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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The very model of a modern organisation?

Fulda, the Making of a Community, c.744 – c.900 (Cambridge, 2012), by Janneke Raaijmakers is far more than its title suggests. Yes, it tells the story of this Carolingian monastery, but it does so by drawing together a huge (by early medieval standards) range of sources and by anchoring the account within a changing context of social and political factors, personal crusades and local pressures. What we have here is reminiscent of many modern organisational studies, without ever straying into the anachronisms that may imply.
The story begins with Boniface’s letter to the pope in 751 asking him to grant a papal exemption for a small group of monks building a monastery in an isolated place, where they could live according to the Rule of Benedict. The exemption would protect the purity of the place from interference by bishops and others who might value its land. The exemption was duly granted and Raaijmakers’ task is then to explain how and why this eremitic community grew to become the Royal Abbey and its huge estates which existed in 900. The book’s achievement is to link the growth with the rise and fall of the Carolingian dynasty and to reflect the interplay between modernisers and traditionalists which accompanied it. 100 years after its foundation, Rudolf’s Miracula Sanctorum (842-847), in Raaijmakers’ view, presents what was once ‘a wooded place in a vast wilderness’ as ‘a spider in a web of churches and cellae, once donated by the Frankish elite or built by the brethren themselves on acquired property or newly cultivated lands.’
In tracing this progression, Raaijmakers makes clever use of the cumulative evidence of architecture and archaeology as vitae, letters and other traditional textual sources. She uses archaeological, hagiographical and liturgical records for example, to demonstrate how Abbot Ratger, who insisted on building a huge church, large and grand enough to make Fulda rank ‘among the major royal abbeys in the Frankish Empire’ deliberately modelled the church on prestigious churches elsewhere in the Carolingian Empire. He built a western transept with an apse, in the fashion of churches in Rome and Paris which enabled the community to adopt Roman liturgy as well as strengthening the cult of St Boniface. When we consider that Ratger became abbot in 802, just after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, we see clearly the tensions between a ‘moderniser’ and those who felt this was self-aggrandisement and a misuse of resources. Tellingly, Ratger was exiled when the complaints became impossible to ignore.
Textual sources on their own are fully exploited in context. The Life of Abbot Eigil, Ratger’s successor, was written by Candidus during the abbacy of Hrabanus Maurus as a dual text or ‘opus geminatum’, with one version in prose, the other in verse, rather than simply in a prose version which had hitherto been usual. Raaijmakers shows how this choice was related to the development of scholarship during the ninth century by elucidating the relationship between the events of Eigil’s abbacy which form the content and the scholarly and pastoral expectations of the community at the time of writing. The prose version ‘was written for moral instruction.’ It could be read aloud not just to monks but to church congregations and the hearers might be expected to absorb the lessons therein. Its content overlaps with that of the prose version, but the latter includes ‘expositions’ and was meant to be read by those already skilled in xxxxx and able to read ‘with the eyes of the mind’. In other words, this literary edifice bears the same relationship to the ninth century abbey as did the construction of Ratger’s church to the earlier community. This was an abbey to be reckoned with, taking seriously its task of guiding and educating the common people but also capable of interpreting the word of God and thus truly representing the interests of those for whom it prayed.
One question remains after reading this book. What role did the famous school play in establishing the identity of the community? It may be that records are scarce but this is a strange omission in the description of the development from the small, eremitical site where monks were carrying out practical work to sustain themselves, to the Royal Abbey of 847, where the monks could not only appreciate a poetic vita but could also be expected to write such a work. And there is evidence in the book that the ‘new’ monks who joined the monastery as it grew, were in need of education. Many of them, by the late eighth century, trained to become priests. Many by then were coming from the newly Christianised lands in for example, Saxony. There was, we are told, a ‘general cultural bustle in the monastery’ at the end of the eighth century and an impressive number of texts had already been assembled. Education must have played a crucial role.
That said, a book I very much enjoyed and to which I shall return.

