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Why I love the early stuff

4 August, 2005

Why I love the early stuff

I’ve been scouring the web to help the Cranky Professor find articles for the first Ancient/Medieval edition of Carnivalesque. You know, there aren’t nearly enough early folk. There are a bunch of medievalists, and some ancient people, but not so much in The World of Late Antiquity. To be fair, I’m also not a Late Antique person. I regularly attend the best of the Late Antique conferences, Shifting Frontiers, but there, I’m mostly a dabbler. Because I’m a Carolingianist, and we’re so … late!

But the Carolingians are still Franks, and the Franks start pretty damend early. You can’t do Carolingians without the Merovingians. Merovingianists get to be Late Antique people. But I now wonder — are the Carolingians really in their own category? One of the big themes in LA is the synthesis (or not) of Roman and Barbarian/Germanic culture. But it seems to me that many of our sources (Ok, up to about the 7th c., at least) are as much indicators of conscious differentiation as they are of synthesis. OK — there are some things that I’m glossing over — Christianity, the use of Latin, the survival of Roman institutions, at least (or often only) in name … but still, I think that there’s a lot to be said for the Carolingians as the end of Late Antiquity, if synthesis is one of the markers of the period. The Carolingians are arguably more public in their Christianity — and it’s more the right kind, since the Merovingians got their missionaries from Ireland as well as England. There’s the whole ‘revival of empire’ thing, the Ottonian renovatio notwithstanding; Gerd Althoff makes some interesting points about that in his biography of Otto III. There’s the fact that the Carolingians are in some ways far more like their predecessors than their successors — although that just makes them the perfect transitional phase, I suppose.

But this is why I like this early stuff (and at least we can all agree that the Carolingians are indeed Early Medieval, if not Late Antique): it’s the fact that we really can make no assumptions about what words mean. The Latin’s in real flux. It’s because people are moving into places (or are already in places) that the Romans couldn’t quite get to, and they often react the same way — although the Romans might have been less unpleasant in their dealings with non-Roman neighbors than the various Germanic (pax Walter Goffart) people were in dealing with their non-Christian neighbors. That’s a big might, BTW. We often don’t know who people are, although we are getting to know more and more. But there’s so much to argue about. Are these people who live in Thuringia actual, ethnic Thuringians? Better — are those Bavarians really Bavarians (which brings up all kinds of fun ties to whether Bavarians are perhaps related to Celts), when the dukes of Bavaria in the 8th c. look a lot like Franks? How did these kings who were supposedly very Christian justify their multiple concubines? Why wouldn’t Charlemagne really let his daughters marry? Oh — and then there are the duelling missionaries. No, they don’t really duel, but there are great cases backstabbing and badmouthing of other perfectly decent types to carve out larger areas for missionary activity. Don’t believe me? Look at the career of St. Boniface. The man evangelised some areas based on the “well, they’re Christian, but the guy who was here before did a crap job” theory. Got him support from the pope and the Carolingian military, though.

And have I mentioned the murders? The intrigue? The intermarriage? The totally cool names like Fredegund and Brunehilt? Sigibert? Chilperic? Theodelinde? Otacar? Otswind? Williswind/swintha? Not to mention the creative orthography? Children imprisoning their parents? Fratricide? Women that cut deals with their husbands to pop out a couple kids in exchange for running a convent, if they survive?

And, of course, the fact that most of the sources are edited? I know it’s random, but I’m having A Day. But it’s good someties to remember that what we do, we often do because it’s cool and geeky and because we, or at least I, love the fact that there is so much to argue about — every question a hydra, every answer a target for someone else.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 August, 2005 11:30 pm

    Oh, you’re making me want to open up my new copy of Gregory of Tours and start thumbing through it. Better than “Dynasty” ever was!

  2. 5 August, 2005 3:32 am

    And most of the stuff is edited…I used to do 5th century stuff and was it ever a shock to transfer to the 14th c and find how difficult it was to locate obscure 19th c editions done by local history clubs in Belgium. The few copies are all squirreled away in a handful of libraries in UK, France and the Low Countries.Of course those later sources are a bit easier to understand.Ancarett, I once sketch a movie treatment for Gregory — Mother of Kings. “Anyone can be the wife of a Frankish king. True power is being — the Mother of kings.”Salacious, spectacular, accurate.

  3. 5 August, 2005 12:41 pm

    This is why we ought to be deligthted that the French government is trying to compete with Google in digitization — all those tedious little history society publications need to get digital!!

  4. 5 August, 2005 5:59 pm

    I’m a Merovingianist, although I don’t blog about it. The Carolingians, I would argue, are Late Antiquity, for the reasons you mention. Early Medieval probably begins at the Treaty of Verdun, when the Empire was fractured and the two sides couldn’t understand each other.I always try to argue that the early European stuff is better than the later. Gregory’s history is fantastic, but so are his vitae.And sm – Gregory, Mother of Kings? He was more flexible than I thought. Brunhild – now she would be a great movie subject!

  5. 5 August, 2005 7:20 pm

    Greg –Gotta keep up with the times. Women being mother – even Brunhild and Fredegund, pretty sensational cases – that’s just old hat.

  6. 5 August, 2005 8:37 pm

    sm — are you the sm who blogs as a Merovingian king and who studied under a different king?

  7. 5 August, 2005 8:38 pm

    Oh — and thanks to everyone for not laughing! I was posting off the top of my head 😉

  8. 6 August, 2005 6:51 pm

    No, I don’t have a blog.

  9. 6 August, 2005 7:02 pm

    Great page!!! Greatings from Germany!!!

  10. 7 August, 2005 5:37 pm

    Am not laughing, I promise. It’s cool to see the enthusiasm. Have to confess, though, that the early stuff just doesn’t speak to me like the later stuff! But that’s not a claim of superiority – just a personal preference. I wonder how much it has to do with who I learned history from at various times, and how much it has to do with the fact that my adolescent intro to the period (in a historical romance!) was through the 14th c?

  11. 8 August, 2005 8:43 pm

    I’m Late Antiquity through Early Medieval but I suppose my main area is Late Early Medieval (Ælfric and the boys…). I consider the Carolingians Early Medieval because the cultural center had clearly moved from Rome and the Carolingians were the first major non-Roman bureaucratic power in the west. I tend not to blog medieval–at least not yet.

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