Reviewed by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield University)
Published on H-German (August, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Worrying Warriors in the Early Medieval West
The late Patrick Wormald, on whose initiative this rich collection of essays was assembled, was never hesitant to challenge scholarly orthodoxies, and the premise behind this book attests to his iconoclastic streak. Its title, Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World, is deliberately provocative, offending against two commonly held preconceptions: that the role of intellectual is fundamentally modern (round spectacles, black polo-necks, French cigarettes); and that in the Middle Ages in general, and the early Middle Ages in particular, participation in learned culture was essentially restricted to the clergy. Wormald thought these assumptions needed questioning, and organized a series of panels at the Kalamazoo medieval conference in 1999 and 2000 to do so.
This book represents the results of that collective investigation. It consists largely of case studies of prominent secular writers from ninth-century Frankia and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, treated here as essentially a late Carolingian society. None of them is really a household name these days, but historians who do not specialize in this field will perhaps have heard of the likes of Einhard, Dhuoda, King Alfred the Great, and King (later Emperor) Charles the Bald. The others are less well known, but will be familiar to medievalists: Nithard, Eberhard of Friuli, Ealdorman Æthelweard, King Æthelstan, and Liutberga of Wendhausen, the odd one out as she was the subject, not the author, of a text (recently fully translated into English for the first time). The contributors are all very well placed to comment authoritatively on their chosen subjects, making this book the first port of call for readers interested in any of these important figures. In addition to these case studies, three framing essays seek to provide a wider context.
It is striking that a certain lack of agreement becomes apparent even on reading these framing essays, an impression confirmed by the case studies. Wormald, and later Jinty Nelson, who expertly took over the editorship of the project, clearly decided not to promote a strong editorial line, instead allowing contributors considerable leeway of approach. Some of the contributors keep closely to their chosen topic, offering rich, nuanced, and focused accounts. David Ganz on Einhard, Celia Chazelle on Charles the Bald, David Pratt on Alfred, and Michael Wood on Æthelstan, for example, largely leave the reader to decide whether their fascinating material confirms or weakens the book's overarching theme, while happily intervening in other controversies along the way (Pratt's essay, for example, is essentially an attempt to rescue Alfred's authorship of a series of Old English translations in the face of the campaign launched by Malcolm Godden to cast doubt on it).
Others are more explicitly engaged with the central problematic. Nelson's and Tom Noble's framing essays are convinced that the category of lay intellectual is at least good to think with for this period and place. So, too, are Stuart Airlie on Nithard, Paul Kershaw on Eberhard, and above all, Nelson (again), who mounts a particularly cogent argument in favor of the idea when considering Dhuoda. However, some contributors are more clearly ambivalent. Two in effect abandon the concept of "intellectual" in favor of something that seems to them less anachronistic. Scott Ashley's study of Æthelweard does not try to downplay his originality, or his secularity, but considers that he could not have been an intellectual in a strict sense, and suggests we think of the chronicle writer as a thinker in a Victorian public-moralist style, more Matthew Arnold than Jean-Paul Sartre. Valerie Garver, the only contributor not working on a lay author as such, concentrates on the practical knowledge exercised and transmitted by noble women--embroidery, household management--which could be read as an implicit rejection of the very idea of the female secular intellectual that Nelson defends. Most strikingly of all, Richard Abel's concluding remarks, which knot together all the contributions, end with an unexpectedly skeptical twist: are these case studies really representative of the ninth- and tenth-century secular elite?
Perhaps not. Yet, one thing this book does demonstrate is that to ignore these secular figures in the history of the ninth- and tenth-century West would be as inadequate as to assume that every Carolingian noblewoman was an aspiring Dhuoda–-in fact more so, since at least the latter assumption would be based on positive evidence. The general role of the thinker in the politics and society of ninth-century western Europe is coming steadily ever more into focus, as shown, for example, by Chris Wickham's recent textbook, which highlights both its significance and its relative peculiarity in time and space. While it is true that most of these figures were clergymen, this book forcefully reminds us that some of those involved in the process of rethinking and reflecting on the social order in the ninth century were not ordained members of the clergy, and not all were men. This reminder demands to be properly appreciated, taken into account, and reflected on.
The key lesson of the book is therefore that if the conventional representation of the ninth-century Carolingian "Renaissance" as (among other things) a moment when the institutional church began tentatively to flex its muscles and assert its power over an increasingly alienated laity cannot easily integrate these awkward figures into its explanatory schema, then this conventional representation needs to be reworked until it can. It may be that the notion of the lay intellectual is a little too burdened with modern connotations to articulate effectively the specific ninth- and tenth-century conjunction of learning, religion, and power; hence, the lack of consensus among the book's contributors. But it certainly points to a clearly perceptible phenomenon, however we might like to label it. The Carolingian cultural movement did not just corral and constrain the laity along clerical lines; it also stimulated at least some of them to think for themselves. It was not a lack of confidence on their part, but rather the way they insistently challenge our distinctions between lay and clerical, politics and political thought, and even medieval and modern, that makes the warriors studied here worrying. This excellent collection of essays does a great service in forcing an important issue into our historical consciousness, and, one hopes, into our debates.
. Frederick S. Paxton, Anchoress and Abbess in Ninth-century Saxony: The Lives of Liutbirga of Wendhausen and Hathumoda of Gandersheim (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009).
. Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400-1000 (London: Penguin, 2009), chapter 17.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Charles West. Review of Wormald, Patrick; Nelson, Janet L., eds., Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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