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Something completely different?

The fifth letter in Chase’s collection really does not look like a model letter. It deals with a particular set of circumstances: Alcuin is writing to his pupil Joseph, who has remained in Aachen at the court school while Alcuin visits Britain, in, according to Allott, 790. The year is significant because Alcuin was unexpectedly detained in Britain when Ethelred was freed from prison and was about to embark on his second reign. Allott juxtaposes this letter with one to Adalhard, which refers to the same situation but goes into more detail as to Alcuin’s political objectives in staying put and one to Ethelred himself, outlining the behaviour expected of him. The letter to Joseph is the most practical of the three: Joseph has errands to run.
Firstly, Alcuin wants to know the king’s movements, essential for a courtier in the days when the court was itinerant. He wants to be kept up to date, and, probably, wants others to remember him while he is away.
Secondly, Alcuin has business which must be delegated to Joseph, apparently another function for former students. Alcuin has sent money for clothing for the boys, clerical and lay, and for himself, as well as paint. He is precise about colour, style and fabric for the clothing and chemical composition for the paint, which Allott thinks may be required for illustrating manuscripts.
Thirdly, there is a truly terrible shortage of wine, which can be resolved by Joseph checking and sending on one of the two cartloads of wine which Alcuin has been promised by a third party.
And finally, Alcuin gives instructions for collecting monies due, equipping a mission to Rome and giving alms to widows.

Alcuin obviously cannot get the goods he is used to in Northumbria but equally obviously there is plenty of money available to him. This letter therefore gives us a useful insight not only into monastic networks, but also trade. It seems likely that a land at peace, such as Francia, was able to ‘export’ to countries such as Northumbria, where the complex politics of the time have led to shortages: surely Alcuin would not have gone to all these lengths if clothing could be bought there? And it seems that the monasteries had good control over trading routes and enough security to transport cash. Or, of course, it may be that such transport was made safe for Charlemagne’s courtiers. Even so, the intermediaries are definitely monastic rather than courtly.
Worldly matters are more important here than they appear in other letters in Chase’s collection. Alcuin is not asking for something to drink – beer is readily available but he doesn’t like it. And the fact that Joseph has to actually check the wine for quality means that it is not just wine they lack, but good wine. Nor does the text suggest that the clothing is wearing out: he is sending to Aachen because he has precise needs. Even the advice about generosity to delegates or visitors creates a picture of a society of monks which has to present a certain status to the world.
A very worldly portrayal of Alcuin.

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Using satire to teach grammar

I have been reading Suzanne Reynolds’ ‘Medieval Reading: Grammar Rhetoric and the Classical Text’ (Cambridge 1996).  She has studied twelfth century glosses on a number of manuscripts of Horace’s Satires, which is known to have been used as a teaching text, in order to cast light on teaching strategies of the period and contemporary theories about grammar.  It is a fascinating, if challenging, read.

Language teachers know that the middle stages of language learning are often difficult.  The learner may find the learning of words and phrases relatively easy but combining these elements to express her own views is much more taxing.    We know that young monks started with knowing the psalters by heart, then learnt letters and then the rules of morphology, probably from Donatus.  We know that scholars regularly corresponded with each other to develop their ability in Latin even further.  But how did they get from ‘amo, amas, amat’ to the kind of skill we see in letters by Alcuin or Lupus?  Reynolds helps to fill this gap.  She quotes Alexander Nequam’s account of progression in Latin: from the very basics to Donatus to selected classical texts to Priscian, who, alone at the time it seems, included syntax as well as morphology.  We have of course no way of knowing how general a pattern this was, but Reynolds’s analysis of glosses by different teachers in different places on the same text does strongly suggest that in this case the theory does reflect practice.

Reynolds speaks of three kinds of glosses: Those that render the text accessible, those that aim to develop the learner’s command of the language and those dealing with the theoretical side of grammar that the learner will meet at the next stage of his course.

