Think Piece

Institutions and Fragments: “A Portrait of Antinous, In Two Parts” at the AIC

By guest contributor Luke A. Fidler

The postwar art museum has increasingly served as a site of artistic intervention, whether through sanctioned forms of institutional critique (Fred Wilson’s pointed rearrangements of the collections at the Maryland Historical Society and the Seattle Art Museum, for example) or unsanctioned action. Museums like the Kolumba (the former Cologne Diözesanmuseum) have taken note, juxtaposing their medieval and modern collections in an attempt to lend older art a frisson of novelty and to speak to the postmodern mal d’archive. In a similar vein, this small show at the Art Institute of Chicago (running through August 28, 2016) frames the museological archive as an archaeological site, ripe with potential finds.

The find in question is a fragment of a mid-second century marble portrait head of Antinous, Hadrian’s teenage companion whose untimely end in 130 CE sparked an unprecedented wave of memorialization (below). Controversially deified after his death, he was repeatedly rendered in a distinctively individuated style. The Art Institute’s fragment, comprising most of his face and his distinctive curls, typifies this wave of production. It entered the museum’s collection in 1922 after being removed from its original bust and remounted as a quasi-bas-relief. A fine example of imperial carving, it compares favorably to a slightly earlier bust of Antinous as Osiris presented here as comparison.

Fig. 1.jpg
Fragment of a portrait head of Antinous (mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson; Art Institute of Chicago)

About a decade ago, scholars noted the fragment’s similarity to a heavily-restored bust of Antinous in the collection of the Palazzo Altemps (below). The Altemps work features an eighteenth-century face stuck awkwardly to a second-century head, the join between old and new sculpture clearly articulated by a line running down the cheek, under the jaw, and across the tousled locks. A battery of tests, supplemented by the wizardry of 3-D printing and laser-scanning, determined that the Art Institute’s fragment had, indeed, been lopped off the Altemps bust at some past point. The museum is not wrong to claim this as a significant discovery. In a rare turn, we can examine the particularities of a story too often told in generalities, for the long life of a Roman sculptural object, ravaged by time, taste, and restoration, gets some real specificity. Although it’s unclear exactly when the bust and fragment parted company, their rich modern biographies are telling.

Fig. 2.jpg
Monica Cola, Roberto Bonavenia, Francesco Borgogni, Franco Trasatti, Studio M.C.M. srl., Rome. Bust of Antinous, 2015–16. © The Art Institute of Chicago

They show us, for example, how early modern collectors broke apart ancient objects and recontextualized them according to their tastes. They show us how one statue could multiply into two, how a bust could beget a bas-relief which could turn into a more explicitly orphaned fragment. How an English (probably) sculptor could sculpt a facsimile of Antinous’ visage in the eighteenth century (probably) for a faceless bust thanks, no doubt, to the obsessive antiquarian collection of Roman medals and statues. The stories of the sculptures’ early modern afterlife—not to mention their susceptibility to contemporary analysis—are bound up with Hadrian’s relentless imaging of his dead companion in a recognizable, replicable form.

The curators have smartly used the show to reflect on the conditions that enabled the objects’ reunification. (Unfortunately, however, they eschew any critical reflection on those conditions’ limits or negative consequences. To my mind, this is a missed opportunity to engage thorny questions of method, collecting, institutional practice, and display, to name but a few issues occluded by the show’s occasionally triumphalist tone.) The captions, wall text, and object selection frame the fragments in a story of connoisseurial sleuthing and trans-Atlantic technological gumption. A large portion of the exhibition space is given over to a long video replete with interviews. Differently-scaled models and prints of the Art Institute fragment and the Altemps bust surround the objects. One model, marked by the glossy sheen of contemporary facture, recombines them in a spectral approximation of how Antinous would have appeared before its dismemberment. A selection of ancillary objects—including a portrait of Charles L. Hutchison, the Art Institute’s first president who also purchased the fragment—attempt to place the fragment with respect to the taste of fin-de-siècle American collectors, while other ancient and early modern comparanda help contextualize other key moments when the objects were altered.

