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Coping with disruption


From time to time, it does you good to read something that is not medieval. For me, that always tends to be modern German history, mainly because some of it I have lived through and some of it I have heard from good and caring people from Germany and the UK who are sadly no longer with us. So I recently bought Thomas Harding’s book ‘The Lake House’ as ‘light reading’. The plan didn’t go all that well as I became ill shortly after buying it and for a while I thought I would never finish it. But now, several months on, I have.

And, as Quakers say, it speaks to my condition in this post Brexit vote and pre Trump presidency world. Briefly, Harding’s writing the story of a house near Berlin which his family owned in the early twentieth century. Because of its location – Gross Glienicke, which ended up in the GDR – the story of the house is a proxy for the story of Berlin, in much the same way as ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ uses a set of Japanese netsuke to tell the history of a Jewish family from Vienna. At the beginning, a wealthy family chooses to build a holiday home in an idyllic lakeside setting; at the end, a descendant of that family rediscovers the house and negotiates the post war minefield of tracing the ownership of properties once owned by Jews well enough to gain local and national support to restore the house as a memorial to Jewish history.

But the real interest for me is not the building, but the way the dramatis personae cope with change. The inhabitants of the house in November 1989 had mixed feelings. Whilst feeling brave enough to bash a hole in their bit of the Berlin wall so as to show your son the lake beyond was fun, choosing to actually go and live on the other side of it was a different matter altogether. Whilst noticing that the border guards had gone was liberating, the fear that fact engendered as to what might replace them was real and palpable. The book’s earlier chapters form (one of the many) contemporary accounts of how the rise of the Nazis represented a very different kind of change – not one you could sit and watch on your television. Because of the time span of the book, and because of its geographical location you can almost turn it into a graph showing spikes of upheaval and periods of apparent calm.

And in the end, the ordinary people do much the same things in both. They adapt, they love, they disagree, they suffer personal losses, they enjoy personal triumphs. Disruption happens and the generations born in the West after 1950 will just have to get used to it.

PS Both books come highly recommended.










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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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