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Response to Review of The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages

It is extremely gratifying for an author to be faced with a review which takes his or her book on its own terms, and presents it much as it was intended. The description of the book provided by Paul Fouracre is absolutely fair – and the additional points raised (especially with regard to Mark Hovell) are genuinely enlightening. Naturally the reviewer picks up on points that are not covered, and he always does so astutely. He is right, for instance, to stress the importance of a small number of stories which dominate the historical debates: and indeed at one point I had thought of tracing the different readings of the tale of Clovis and the vase at Soissons, and how that story was read and reread from Boulainvilliers to Michael Wallace-Hadrill (it might have formed a Leitmotif running through the whole argument). I also entirely accept the more general point that the intellectual background of much that is in The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages could have been fleshed out more.  My only defence here is length: the original manuscript was 40,000 words longer than the publishers had anticipated, and even after considerable cuts the book is still a good deal lengthier than the contract originally allowed. If something had to go it was bound to be material that was generally available, even if one of the book’s main contentions was that it was imperative to understand the interpretations of early medieval history within the political, social and intellectual context in which they were written.

If there is one point in the review that I would contest it is the description of the book as ‘near authoritative’. Of course, I would like the description to apply, but I am all too aware of the likelihood (indeed certainty) that there are significant gaps. The book offers a grand narrative of what I identified as changing dominant discourses: it would not surprise me to learn of discourses that I failed to notice. There is unquestionably more to be said about German scholarship in both the 19th and 20th centuries, and it may well be that I picked on figures who were less important than those I did not discuss (Wilhelm Junghans would certainly repay further study). I make this point in particular because it was not until very late in the course of writing that I encountered the works of Frédéric Ozanam, who I have come to appreciate as a figure of enormous importance, both because of the quality of his thought and also because of his impact. So too, it was only from Peter Brown’s comments on the penultimate draft of the book that I learnt of the significance of Charles Norris Cochrane (and even then I failed to state the extent of his influence on Marrou). Naturally I would hope that The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages will have the sort of shelf-life envisaged by Paul Fouracre, but I also hope that it will prompt fellow scholars to investigate the works of earlier generations. There is a case – to my mind overwhelming – for thinking that Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity added something new to the interpretation of the period: but Paul Fouracre is absolutely right to note that pretty well all our questions were already posed by scholars in the early modern period (and indeed that some of them were answered as well or better then as they have been more recently).

Of course few scholars will get the chance to dedicate as much time as I did to reading the scholarship of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. For that reason I hope that Paul Fouracre proves to be right in his assessment of the book’s likely shelf-life. At the same time I hope that the exercise will encourage others to keep more of an eye on earlier scholarship than has my generation.