And so, this show is as much about the way museums tell complex, object-centered stories to the general public as it is about the genuine historical insights afforded by the busts and their models. If material objects are uniquely positioned to make the past legible, how should museums best interpret the ways those objects register the vicissitudes of taste? The fragment and bust are exciting testimony to interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. But they are also testimony to the means by which museums and collectors have historically proved hostile to the integrity of art objects, severing illuminations from medieval codices and chiseling the faces of Roman busts. If Hadrian desired overly much to keep Antinous whole through art, perhaps it’s worth querying our own desire for unification too

Luke A. Fidler is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago.

Intellectual history

Conference Report: “Nearness | Rift”

by guest contributor Jack Dragu

On 16 April, I had the pleasure of attending “Nearness | Rift: Art and Time in the Textiles of Medieval Britain,” a one-day symposium hosted by the University of Chicago’s art history department and organized by Ph.D. student Luke Fidler. Named after the image of the crumpled handkerchief famously invoked by Michael Serres to describe a topology “wherein disparate points unexpectedly fold onto and away from each other,” the symposium set itself against a sexier theoretical backdrop than one might suppose any conference on “medieval textiles” has any right to. Fidler, as he made plain in his introduction, aimed to start a conversation that engaged head-on with some of the key historiographical assumptions in the study of medieval art history. Throughout the day, one had the feeling that the scholars he had brought together were collectively attempting to carve out new ways of thinking with textiles as puzzling and ontologically unstable objects of labor and aesthesis, reminding us that our very notion of context (from the Latin contextus, meaning woven or entwined) is historiographically complex and unstable.

Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks.  Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.
Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks. Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.

The keynote lecture was given by Thomas E. A. Dale (Professor of Art History, UW Madison), whose paper, “Materiality, Metaphor and the Senses: Elite Textile Cultures of Medieval England in their Global Contexts,” considered opus anglicanum textiles as a site for exploring how the intimate and the global fold onto each other, as well as for the recent “sensory turn” in medieval art historical studies. Examples of opus anglicanum, such as the vestments of St. Cuthbert and the lavish cope of John of Thanet, serve both as prime examples of medieval English textiles’ globality (both in their wide circulation and reflection of elites’ exotic tastes for Eastern materials and ornament) and also of their “multi-sensorial desire.” While Meyer Schapiro saw in Reginald of Durham’s account of the inventio of St. Cuthbert a surprisingly modern sensibility in his purely aesthetic enjoyment of the saint’s vestments, Dale helpfully guided our attention away from Reginald’s connoisseurship to the aesthesis effected by the garments themselves that is given such vivid witness in Reginald’s account (the “completely undecayed” body still seems to somehow breathing, wrapped in luminous and beautifully detailed vestments that “crackle” when they are unfolded). Thanet’s cope is notable for both its pseudo-Kufic inscriptions and its image of Christ resting a hand on a T-O globe, indicating the importance of Christianity’s global character. Like St. Cuthbert’s vestments, its distinctive use of gold threads and taste for Orientalist exoticism points to the importance of globalism and multi-sensorial piety to opus anglicanum aesthetics.

Dale, as part of a move to consider the broader theological-aesthetic contexts for these objects, then considered the eschatological significance of veils and the metonymic action of “putting on Christ” entailed in the adorning of garments that shine forth with light. Dale’s talk concluded with a case study of sacral kingship analyzing the lavish robes worn by Richard II and his patron saint St. Edmund in the Wilton Diptych, which crystallizes these themes in a secular context. In his equal emphasis on the semiotic significance of the materials and sensoria of opus anglicanum as well as their global context, Dale raised important questions about the potentially widespread geographical genealogies of this class of textiles while also pointing to their ability to crystallize complex social and politico-theological relations and networks.

Following Dale, Valerie Garver (Associate Professor of History, Northern Illinois University) discussed “Garments as Means of Communication Between Anglo-Saxon England and the Carolingian World.” She followed Bernard L. Herman in attempting an “object-oriented approach” to history in her reading of the extensive body of letters left behind by Alcuin of York. Garver paid particular attention to Alcuin’s discussion of clothing in his letters to various Anglo-Saxon correspondents, warning them of Frankish excesses in dress. Garver’s talk, more reliant on texts than the others at the symposium, highlighted the usefulness of a historicism that assumes that objects produce texts, rather than the other way around, especially in the context of the early Middle Ages, a period often weighed down with historiographical problems for its relative dearth of surviving objects.

