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Response to Review no. 150

Stuart Airlie’s review is characteristically generous. ‘Mild irritation’ is reserved for the publisher’s house-style ­ which is a little unfair, since Variorum has over many years won the gratitude of scholars for publishing collections of reprinted papers, often from out-of-the-way books and journals, and the result, inevitably, is a variety of type-faces and of languages. If French is indeed beyond the reach of today’s students, that’s an indictment of the tragic devaluation of modern-language learning in late twentieth-century British schools.

As far as scholars are concerned, the chief utility of a collection such as mine is that it brings together work scattered over many years, and an author’s changes of mind on particular contentious topics are not difficult to spot. Stuart Airlie is kind enough not to chide this particular author for changes of mind as such. I in turn am unrepentant about such changes, for they reflect revisitings, over a good many years now, of sources whose multiple meanings are seldom revealed quickly. I am glad that the collection has some coherence nevertheless. Airlie rightly notes that I take seriously the political thinking of early medieval lay people. It may be that, as a consequence, the ‘strangeness’ of the Middle Ages looks less strange in Rulers and Ruling Families than in much recent German historiography. So much the better ­ for notions of the state, of freedom or of obligation, at home among rulers and ruling families, and hence distinct from their twentieth-century equivalents, are to be found alive and well in the ninth century no less than in the sixteenth or seventeenth.

If Alfred, Charles the Bald, and others, defy posterity’s condescension, they also demand historical contextualisation. That Airlie, by way of ‘supplement’, offers his own suggestions as to how this can be done strikes me as the nicest sort of compliment, for he is one of the shrewdest and most sensitive of a younger generation of commentators on the early medieval scene. First and foremost, geography and topography need to be explored, and places’ ambivalent meanings decoded: a queen’s occupancy of a ‘single room’ could be perceived not as privacy but as sequestration, and women’s involvement in the care of the dead made powerful locations of tombs as well as palaces. Meanings were not given by nature; and what Airlie neatly terms the activating of landscapes was then, as ever, the work of humankind. Just occasionally, we can catch people in the act ­ like Charlemagne at Aachen. Airlie’s counter-example of Saalfeld (one that shows the lasting legacy of Karl Leyser to all us epigoni, for it was he, as Airlie recalls, who pinpointed what made this place funestus, ‘funereal’, ‘calamitous’), was the site of feasts that signalled successive ‘rebellions’ against Otto I from within the very heart of the Ottonian family. (In Leyser’s ‘Even a rebellion had to begin with the right rituals and in the right setting’, the only jarring word is ‘even’.) Gerd Althoff identified in Breisach on the Rhine a second locus funestus for the Ottonian family: Breisach, ‘ever the hide-out of those who rebelled against God and king’, according to Adalbert’s Chronicle, was the chosen site of rebels in 939, in the early 950s, and in 984 ­ in each case headed by a brother, or son, or nephew of Otto I. In 1298, Adolf of Nassau crossed the Rhine at Breisach (the only medieval bridge over the Rhine between Basel and Stra├čburg) on the way to the disaster that befell, so wrote a contemporary Stra├čburg chronicler, ‘all kings who passed over this bridge as if in flight’. Althoff tentatively suggested that the early fourteenth-century chronicler preserved some (orally transmitted?) memory of Breisach’s tenth-century significance.

Rebels within royal families in their own estimation were not rebels at all, but men with well-justified claims to a share in a familial inheritance. The feasts they laid on for their associates were ritual acts analogous to the conjurationes, oath-swearings, that bound early medieval nobles, or gildsmen, together with their peers in collective self-protection. The political thinking that validated their conduct in terms of law, custom and tradition cast men like Otto I’s brother and son as conservators, not subverters, of the realm. ‘Rebel’, like ‘brigand’, was a word found in the mouths of those family seniors who denied what juniors, and their supporters, saw as just deserts. Men thus labelled flung back the charge of oppressor or tyrant. The inextricable mix of public and private vocabulary signals to us what was un-modern, about these patrimonial polities. ‘Undifferentiated royal power’ was hardly on display at Frankfurt in 794, as Airlie well observes: smoke and mirrors could never remove the plurality of participants in family firms, nor mask the role of women in differentiating power within families through their association, as daughters, wives and mothers, with alternative, particular, sites of power inherited from their own ancestors, and through their reproduction of parallel, potentially rival, descent-lines. Frankfurt, another new location for Carolingian monarchy, seems (as James V remarked of the Scottish kingdom) to have cam’ wi’ a lass.

A generation of German scholars has earned the undying gratitude of other Carolingianists by their exemplary editorial work on Libri Memoriales, books listing by name thousands of people whose liturgical commemoration at cult-sites had been provided for by themselves or, more likely, by their kin. Thanks to all this, Airlie can offer further telling reflections on the way royal personages ‘presenced’ themselves in landscapes. As for contemporary perceptions of the roles that women played in these processes of social reproduction, given still-neglected evidence in various other genres including narratives and poetry, there is indeed more to be said. Stuart Airlie, with his rhetorical flair and attentive ear for the sometimes rousing but often sombre tonalities of the early Middle Ages’ epic mode, will without any doubt be among those who do the saying.