At this point, she deals with another language teacher’s bugbear: teaching a mixed ability or mixed experience group. She has found glosses that distinguish between the ‘pueri’ and the ‘provecti’:  most of the ‘access’ glosses are aimed at the former, the others at the more advanced.  Since all three can appear in the same manuscript, it seems, perhaps we are talking about some kind of mixed grouping here.  Already a clue as to how progression was managed.

Access glosses helped the learner make sense of the text.  Occasionally there are translations in the vernacular, more often paraphrases.  They give the context – explaining what ancient Roman custom lay at the heart of the satires – and, where the syntax is especially difficult, insert words which make the text more readily understandable to someone whose vernacular was quite different from that of Horace.

It is easy to see how the access glosses could shade into the development glosses and leave room for the emphasis to shift according to the needs of the learner. Having given help with a word’s meaning, the glossator may then relate the actual word form used to the root form, offering opportunity to practise declensions and conjugations. Reynolds points out that the words ‘hic, hac, hoc’ are used with a new noun, not so much to replace the definite article (missing in Latin but present in Greek and Old English and Old French), as to remind the learners of gender.  The glossator may show how other words can be formed from the word which happens to occur in the text.  Easy to learn by heart and thus increase vocabulary if you’re a puer, a hint as to how a similar activity might be undertaken in a new text with an unfamiliar word if you’re a more advanced student.  Finally, many glosses address the problem of word order.  Sometimes there is an alphabetical superscript indicating what was called the ‘ordo naturalis’, sometimes this is done by lines.  Either way it performs three functions: it makes the texts easier to translate, it shows a methodology for deciphering similar texts and it points the way for the creation of Latin text.  By all means sketch it out in ‘natural order’ to get the grammar right, but then consider how it might be recast…

Reynolds again compares practice with theory by relating these observations to a twelfth century text by Alexander of Villa Dei, which explains how a learner should ‘construe’ a text: First identify and place the vocative case, then the nominative, then the main verb and then the rest.  This still works today but requires the learner to be able to identify reliably the different parts of speech and their cases, tense etc.  But nowadays we have parsing dictionaries which do the identifying for us.  In their absence, it is easy to see why access to classical texts relied totally on excellent recall of morphology even if you hadn’t done much syntax.

The theoretical glosses go a step further.  The classical texts did not always conform to the rules of grammar.  This is particularly true of word order but can also apply to morphology.  Since the auctores were the model from which the boys were to learn, these discrepancies had to be explained, at least to the ‘provecti’.  If it was poetry, all could be forgiven.  But elsewhere, interpretation had to stray into the territory of Rhetoric, and Reynolds goes to some lengths to uncover the contemporary mental distinctions between the two.


There is much more in this book, but it has answered many of my questions with an authority which I had not dared to hope for.  What I think is now needed is to try out these ideas against another annotated text and some thinking about the way the manuscript itself was used.  If it was an aide memoire for the teacher, which seems likely unless two or three gathered around the manuscript, then we must acknowledge that it is only part of the story and the evidence for classroom practice is more likely to be found in letters and vitae.

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Clonmacnoise joins the EU in 790


Alcuin to Colcu   (Chase 4/ Allott* 31)

Alcuin is writing to one of his old teachers. The tone and content of the letter is dramatically different from his letters to students – this one is very practical, in that Alcuin is reporting on events and specifying the content of gifts which were apparently sent with the letter.

Allott and Chase differ in their confidence as to the date of the letter and as to Colcu’s location. Allott dates it to 790 and includes it in letters to Ireland, musing in a footnote to the next letter in the series that Colcu, traditionally a sage of Clonmacnoise, may have been abbot at Inishboffin. Chase is more cautious, but dates the reported defeat and conversion of the Saxons to 785, which suggests a similar date. There is an internal reference in the letter which at least puts Colcu in Britain but Chase nevertheless hesitates to specify Ireland.