Christina Normore (Assistant Professor of Art History, Northwestern University) was next, and her “Linear Narrative, Liturgical Time, and the Bayeux Tapestry” confronted some sacred cows in the scholarship and teaching on the famous textile: namely, its secularity and the linearity of its narrative. Normore’s talk was primarily concerned with the history of the tapestry as an object. She began with an intriguing (and humorous) discussion of British school curricula that have students reenact and interpret the “feelings” of the tapestries’ “main characters.” Normally, “we medievalists” would like to assume that we’re above the teaching methods of grade schools, but Normore showed such methods to be symptomatic of a series of assumptions in Bayeux tapestry scholarship that ignore its materiality and liturgical settings. She suggested that the tapestry’s sheer length and weight lead to a persistent tendency, even need, to fragment, skim, and reduce its scale just to engage with the tapestry at all.

Normore’s talk was followed by a paper by Clare Jenson, a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago, on her research on the wonderfully idiosyncratic writings and vestments of John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (d. 1369). Jenson discussed Grandisson’s exceptionally detailed writings on the role of vestments in the liturgy, revealing a personality with an exhaustively fastidious attention to detail, such as color coordination and the arrangement of the liturgy.In Jenson’s telling, Grandisson was a keen theorist of liturgy, cultivating a praxis that fastidiously considered liturgical actors individually as well as their “total effect” on the audience as a coordinated group..This praxis was derived not only from his study of theology, but also the examples of “great” bishops before him, such as Anselm. Remarkably, a considerable collection of objects and vestments survives that was created under his patronage and according to his liturgical preferences, allowing for a truly unique research opportunity questioning the relationship between Grandisson’s texts and the objects those texts theorized. Consistent with many other works of opus anglicanum, these vestments also delight in legible juxtapositions of international, exotic styles.

Nancy Feldman (Lecturer in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) gave the final paper, entitled “Cultural Politics: The Term ‘Opus Anglicanum’ in Late Medieval England.” It was by far the most technical of the papers given, analyzing changes and variations in the threading techniques of English textiles, as well as the shift from a predominance of gold to silver threads in the textiles, which Victorian historians considered a degradation of the style. Feldman’s paper pointed to an essentially global character to the genre of opus anglicanum itself, a term that wasn’t coined until the late thirteenth century and was used most frequently in continental inventories, justifying historically a recent shift in scholarship away from nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts that use the term to refer to a local phenomenon.

Overall, “Nearness | Rift” stimulated a fruitful discussion that made one feel in the presence of genuinely productive and fresh scholarly conversation. As Aden Kumler (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Chicago) noted in her closing remarks, the papers collectively raised questions and prompted conversations about fundamental and under-theorized issues in textile studies, including the study of technique and movement, forcing scholars to confront the fact that art history today still hasn’t found a way to really grapple with “the applied” as not just a functionalist but an aesthetic category. Kumler reminded us of the fact that textiles are, at their core, assemblage objects made from a stratified aggregation of labor practices and techniques that make them ontologically, topologically, and temporally unstable, leading her to ask the important question of whether or not it even makes sense to see textiles as a medium at all. At the end of the day, what made “Nearness | Rift” feel like success was that it asked more questions than it answered, opening up ambitious avenues for new research.

Jack Dragu is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, where he studies late medieval literature and enjoys thinking about things like poetics, self-induced suffering, resistance to hegemonies, and superfluous historicism. He grew up in Los Angeles but has spent his adult life in the Midwest.

