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“Obo-san bin—or “Mr. Monk Delivery”—

Rentamonk a la japonaise

Rentamonk a la japonaise

The Japanese, it seems, are heavily exercised by the latest Amazon product line. No, they’re not yet into delivering sushi, nor have they cornered the market in tea ceremonies. In Japan, and only in Japan, they can rent you a monk. Monks are necessary for certain family events, such as funerals, but as society becomes less devout, fewer households have easy access to a monastery and the job of finding a suitable celebrant has become harder. So now they can go online and hire one from Amazon, for a small fee. In fact, a smaller fee than a monastery would charge.

Conservative Japanese are outraged and there are calls for Amazon to end this service. But is paying for a monk’s services and ensuring you got your money’s worth really that new?

Well I think not, if we allow for a little social change between the early middle ages and now. In theory, under the Rule of Benedict, having private possessions was a ‘wicked practice’, so it would have been against the rules for Amazon to pay the monk directly.[1] Not that this would have held Amazon up for long. And even in the early middle ages, if you were rich enough you could get round this by donating to the monastery as a whole, which could hold possessions, in cash or in kind.

It was not unusual for kings or lesser nobles to borrow a monk. Wahlafrid Strabo of Reichenau was borrowed to be tutor to the son of Louis the Pious and even after the task was done and he became an abbot in his own right, he could still be borrowed back for affairs of state. Which is how he came to drown in the Loire but that’s another story. Nor was it unusual for kings to require a monk’s time in writing a required text, as many dedications show. A letter from Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda reports on a conversation with Louis the German, who had asked him to write a commentary on the psalms. Hrabanus apparently turned him down, on the sensible grounds that he had already written one and dedicated it to someone else, but later seem to have relented somewhat and agreed to write a different work and dedicate that to Louis. Borrowing a monk was therefore perhaps not always easy. The monk had to agree to be borrowed. Or at least, a monk of the stature of Hrabanus did.

But this is borrowing not renting. In fact, of course, the rent was being paid separately, in that the monasteries themselves were given gifts of land. The rich gave a great deal of land, which eventually caused problems as the monasteries grew into important landowners in their own right. But the not so rich also became local patrons and there are records extant in some areas as to what these gifts were.[2] What is more, many monasteries were small foundations, what Innes calls ‘house monasteries’. Apart from providing surplus daughters with something useful to do, the main point of these monasteries, and indeed of the larger ones, was to pray for the souls of the family before and after their deaths.

The rich could therefore in a sense employ a monastery. And they wanted to get the full value form their money. So the ‘staff’ would be expected to indulge them by acceding to other minor requests like accommodating a disgraced wife or writing a theological work, dedicated to the sponsor so as to emphasise his or her piety.

Doesn’t Amazon’s new service therefore just represent a twenty-first century approach to the same thing? Cash rich, time poor people who retain just enough belief in the afterworld or simply want to be seen to be doing the right thing have always delegated the task of prayer to specialist services. And they have always ensured that they got value for money. Only now they can do it on the internet. And cheaply.

[1] Rule of Benedict Chapter 33

[2] Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Middle Ages

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Thinking outside the digital box

This is one of an occasional series linked to a course I am doing as part of my PhD at Sheffield.

This week’s seminar was about user involvement and I want to share some thoughts about the ways in which one of our sample sites has tried to get people involved.

The site I’m thinking about is

I want also to refer to an article by Trevor Owens: Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down.

Ola Nordmann is a site using virtual reality to recreate the experience of Norwegian immigrants who travelled to the USA. It was hoped that this would encourage younger generations to identify with those early immigrants and that this would inspire people to share their own stories. Collecting these on the site would create a rich resource for family historians and indeed any sort of historians. But it too did not generate the kind of interaction that the authors were hoping for.

Contrast this with the article by Trevor Owens and we begin to see how easy it is to get things upside down. Owens writes of his team’s surprise at the willingness of contributors working for free. So what went wrong?

One issue is clearly that of cultivating a sense of belonging, even a sense of achievement. Leader boards, ‘badges’ and the like may seem cheesy but they work. For an example we need look no further than TripAdvisor.

But another issue seems to me to relate to the digital divide between audiences for whom internet involvement is second if not first nature and those born before, say, 1980 who are converts.

If we look at Norwegian immigrants, it is interesting to check with the website of Norwegian Embassy to the US. The prime period for Norwegian immigration is, according to them, broadly speaking 1825 to 1925. The youngest immigrants would therefore now be in their nineties and their children in their sixties. Neither generation grew up with virtual reality, indeed with the internet. They may well be very familiar with the stories granny told and they may well be very proud of their heritage but they may not be savvy internet users and they may not feel happy about posting their stories to a website. The third generation are likely to be busy and less involved.

But the idea was a good one and the stories should be collected.

