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On Writing Property, Power, and Authority

Property, Power, and Authority in Rus and Latin Europe, ca. 1000–1236 offers a new approach to the debate on feudalism triggered by Susan Reynolds’s famous Fiefs and Vassals. Charles West, writing in 2013, remarked that “only recently has the process of direct engagement with the kernel of Reynolds’s work begun.” Power, Property, and Authority participates in this process by broadening the geographical and linguistic scope of the debate and comparing texts written in “learned” and “vulgar” Latin, in Church Slavonic, in Anglo-Norman, and in East Slavonic.

Indeed, language is a core issue in much of the feudalism debate. In what is probably her most well-known passage, Reynolds criticizes the “confusion of words, concepts, and phenomena” present “in most discussions of the medieval forms of property and political relations.” Arguably, one way to disentangle words, concepts, and phenomena is to compare texts written in different languages.

A close reading of Latin chronicles and histories reveals parallels with texts from Rus, especially with those written in Church Slavonic, a “learned” language created for the purpose of translating from Greek. However, much more pronounced parallels exist between East Slavonic chronicles and Western vernacular and “vulgar” sources. Arguably, these parallels stem from similarities between the social and political organization of Latin Europe and Rus, similarities that may be difficult to discern from  the works of learned Latin authors who strove to fit their accounts of medieval politics into patterns provided by classical historiography. In this sense, “theoretical constructs,” alien to the reality that they tried to describe, may be already present in the medieval texts, only these constructs would be “pre-” rather than “post-medieval.”

From a comparison of Rus and Latin Europe based primarily on “vulgar” and vernacular sources, the former emerges as a regional variation of a European society, contrary to the common perception of Rus as a polity following a “special path” of social and political development, profoundly different from that of the West.

Introduction. 1-12
Chapter One. Rus and Latin Europe: Words, Concepts, and Phenomena  13-70

  • “Kings,” “Princes,” and “Disintegration”
  • Alternative Interpretations of “Disintegration” and the Question of Kingship
  • Kingship: A Problem of Definition
  • State, Kingship, and Lordship
  • “Kingdom” or “Aristocratic State”? A Source Problem
  • Princely Volost: Family Property or Rule by Assent?
  • County of Maine, Aquitanian Castra: Family Property or Rule by Assent?
  • The Kievan Prince and Royal Power: A Hypothesis
  • “Real” Power of the Kievan Prince: A Brief Assessment
  • Vsevolod of Kiev and the Community of Novgorod: Two Sources, Two Perspectives

Chapter Two: Medieval Texts and Professional Belief Systems: 71-112

  • Latin, Church Slavonic, and Vernacular Political Narratives
  • Rusian Chronicles: Elusive Realm, Ubiquitous Volost
  • Rusian Chronicles: Conflict and Legitimacy
  • William of Newburgh, Robert of Torigni, Jordan Fantosme: The Realm of England, Honur, and Seigniorie
  • William of Newburgh, Robert of Torigni, Jordan Fantosme: Conflict and Legitimacy
  • Monarchical Ideal versus Aristocratic Egalitarianism: Language and Audience
  • Rusian Chronicles and the Conventum Hugonis

Chapter Three. Elite Domination in Rus and Latin Europe: 113-152

  • Princely Power and Banal Lordship
  • Dan– Tribute, Taxation, or Neither?
  • A Special Kind of Property
  • Judicial Rights, Banal Lordship and “Feudal Revolution”
  • Rusian princes: Justice and Dan
  • “Castles” and “Towns”: The Power of Language
  • Gorod and the Dawn of Princely Power in Rus
  • “Banal Lordship” Hypothesis: Limitations of Rusian Sources
  • Volost, Honor, and Poesté

Chapter Four. Interprincely Agreements and a Question of Feudo-Vassalic Relations153-194

  • Oaths in Rus: Terminology and Sources
  • “Love” and “Friendship”
  • Feudo-vassalic Relations in Current Scholarship
  • Senior, Father, and Lord: Terminology of Hierarchical Relations in Rus
  • “Fathers” and “Sons” in a Comparative Perspective
  • “Bowing Down”: A Rusian Ritual for Creating a Hierarchical Relationship
  • Vsevolod the Big-Nest and the Glebovichi: Lord and Vassals?
  • Vsevolod, Rurik, and Roman: Mutuality of Obligations and Layered Tenure

Conclusions 195-200

by Yulia Mikhailova

On Writing The Jews in Late Antiquity

When you want to learn about a certain historic period or specific topic, the first question is “what should I read”? Nowadays we have the internet and the ability to obtain the firsts hints concerning an issue we want to learn about, but sometimes this does not even help. We have the same problem and same solutions in historic research. In certain cases, we can consult the key experts of each field (personally or by mail), but occasionally we have to search information without a guide. 