Think Piece

Wilhelm Reich: A Disappointed Utopian

by guest contributor Zachary Levine

Wilhelm Reich, later in life (Wikimedia Commons)
Wilhelm Reich, later in life (Wikimedia Commons)

What should we do when brilliant thinkers push their ideas in strange directions? Should we try to interpret their later work in the context of their earlier work, or vice versa? Should we reject their later work but embrace their earlier work, as JS Mill did with Auguste Comte? By and large, this latter approach has been applied to Wilhelm Reich. His early political writings,including “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” (1929) and The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), have been of interest to political dissidents and intellectual historians, while Character Analysis (1933) is still read by psychoanalysts. By contrast, Reich’s theory of the “orgone,” a specific, measurable life energy that formed the centerpiece of his research from the late 1930’s until his death in 1957, has been written off as an especially bizarre form of vitalism by all three groups. While Reich argued that orgone energy could be detected and harnessed in cells and living beings, few other scientists agreed that it existed at all. Deservedly or not, Reich’s orgonomic work earned him a reputation for unfounded medical treatments and amateurish research that has largely precluded serious historical interest. (Two notable recent exceptions are Petteri Pietikainen’s Alchemists of Human Nature and James Strick’s Wilhelm Reich, Biologist.)

For his part, Reich later in life argued that a “red thread” ran through all of his work: “the theme of the bio-energetic function of excitability and motility of living substance” (as cited in Chester Raphael’s forward to Early Writings, Volume 1). In other words, the orgone can be found at the core of his earlier studies, though he was not initially aware of the true nature of the object of his own research; scratch the surface of the character analyst and you find an emerging orgonomic scientist. If he saw bio-energy as the red thread of his work, he was willing to jettison his social theories, or at least relegate them to the periphery of his worldview. By the early 1940’s, he claimed to have entirely abandoned political thought, having been hurt and offended by his 1933 expulsion from the Communist Party and quickly becoming disillusioned by the USSR’s sexual conservatism and apparent truce with fascism. As he ceased to see himself as a political thinker, he came to emphasize the role of bio-energetic function in his earlier writings. By the end of his life, he understood the most crucial features of his early work to be those that he emphasized in his orgone research program.


One of Reich's "Orgone Accumulators," which he believed could have healing properties (Wikimedia Commons)
One of Reich’s “Orgone Accumulators,” which he believed could have healing properties (Wikimedia Commons)

Still, in spite of Reich’s self-assessment, political and social thought remained key components of his intellectual framework. As Reich became disillusioned with the USSR, he began to develop a new political theory: “Work-Democracy.” In a set of chapters that were added to English translation of the 3rd edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) based on pamphlets written from 1937 through the early 1940’s, Reich described the nature of Work-Democracy: “Work-Democracy is the natural process of love, work, and knowledge that governed, governs and will continue to govern economy and man’s social and cultural life as long as there has been, is a, and will be a society.” Reich argued that Work-Democracy was not a political or ideological system, but it seems clear that it was designed to be a political system built on labor organization. Though Work-Democracy is the system in which laborers naturally self-organize, Reich argued for a future political order based on Work-Democratic principles: “For the first time in the history of sociology, a possible future regulation of human society is derived not from ideologies or conditions that must be created, but from natural processes that have been present and have been developing from the very beginning.”

Reich’s biological and political theories never ceased to be interconnected. Just as Reich’s psychoanalytic theories informed his earlier sex-political and Marxist social theories, Work-Democracy was built on his new research platform. As he argued, it was from the “point of view of bio-sociology” that “there could be no clear-cut division between one class and another.” He also claimed that Work-Democracy produced the conditions for “objective and rational interlacing of the branches of work.” The intersections between biology and physics necessary for orgonomic research would develop most easily in a work-democratic society. The idea that orgone research would be a tool in political struggles for the future of humankind is also built into Reich’s later published work. In Reich’s 1949 Ether, God and Devil, he described his research as “not a question of philosophies, but of practical, decisive tools in the formation of human existence; it is a question of the choice between good and bad tools in the reconstruction and reorganization of humanity.”