So, when designing a site such as this, someone needs to consider the demographics. The target audience is not university students and staff with high level IT skills, but they are still useful informants. Liaison therefore with an intermediary might help. In the UK, for example, the University of the Third Age caters for huge numbers of over fifties in search of intellectual challenge in retirement, which probably overlaps with the kind of people Trevor Owens is writing about. Museums use volunteers, again mature citizens with a wish to be intellectually active, and a recent event in York showed that this existing link can act as a conduit for crowdsourcing.

Sometime the solution to a digital problem lies outside the digital world.

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The man with the squint has questions to answer.

Composite manuscripts are good things in many ways. One way is that if you’re trying to improve your Latin  decoding skills for early medieval texts, choosing such a manuscript for practice gives you a wider range of source materials. Which is really the main reason I came to Cod. Sang. 878.

Cod. Sang. 878 has three sets of descriptions in the e-codices catalogue, of which the most imposing is that of Bernhard Bischoff. He it was who in 1950 connected this manuscripts with Wahlafrid Strabo, aka Wilfrid the squinter, one time abbot of Reichenau in the early ninth century. And he it was who gave it its subtitle: The Vademecum of Wahlafrid Strabo. What’s not to like if you’re just hunting a Latin lesson?

Well, nothing really. It is a collection of all things important to a ninth century scholar. Lots of grammar gurus – Donatus, Priscian, Alcuin – alongside lots of Famous Men, including Jerome, Isidore, Seneca, Hrabanus Maurus and Hippocrates. And, for good measure, lots of mini extracts from Orosius on pagan history, (chiefly confined to portents and disasters), the format for swearing an oath, recipes and a calendar which is apparently one of the conclusive bits of evidence that pin it to that area of Germany in that period but mean that it was not written by someone educated in St Gallen.

So. I know a lot more about Orosius than I did and am much better at reading Roman dates in text and at the vocabulary associated with earthquakes, plagues and catastrophic defeats. But I also have a lot more questions than I started with.

How certain are we that it is written by or at the behest of Wahlafrid? Far be it from me to question Professor Bischoff, but can we be sure? There are apparently some rebuttals which I have yet to read but without going into the palaeography, this collection is not all that dissimilar to Cod. Sang. 270 which is simply classed as an educational manuscript but is, unlike Cod. Sang. 878, all in the same hand and thus perhaps more likely to be linked to one scholar.

Why is 878 a Vademecum but 270 and others like it, not? As far as I can establish, the term Vademecum, which is a German term as much as an English one, did not come into use before the 16th century. So it is a modern appellation, not what Wahlafrid would have called it. That’s fine, but what did he think it was? And are there other similar manuscripts about that don’t attract attention because they don’t have such an eye-catching label?

And then there’s my current in-bonnet-residing-bee: Why so much Orosius? The extracts amount to 11 pages out of the manuscript’s 396. And why these extracts? The scribe has been extremely selective: there are several books of Orosius’ history and on average he has copied only a few lines per chapter.

Time to go digging.

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Epic Lives and the medieval classroom

Now that the dust has (literally) settled and the paint dried, I have turned my attention to a recent recommendation: A L Taylor’s ‘Epic Lives and Monasticism in the Middle Ages 800 – 1050’. The attraction was her work on Ermenrich, he who wrote the sycophantic job application to end all sycophantic job applications to his former teacher, Abbot Grimald of St Gallen. I was delighted to find that Ermenrich accounted for two whole chapters.

Taylor has performed a tour de force in textual analysis, painstakingly tracking references and allusions and thus enabling the modern reader to get at least a feel for the erudition that Ermenrich was putting on display. This illustrates very well her theory that the pseudo-classical ‘epic life’ was, in the early middle ages, a kind of passing out parade for the graduating student, a challenge an opportunity to demonstrate the student’s erudition and thus worthiness to teach, perhaps even at the highest levels. We are invited to read this strange text as if we were eavesdropping on the medieval classroom: what may at first glance seem a series of non sequiturs begins to make sense if we see it as the knowledge imparted by a teacher not as a coherent lecture but as a series of mini commentaries on a text they are studying. The only connection between the glosses is the text. If the text is absent, then the thread is lost but if the text is assumed, we can observe the teacher’s skill in introducing concepts in one context and recapitulating them in another to encourage repetition and progression. This approach marks the transition from learning to decipher a text, literally and later allegorically, and creating texts semi independently via the controlled writing exercises known as ‘progymnasmata’ or via ‘conversion’ – changing a text from prose to poetry and vice versa.

All this makes the text itself and Taylor’s analysis a gift for those of us who are trying to understand just how young monks for whom Latin was a foreign tongue learned to write in the style of Alcuin or Hilduin. The gap between reciting the psalms and learning to recognise them in written form to writing poetry or ‘lives’ in prose or poetry is huge and there is little available to help us understand how it was bridged.