The letter gives us more information about the teacher pupil relationship. Alcuin is Colcu’s ‘son’, whereas his friend Joseph is a ‘servant’. It could well be described as a networking letter. Alcuin reports on the progress of the mission in Europe and sends gifts which he knows will be appreciated. In return he asks for prayers for his and Charlemagne’s wellbeing and success. This is reminiscent of the monastic prayer confraternities among the Carolingians a century later. It also draws an abbot many miles from Aachen into the heart of the affairs of the Carolingians.

It also takes us straight into the turbulent world which Alcuin and Charlemagne were establishing the Carolingian Renaissance. Chase points out that the defeat of the Saxons referred to is far from being the final defeat, which undermines somewhat Alcuin’s confident assertion as to the continuing growth of the church. Alcuin himself, after reporting on the many successes, says somewhat plaintively: ‘Sed nescio quid de nobis venturum fiet’. Chase gives background information to the dispute with Offa which lies behind the uncertainty of the time of writing, from the perspective of one who knows that it was all sorted out eventually. Alcuin, however, does not know this, which gives an entirely different perspective.

The gifts being sent are not insignificant. We learn that oil is scarce in Britain, such that Alcuin sends oil in large enough quantity for Colcu to share it out with the bishops. He also sends alms in silver coin, a total of 203 shekels, coming roughly half from Charlemagne and half from Alcuin. This sounds like a large sum but what is really interesting is that Alcuin has the funds to match Charlemagne’s donation coin for coin. Where did the money come from? And what was it for? The obvious answer is that it bought prayer for Alcuin and his master at a time of uncertainty. We might also think that Alcuin has a responsibility towards his old teacher and since he is now in a position to support the Irish monasteries financially, he does so. But I think the real reason is that a tiny monastery, possibly on the West coast of Ireland was seen as just as much a part of a proto-European movement as Fulda and Auxerre. Perhaps this was indeed the first European Union.

*No, I have not given in on the Latin, but once you’ve worked out how to pair the letters it is a comfort to compare my own version of the Latin with Allott’s much more scholarly version.  Mostly I’m right.


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Mything the point?

I’ve been reading Levi Strauss’ “Myth and Meaning”.  Its subtitle is “Cracking the Code of Culture” which speaks to my condition, as it were, because I see education as primarily the transmission of culture, in the middle ages as in the 21st century.  And it’s apparently concise and accessible.  The main tenet is that, since all societies, even those we are tempted to describe as ‘primitive’, seek to find an understanding of the world around them, myth can be seen as a precursor of science as a way of accounting for the phenomena of nature.  So far, so good.  I was brought up to believe that thunder was just the angels having coal delivered.  [God knows how you reassure chilcren now that the rumble of the coal into the coal shed is a thing of the past.]  Only much later did I progress to meteorology.

But closer inspection leads to questions.

I’m interested in what he thinks myths are.  ‘Myth is narrative made coherent’ he says.  This apparent tautology he justifies by reference to collections of myths which have been given coherence by anthropologists who tidy up the bits of narrative they gather from their informants, regardless of whether or not the ‘original’ myth was in itself coherent.  But where is the line between ‘myth’ and ‘memory’ and ‘folk tales’? Does not myth have to have some kind of formal status, perhaps something like social memory?  Which would exclude my angelic coalmen.  If you collate a lot of folk tales, are they myths in themselves or only when they become part of an established oral tradition?  But is Levi Strauss simply warning his listeners against the seductive power of a good story, whether true or not?

Interesting also is the link between myth and science.  Most historiographical discussions of ‘myth’ seem to contrast it with ‘history’, a good example being the foundation myths of many monastic communities. But if we reflect on this, much medieval thought switches easily from history to science.  Genesis is both.  The concept of God’s plan, ‘working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’ is not just a history myth, but also very much a description of all natural phenomena.

More later…



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