Reich’s FBI file further belies his claim to have abandoned politics. Reich had been detained by the FBI for several weeks in 1941-1942, but after a cursory investigation in 1945, the FBI determined that Reich was no longer an active Communist. Consequently, after 1945, the file consists almost entirely of attempts by Reich and his followers to contact the FBI about the political importance of his work. In a 1953 letter to John J Finn, Reich argued that the US was in grave danger from “the inner emotional and characterological helplessness of people at large who, through their passivity and neuroses are unwillingly and unknowingly carrying political evil to power.” Reich’s followers made similar claims. In a 1949 FBI interview with Myron Sharaf, Sharaf reported Reich’s skepticism about erstwhile fellow researcher William Washington to the FBI “because the directors of the Orgone Institute Research Laboratory felt that it would jeopardize the welfare of the United States for the information and knowledge that Washington has on Orgone Energy, specifically, its reaction to the Geiger-Muller Counter, to fall into the Russian or foreign agent’s hands.” Communism and scientific criticisms of Reich were seen as interrelated. Sharaf complained that “Dr. Frederick Werthan [sic], in [The New Republic], on December 2, 1946, was slanderous and critical in reviewing the work in Orgone research; and that the Communists and fellow travelers have been very critical to Dr. Reich since 1939.” For Reich and his followers, Reich’s scientific research into the orgone could not be separated from the challenge it presented to the Communist party and the USSR. In fact, Reich’s views fit nicely into the anti-totalitarian rhetoric of the postwar years; the FBI file is rife with references by Reich and his followers to “red fascists” and “red imperialists.”

"Orgonon," in Rangeley, Maine, where Reich lived and worked for the last several years of his life (Wikimedia Commons)
“Orgonon,” in Rangeley, Maine, where Reich lived and worked for the last several years of his life (Wikimedia Commons)

Reich’s political and scientific ideas were intermingled, and despite the evaluations proffered by both Reich’s supporters and his detractors, this connection established the ideological framework that motivated all of his work. Reich was derided and persecuted throughout his life. To the best of my knowledge, he holds the dubious distinction of being the only person to have been targeted by the Communist Party, the Nazi party, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), and the Food and Drug Administration. When Reich was disappointed by his expulsions from the Communist Party and IPA, he slowly stopped trying to understand the connections between his ideas and those of Freud, or the resonance between his vision of the state and the USSR. And yet, he never abandoned his attempt to reconcile therapeutic or scientific practice and political engagement. In my view, he was a consistent scientific utopian, protecting the overall shape of his ideological framework by modifying its pieces as the political and scientific world disappointed him.

Zachary Levine is a third-year doctoral student at Columbia University. His research involves the role of the case study in the brain and mind sciences, intersections between intellectual history and the history of science, the history of psychoanalysis, and the history of neurology and psychiatry in France.

Think Piece

Sensual Charters

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

I share with JHI Blog editor John Raimo a buzzing affection for philology. On the one hand, it’s a tool I feel I need desperately, helping me to tease out how such fickle things as words might be clumped together into sentences. But philology is also a joy: Thinking philologically lets the historian play with words, and to watch others at play.

But it can be challenging, as a historian of institutions, to find ways also of being a philologist. For one, I feel my amateurism very keenly. I have read articles on the different sounds that people alive in Merovingian Gaul (France-ish, c. 450-751) might have meant when they wrote the letter “a;” I have learned my morphological and syntactical shifts from Late to Medieval Latin; I have devoured everything I can find by Roberta Frank; but is it ever enough? Lest reading continue to serve as a substitute for action, I want to strain some of these underdeveloped muscles of philological practice by looking for some of the sensuality in the medieval legal documents that I work with. In particular, what can focusing on the sensuous reveal about evidence, proof, and facts—about how governments sort information into units that are judged to be “false,” and so ineffectual, or “true,” and so actionable?

The sensual philology that I mean is Martin Foys‘, born of the now-expanding list of things that philology can do. Sensual philology sidles up next to New Philology’s earlier interest in the materiality of the text and urges a more ecumenical attention to the relationship between media, words, and bodies, and also the physical world of senses and silences beyond the visual, including non-linguistic systems of communication. Foys’ insights and methodologies don’t seem unique to the relationship between words and sensation, but the stakes of this intersection are uniquely high. Susan Kus, an archaeologist of Madagascar, has pointed out that semiotics is insufficient for understanding things like proverbs, which rely on routine physical experiences for context. The sensory is given meaning beyond the physical experience of the body, and words are embodied with content that is not just intellectual, but physical and affective.