But even whilst acknowledging this huge contribution, it seems important to share a few reservations. For one thing, Taylor sees this letter as perhaps the only ‘true’ insight into classroom practice, as opposed to the other surviving evidence we have of medieval classrooms. I cannot accept that Ermenrich is really telling it like it is. Why would he? And in any case he had apparently only taught younger pupils, rather than those who were at the stage of the progymnasmata, so the elaborate rhetoric he elucidates is not from his own teaching experience. It is either what he wants the reader to believe he will do, or perhaps even an echo of Grimald’s own teaching style as a kind of homage.

For another, the letter does not really expand our understanding of the epic life, which is what the book is about.   The whole point of the letter is that Ermenrich did not actually write such a thing. Whatever the circumstances and reasons, he seems to have been invited to do so but then rejected and so the extract included in the letter and an accompanying sense of grievance is all there is. One might argue that to see an epic life incomplete does have a value. as we can see the workings as it were, but this does not seem to be Taylor’s view.

And, finally, do these chapters bring us really any closer to understanding this letter?   If, as seems likely, the writing of an epic life was in this period the sine qua non of an application to teach, and Ermenrich has not completed one, can he seriously have meant it as a pitch for a teaching job?  And if he is not seeking Grimald’s support for a teaching post, what kind of patronage is he seeking?  In my view, it is worth going back to Monique  Goullet’s 2008 introduction to the text. She speaks of ‘amitie’ as a binding force across a network of scholars and sees epic lives as being part of the currency of this network and essentially, the basis for competition between members of this elite.  I tend to the view that Ermenrich is essentially displaying his own scholarship and how well he has learned his own lessons rather than making a bid for a teaching post for which he appears unqualified.  In the twenty first century he would have tweeted, perhaps not in the hope of a record number of retweets and favourites but certainly hoping for approval from a


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Charlemagne and me

The builders have gone, so have the decorators and the Christmas guests are not yet knocking at the door. Time for a swift blog entry.
In between making tea and making soothing noises, I have been reading Steffen Patzold’s ‘Ich und Karl der Grosse’, subtitled as ‘The Life of Einhard the Courtier.’ I acquired this after a visit to the Charlemagne exhibitions in Aachen earlier this year, having always been interested in the eminences behind the throne rather than the guy sitting on it. Einhard was Charlemagne’s biographer, educated yet not a cleric, accustomed to being at the seat of power, yet not from a noble family. He outlived Charlemagne, was one of the few courtiers to remain in post under his son, Louis the Pious, and even managed to tiptoe his way around all the political factions which bedevilled the latter’s reign, to die at the ripe old age of 60+ of natural causes and be interred next to his wife in the tomb he had prepared for them both and for which he had ensured a religious setting which would enable them both to be ready for the hereafter. A sort of Vicar of Bray for the early middle ages.
The book is an irresistible blend of scholarship – plenty of footnotes – and creativity. Patzold himself feels it necessary to justify this. His epilogue starts with a number of ‘Am I allowed to?’ questions. Is he allowed, basically, to use his 21st century brain to fill in the gaps left in the records and present Einhard as a real person? The Einhard he presents is, he admits, merely a creation of his own, for ‘Imagination is required if I want to set out the fragments that remain in relation to each other and fill in the gaps between them’. That said, he does very carefully distinguish between imagination and record, at the same time acknowledging that the records themselves may be just as much a work of imagination as his own 21st century contributions.
This adds an extra dimension to the narrative. It is much more than the time worn biographical tactic of filling in little known periods of the subject’s life with generalisations culled from records of her contemporaries. The extra dimension is a perfectly controlled sense of irony and a deliberate fusion of what we presume to be ‘us’ or ‘now’ and what we presume to be ‘them’ and ‘then’. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the account of the translation of the saints Marcellinus and Petrus. The major source for this is Einhard himself. Most will agree that this work is based on a true story but concede that a lot of the detail was in essence a political tactic, the power of which was obvious to ‘them’ but not to ‘us’. In Patzold’s account, it reads like something from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: ideas shared over dinner lead to a trip to Rome with clandestine adventures in the catacombs of Rome and feats of clever diplomacy to ensure the support of the monks and the Emperor. The whole is rounded off by a mysterious visit from Louis the Pious to the shrine many years later. In other words, exactly the kind of fictional reality we are accustomed to accept, which thus connects ‘us’ to fictional reality which was usual ‘then’.
Scholars will differ as to whether this is legitimate history writing. But I think it does make a much neglected period of history come alive for those for whom the early medieval period is not their bread and butter. At least it will for German speaking readers. Anyone up for translating it for the rest?

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What’s the Latin for Thrush?

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