get used to the system, you learn to roll with it. Most of the staff – despite the horror stories you hear about French librarians – are fairly helpful, and I get the feeling they’re used to dealing with people who don’t speak all that much French and/or understand the system.

The BnF is of course a research library primarily intended for scholarly use. Things are a little different at the Archives Nationales. However, because as of yet I’ve only used the microfilms there, my guide to that will have to wait until later this week once I’ve gone and looked at the physical manuscripts I need to see…