It is easy to see how a reading attentive to the affective and sensory (especially non-visual senses) tenor of a text can be rewarding in passages like this one, from the medieval Welsh tales collectively called The Mabinogion:

His arms were round her neck, and they were sitting cheek to cheek, but what with the hounds straining at their leashes, and the edges of the shields banging together and the spear shafts rubbing together and the stamping and whinnying of the horses the emperor woke up.

Constellations of love-inflected sensory experiences, indeed. Outside of dreams, historians have found plenty of bodily and sensual experiences within and adjacent to medieval institutions. But in the legal documents that I work with on a daily basis? What is their sensuality?

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document's relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery's preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.
Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document’s relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery’s preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Here is a near-translation of most of a Merovingian placitum (a formula-based, post facto record of a dispute resolution adjudication, but also the word refers to the adjudication process itself and also means pleasing or agreeable):

Theuderic, king of the Franks, to the noble men.

One day, we, in the name of God, were seated at our palace at Ponthion along with our retainers so that we could hear everyone’s cases and judge lawful legal proceedings. Representatives of the church of our special protector the blessed martyr Dionysus (where he rests bodily and where the saintly man Abbot Godobald is seen to preside) came to us here and spoke out against the noble man Ermente. They said against him that he had given some of his land called Boran- sur-Oise on the river Isère in the region around Chambli, which he came by for himself legally through his father Nordbert and his brother Gunthechar, both dead. to the venerable man the abbot Godobald for the church of the lord Dionysisus. He had given and confirmed the gift through a deed of sale, and he showed the document to those assembled for reading. When it was read, and while that Ermente was among those present, it was asked of him by our nobles if he had sold that land Boran-sur-Oise of his to that Abbot Godobald for the church of St. Denis, and if he had taken the purchase price for it. Ermente said to those present that he sold to the Abbot Gondobald for the church of his lord St. Denis that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois and asked it to be confirmed and received the purchase price according to his satisfaction, and had asked to confirm the sale. For that reason we together with our nobles agreed to decide that, as the noble man Cumrodobald, our count of the palace, testified how the case had been investigated and completed, we ordered that the aforementioned representatives of the venerable man the Abbot Godobald and of the church of his lord Dionysius for their part hold for all time, inviolably and with all rights that same property of Boran-sur-Oise in the abovewritten Chabliois…, with their charters having been looked over…

Many things are confusing about this document: Where is the conflict? Why is text that is standard for a deed of gift spliced onto the end of a judgment formula? I want to leave those aside to point out that, as a group, the Merovingian placita are very loud. People are always speaking, interrupting, claiming, stating, responding, agreeing, promising, asking, asserting, contradicting, professing, testifying, relating, determining, swearing, reading aloud, requesting, interrogating, ordering, declaring, and pledging. Because of all this noise, or maybe in spite of it, people were also doing a lot of hearing; the placita are peppered with curious assurances that this was the case, or that there were people around to hear all this noise.

The impulse to explain in detail seeing and hearing is symptomatic of a larger epistemological habit of Merovingian diplomas: their effort to convey precisely how information was sent and received, especially information related to critical pieces of evidence. Medieval legal writing loved rhetorical specificity (“that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois”), and that specificity could manifest itself at different levels, including over the course of the whole placitum. Someone claims that a charter exists, it is made to appear physically for the purpose of reading aloud, it has been read aloud, it contained such and such information. The information is heard, it is confirmed by an official, taken to another official, written in the document, then confirmed again. (This last part, of the process, notably absent from the placitum above, is often described in others, and also frequently confirmed by notes in a Merovingian shorthand made on the documents.)

Getting information from one charter to another apparently required an odd alchemy, one that created a tangible link between the ink of the words on the page of the charter mentioned in the placitum, the ears of the king and court who made and recorded the decision, and the ink of this new placitum itself. Knowledge here is embedded in sensory experiences as a kind of physical movement. Seeing, hearing, and reading drag pieces of data from out of the secret interiors of people and documents into the open (Merovingian law always happens publice), where their truth can be verified or denied. But the careful nestling of source of information against source of information doesn’t stop here, at the decision; it extends all the way to the scribe, who is, after all, the one to record it. The carefully described passing of information from document to group to official to scribe to confirmer glues all of this information together into a coherent, sure narrative.

