Tracing Europe's History Through Texts

AcademiaNet interview with Professor Rosamond McKitterick, Chair in Medieval History in Cambridge

3.3.2015 | Rosamond McKitterick investigates how texts can show the cultural identity and dynamics of Europe during the Middle ages. These texts also mirror Charlemagne's education reforms: he founded numerous monasteries, schools and scriptoria where classic Latin and Greek were cultivated. We not only owe the preservation of many classical texts to these scribes - but also our lower case letters.
AcademiaNet: You've spent your career researching the Carolingian Empire, the period in the 8th and 9th century where the majority of north-western Europe was controlled by the Carolingian dynasty. What is the importance of this particular period in European history, especially in terms of politics and reforms?

Prof. Rosamond McKitterick: Essentially it was a formative period for Europe. It was the culmination of the early development of the region from the successors of the Roman Empire and the formation of what are often called the barbarian successor states in Gaul, Spain, Italy and so on. In fact, the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne was even called the father of Europe by contemporaries.

Prof. Rosamond McKitterick
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Prof. Rosamond McKitterick
Another reason it was so terribly important was because Charlemagne and his predecessors made great effort to promote the Frankish empire's links with its classical and biblical inheritance. They achieved this through an all-encompassing education reform. The Carolingians had a real consciousness of the past, and they saw the past as part of their identity. They believed that elements of their Christian and Classical past made them who they were.

The Carolingian period saw the conjunction of what had once been a barbarian past - with contributions from the Goths, Lombards, Franks and Anglo-Saxons - with all kinds of different cultural traditions including the classical Roman and even Greek past, combined with Biblical and Christian history. All of this came together and the Carolingians made something new out of it.

Your most recent research was a large multinational project, funded by Humanities in the European Research Area, or HERA, that looked at how cultural memory and the resources of the past were deployed in the early middle ages. Your area in this project was the transmission of Roman and Byzantine traditions to the Carolingian world. What part did manuscripts and the written word play in promoting the idea of Christian and imperial Rome to people in early medieval Europe?

The written word played a crucial role in Rome's portrayal to the people in the Carolingian empire, and ideas were conveyed by many different types of text, such as liturgy, law and biblical exegesis, and not just by narrative texts.

One example is the "Liber Pontificalis", which is a history of the Popes from St Peter to the end of the 9th century. The original versions were put together in the 6th century by the papal officials to promote the pope's own authority across Europe at that time. When these books were transmitted down through the 8th and 9th centuries, different authors and political groups modified the texts. The Lombard and Frankish versions of this book are significantly different – the Lombard version is less hostile to the Lombards than the Frankish version.
Prof. Rosamond McKitterick
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(© private)

Prof. Rosamond McKitterick | teaches medieval history at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge

You also study handwriting, a field known as palaeography. How do you use this discipline in your study of texts from ancient and medieval times?

In palaeography we trace the development of letterforms in manuscripts and the hierarchy of scripts, which show the formality of the writing. Starting from the original Latin scriptures, different countries developed their own letter forms and traditions. By studying the handwriting, we can often tell whether a manuscript is from Francia, England, Italy or Spain, or at least whether the scribe writing was trained in the writing traditions of one of these regions, and date it to within a quarter of a century.

In the Carolingian period in particular, different groups were forming the novel scripture Caroline minuscule: its letters already resemble our lower case letters. It had developed organically from earlier scriptures, but in sufficiently distinctive ways for us to know if the manuscript was from such major writing centres as Reims, Tours or St Gallen. As you go later into the 9th century, it becomes much more difficult to pin a manuscript down to a particular centre, because the letterforms were becoming much more homogenized.
Manuscript written in Caroline minuscule
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(© British Library London (Sign. Add. Ms. 10546))

Manuscript written in Caroline minuscule | Detail from a so-called Alcuin bible from the monastery in Tours, written around 840. Alcuin of York was a well-known scholar and close advisor of Charlemagne. He later became abbot in Tours.

So your research covers not just the subject matter or content of books from the 8th and 9th century, but also how they’re written and put together. What other aspects of medieval books have you studied in terms of their structure?

I've now developed a very strong interest in glossaries as a medium of transmission of knowledge. I've always known about glossaries and I knew there were a few really famous ones, so I thought I would take a look at them. I started with the manuscripts I knew about, then recently I began to look really very seriously and have found nearly 200 glossaries from the Carolingian period.

Many of the manuscripts contained more than a Latin glossary, that is, a list of Latin words with another Latin equivalent. Some of them also listed Latin words with old high German or old English synonyms, or even occasionally glossed words in other languages. Other manuscripts were collections of glossaries. So I have begun to wonder about the significance and role of glossaries and glossary collections, or chrestomathies, as an historical and cultural phenomenon.

How did you personally become interested in this period of European history and in particular the books and manuscripts produced in medieval times?

I can remember the headmistress of my school ringing up my mother and complaining that I knew too much medieval history, because it wasn't on the syllabus. Between the ages of about 10 and 14 I read historical novels, like Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, and then went to read the history books to see how much of it was true. So I was fascinated by the Middle Ages from a young age.

Getting interested in the early Middle Ages as distinct from medieval history generally was something that didn't happen until my third year as an undergraduate. In a way it was partly perversity because I found this area of history very difficult! There were so many fewer landmarks, but that in a way was its attraction – I liked the uncertainty. I liked the feeling that there was so much that was unknown, that you basically had to surmise things from fragments of evidence. It is just very intriguing and exciting intellectually.

Dear Prof. McKitterick, thank you very much for this interesting interview!

Interview: Helen Jaques

Building from the Lorsch monastery
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(© Matthias Holländer, Creative Commons License)

Building from the Lorsch monastery | called "Torhalle" (gatehouse). It is one of the very few well-preserved buildings from the Carolingian era in Germany and was built in the 9th century.

  (© AcademiaNet)

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