My first reaction, when I received the e-mail of Arc Humanities Press (an imprint of Amsterdam University Press) regarding the writing of a short book on the Jews in late antiquity, was ambiguous. On the one hand, writing the history of the Jews between ca. third and seventh centuries CE seemed impossible to me for many reasons. Firstly, there is no one history but rather a lot of histories about the Jews in the period. Not only were the Jews from Babylonia different from Jews of Gaul, but also there were differences between Jews from different cities within one region, even neighbor cities. Moreover, sources about Jews are different in each region, and so different methodologies are necessary. Most importantly, late antiquity is a central period in Jewish history because of the birth and (gradual) imposition of rabbinic Judaism and also on account of the explosion of a kind of Jewish art not seen before, among other reasons. Crucially, I was charged to accomplish everything in few (very few!) pages.

On the other hand, the idea of The Jews in Late Antiquity seemed to me to be a challenge but a useful endeavor because – as I said before – I conceived the book as the first door to enter into the history of the Jews in the period. In fact, I wish I had had a book like this when I began my research more than 12 years ago. Not because the book is perfect, but for the reason that in more or less 100 pages condenses the main sources, facts and historiographical debates of the story of late ancient Jews of Spain, Gaul, Italy, Africa Proconsularis, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia.  

Thus, I decided to face the challenge and try to highlight the central aspects of the Jewish late ancient history. I had to make certain unhappy decisions. For example, due to the stipulated length of the book, I had to leave out very important regions, such as the Balkans, Asia Minor and Syria. I really would have loved to have included these areas, but space concern within the book was an invincible enemy. The selection was arbitrary, as most selections are: I prioritized the areas that I had previously researched heavily (Italy, Spain, the Land of Israel, Babylonia) and other regions on which I had approached before, although tangentially (Gaul, Africa Proconsularis and Egypt).  

Other decisions regarded the chapter division on regions. As I said before, even though there are certain common patterns, the history of the Jews in the period need to be studied separately. This is not only because the (slowly) rabbinized Jews of Palestine were different to the non-rabbinized Jews of Spain, but also because the society in Palestine was very different to the Hispanian one. Jews did not live isolated; they were (more or less, depending on the region) integrated with their surrounding society. They were, in fact, part of the society. Thus, Jewish history cannot be studied without seeing the broader (micro and macro) context.

Although I had little space, I also decided to write an introduction in order to explain that differences are not only associated with facts, but also to the sources that survived. So, if we want to study the story of the Jews in Italy in late antiquity, we should analyze a great Jewish epigraphic record, the remains of two synagogues and references written by Christians, but we do not have texts (beyond the epigraphic ones) written by Jews.  On the contrary, several texts produced by Babylonian Jews survived, while no archaeological and epigraphical evidence (except seals and magic bowls) survived to present day. I explained this in the introduction and I also showed the nuances of the different kind of records that we have to deal with. 

I must confess that after finishing the book (and read it again and again) I like it. I really think that every chapter shows the reader not only the most important facts of late ancient Jewish history of each region, but also the key authors that he/she should read in order to deepen his/her knowledge. 

When I received the cover and the back cover and I read the endorsement, where Paula Fredriksen stated that I “accomplishes an astounding amount in very few pages”, I must confess that I became extremely happy because I always have admired her and I trust in her judgement. I hope the readers will also enjoy The Jews in Late Antiquity and that it becomes an entrance for one of the most exciting periods of Jewish history. 

by Rodrigo Laham Cohen

Writing Shakespeare and Superheroes

In the following, author Jeffrey Kahan explains the logic behind his recent Arc book, Shakespeare and Superheroes.

As a child, I read comic books incessantly. Every Monday, my local corner store would rack the new Marvel and DC Comics for the week. I’d go in, pick out those I liked best, Captain America, Thor, BatmanX-Men, and stash them on a bottom rung, behind the unenticing Richie RichDisney, and Archie comics (though still a kid, I felt that I was already too big, too advancedfor those titles). Then I would wait until Friday; my mom would give me a dollar, and I would ride my bike back to the shop and retrieve my buried treasure. I would read each issue cover to cover, then bag and board them. It wasn’t the financial value that I was sealing up. I just wanted to keep and catalogue those issues, so that I could revisit them whenever I liked. Indeed, even as a kid, I understood that Marvel and DC were creating literary universes, and that any one story had an impact on the whole; storing back issues was just part and parcel of comic book reading.