So, what does this shifting of perspective do for the legal or institutional historian? Most pressingly, it shows that Merovingian legal writers had assumptions that were different from those of the modern legal tradition about how writing worked as a technology, about what the law could do, and about how legal institutions made and preserved facts. The Merovingian placita offer a good opportunity to think about these issues: The placitum is probably a Merovingian genre. developed and use by Merovingian legal writers to meet the needs of Merovingian institutions. The documents are not transcripts, but recollections structured by formulas designed to elicit specific kinds of information.

A more traditional approach to this essay would have asked about categories of and rules for evidence – the relative efficacy of testimony versus written documents, or the place of oath-taking and the ordeal. Looking at the physical world of the placita shows how unsatisfying a Merovingian scribe might have found those sharply drawn categories. Facts were facts not because they could be isolated and examined individually, but because they could maneuver so lithely among texts and between text and speech, they could be read, spoken, and heard.

Think Piece

Violence as Legal Argument in Eleventh-Century France

by guest contributor Matthew McHaffie

Eleventh-century France is often described as a feuding society, where social and cultural attitudes towards violence found their meanings in feud and vengeance. From tit-for-tat revenge killings, to conflicts between lords competing for resources, to violence against property, violent acts were all explicable within this cultural framework of feud.

Feud is, fortunately, no longer equated with disorder and outdated ideas of ‘feudal anarchy.’ Historians have demonstrated well the inherent limits upon feuding violence (the ‘peace in the feud’), and feud makes sense in the context of the broader political and social structures of the time. France during the eleventh century lacked centralized institutions or any attempt by a ‘State’ to monopolize the legitimate use of force. Instead it was these feuding practices that constituted the normal social approach to violence. But legal institutions did exist in this period, and explanations for the logic of social violence must take such institutions into account.

One way into the relationship between the violence of feud and medieval judicial institutions is through documents recording court cases and disputes. The region of Anjou, in northwestern France, provides more than 1,000 such records from the period c.1030 to c.1150. Angevin charters and notices (notitiae) were written by and preserved by ecclesiastical institutions and are justly famed for their unexpected narrative richness, a result of a revival of Latin culture combined with the appearance of novel legal situations as monastic communities came into ever-closer contact with an increasing range of laymen.

Let’s look at one case from the cartulary of Saint-Aubin d’Angers (Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 829) in detail. In the early 1080s, Bouchard fitz Guérin and Eudes de Sermaise were summoned to the court of Roger de Montrevault in Jarzé – one of the decentralized seigneurial courts characterizing France of this period (cf. Bertrand de Broussillon, ed., Cartulaire de Saint-Aubin d’Angers [Angers, 1896-1903)], no. 270). Bouchard and Eudes entered woodland belonging the monks of Saint-Aubin, a prestigious Angevin monastic house, and chopped down two oak trees. They were confronted at the woodland by Adenor de Jarzé, who in the 1060s, along with her now late husband and son (also dead), had given this very woodland to the monastic community; during the ensuing scuffle, a number of Adenor’s men (homines), whom the widow had brought along to the woodland, were left either wounded or slain. In court, we are told that only Bouchard recognised his wrong (culpa), for which he was fined 30 solidi.

The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)
The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)

There is no doubt that violence was at issue in the case. The actions of the two men are violent – entering monastic land, chopping down trees, carting off wood, and, killing and wounding others. But, in drawing attention to the parti pris nature of monastic accounts of disputes whose authors were liable to misrepresent the actions of their lay adversaries, historians have interpreted violence like that committed by Bouchard and Eudes as feud. Violence against property also constituted a form of direct action – a means of symbolically expressing and making a claim, in this case of inheritance, upon property. We know that Bouchard (though not Eudes) had a proprietary claim upon this land: His father, Guérin, had held rights in the woodland in the 1060s, but was persuaded by the lord of Jarzé and his wife, Adenor, to relinquish his share.

Saint-Aubin’s charter scribe does not at all acknowledge this claim, however, and here the document becomes particularly interesting. The draftsman included in the account of the dispute a fictional speech ascribed to Adenor de Jarzé when she confronted Bouchard and Eudes at the woodland: ‘Do not violate the alms of Thibaud, my husband, and of myself and my son, for I shall have Lord Roger – your lord too! – hold a just judgment between you and the monks of Saint-Aubin as soon as he gets here. Indeed, it pertains to him to judge that which requires judgment.’ The speech contains two elements: an offer of settling the case in court, and an affirmation of the legitimacy of that court.

So, let’s take stock of what we have here: (i) a narrative silence on the substantive issue of the property dispute, namely Bouchard’s inheritance; (ii) a narrative emphasis on the ‘violent’ aspects of the dispute – especially violence against property; and (iii) a statement about the legitimacy of a seigneurial court to judge and provide legal redress. Might the three points be related? Almost certainly, and the interrelation between these three narrative points suggests the following interpretation. Bouchard sought to make a claim upon what he viewed as his inheritance, and did so through direct action; the monks, initially playing the role of defendants, cast themselves as the plaintiffs by isolating and emphasising the aspects of violence and wrongdoing in the case; and, this narrative strategy – or rather, this legal strategy – was designed to make sense within the framework of the court. The language of violence here seems to function as a legal fiction, but one with very real consequences in that it produced a judgment against Bouchard, defeating his proprietary claim.

Let’s draw out the broader significance of this for how historians have understood judicial notions of violence. Historians continue to emphasise two processes taking place in the twelfth century which supposedly brought about a transformation in how violence acquired legal meaning. First is the revival of categories and distinctions drawn from learned law – particularly the distinction between public/private, and criminal/civil. Second is the application of these concepts by royal governments keen to construct a superior, public jurisdiction, and begin the process of monopolizing the use of force. Such an explanation binds legal development – or rather, the development of legal thought and attitudes towards violence – almost exclusively to the State, and one feels the legacy of Max Weber here.

Now, Bouchard’s case complicates this model of the development of legal thought. Not only does it suggests that eleventh-century social and cultural approaches to violence cannot be explained solely in terms of feud, but neither can juridical conceptions of violence be explained solely in terms of the State. Not feud because explaining all social violence qua feud can only be half the story: regardless of whether Bouchard and Eudes felt their actions were just, the court patently viewed matters differently, implying alternative, non-feud meanings of violence. Likewise, not the state: the legal discourse of violence seems to derive its meaning from how contemporary courts – however decentralized and non state-like – understood it.

The determining factor here would be the dynamic of litigation itself: the searching out for advantageous forms of legal argument to aid one’s case. The monastic emphasis on violence was precisely that, a strategy, built on the distinction between proprietary questions and those centred on wrongdoing, and the implicit hierarchical relationship between these two substantive types of question where matters of violence seem to have held greater import in court. It is the seigneurial court which needs emphasis here as well: violence qua legal argument could only have had value if courts would accept the problem of violence as one meriting special treatment. Contrary to dominant views of eleventh-century France as a feuding society, Bouchard’s case suggests for us a much closer relationship between contemporary legal institutions and the meanings of violence.

Pursuing the implications of this relationship will provide an exciting avenue of research for the future, but here a couple of key questions emerge. One concerns the contribution made by seigneurial institutions – which remained the primary point of legal contact for most individuals in France to 1789 – to substantive categories of legal thought prior to the renaissance of learned law. A second question concerns the larger mechanics of what drives legal change, here centred on notions of violence. Juridical notions of violence have traditionally been explained in terms of crime and ‘public’ law. What the above case suggests is that the desire to avoid the proprietary questions of ‘private’ law is actually more important in giving juridical notions of violence shape. All this raises the possibility of multiple lines of legal development in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Legal thought branched out in myriad ways; some may have led to dead ends whereas others – like crime – would have long lives indeed. But what is most interesting is the attempt to uncover these hidden legal narratives, which make for a much more complex, but much richer legal history.

Matthew McHaffie completed his PhD in 2014 at the University of St Andrews. He is now a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King’s College, London, and is currently preparing a monograph on seigneurial justice and the development of customary law in northwestern France, c.1000 to c.1200.