While I lacked the formal language of literary criticism, comic books taught me the Aristotelian basics: I learned about character flaw (hamartia); I became expert in anticipating a reversal of fortune (peripeteia), in sharing with the hero a moment of tragic recognition (anagnorisis), and, in the price paid to vanquish evil, a spiritual cleansing (catharsis). Initially, connecting boyhood interests with my present, formal studies may seem pointlessly introspective; however, anecdotal conversations with students and fellow scholars have convinced me that what I am doing here is more than just engaging in Looney Tunes-like flights of fancy. It is entirely normal to catalogue literary experiences, to align certain texts and characters with each other.

For this writer, the process begins with a recognition of superficial plot points. In the case of Arrow (we’re talking about the TV show version) and Hamlet, my argument is that both are errand boys with “things to do,” but their seemingly straightforward tasks are complicated by their diseased wits and unreliable moral compasses. Memories, both heroes come to understand, don’t always conform to reality. This insight leads to a series of philosophical inquiries concerning the nature of the self. If a person is changed by events, then it follows that the person who commits an act, whether heroic or heinous, no longer exists in the same state afterwards. Arrow and Hamlet, thus, find themselves continuously missing the mark, perpetually chasing down ghosts of the actual. In the case of Wonder Woman and Fidele, I argue that both have a fluid understanding of gender. If biology is not a marker that defines sexual preference, to what extent are we living our own lives; to what extent are we merely playing out our socially appointed roles, and can we, and should we, self-liberate from the inherited habits and habiliments of our society? In the case of Iago and Deadpool, we see a similar, albeit darker, philosophical impulse: that core beliefs filter life experience. As Iago and Deadpool have no core beliefs, they have no meaningful experiences, and no way to connect with the community. We often get a sense that these characters can step out of their worlds and into ours. Not that setting makes much of a difference; while seeking the spotlight, their staged personas suggest the emptiness of nonbeing. As a consequence, their lives are a series of existential farces, played out in cruel gags, puns, and put-ons.

Am I reading too much into comic books? A recent Chronicle of Higher Educationop-ed on the dangers of teaching Harry Potterto college kids suggests that I may be doing the profession (and my students) a disservice:

The story of Satan’s rebellion in Paradise Lostis a complex meditation on freedom, monarchal authority, and the emergence of democracy. Moby-Dickis an allegory of national expansion and slavery. The Harry Potter stories, meanwhile, are wonderful reflections on friendship, courage, and the dichotomies of good and evil – which is to say that they’re great children’s literature. Why make them out to be more than that? [1]

I can recognize the logic—and the stuffy self-importance. Literature professors might not change reality with a keystroke, but we are, to give us our due, inheritors of a heritage that stretches back to at least Homer, the Odin-like All-Father of Western Literature. But there is another, more recent Homer, not the olive-eyed poet of Bronze Age Greece, but the donut-addicted modern everyman Homer Simpson of Springfield.

Shakespeare and Superheroes is informed by a lifetime of being, reading, feeling and thinking about two forms of influential literature: Shakespeare, embraced for centuries by academics, theater goers, and ordinary readers; and superhero comic books, now, arguably, the dominant literary expression of our era. In the pages that follow, my hope is that in reflecting on my interconnected interests and absurdities, you will know that you are not alone in yours. Welcome to the family.

Biographical Statement

Jeffrey Kahan is the author of many books, including Reforging Shakespeare (Associated UniversityPresses, 1998), The Cult of Kean (Ashgate, 2006), Caped Crusaders 101: Composition Through Comic Books (McFarland, 2006; 2nd ed., rev. and enl. 2010), Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture (Lehigh University Press, 2010), Shakespritualism: Shakespeare and the Occult, 1850-1950 (Palgrave, 2013), The Quest for Shakespeare (Palgrave, 2017), and Shakespeare and Superheroes (ARC, 2018). He also writes on Gothic novels, Ray Bradbury, and R.E. Howard. You can follow Jeffrey Kahan on his Superhero FB page, Be Super!, read his fanboy comic book essays, track his formal criticism, or write to him directly at

[1] David Anthony, “Harry Potter and the Chair’s Dilemma,” Chronicle of Higher Education, accessed February 28, 2018.

Destroy All Monsters: An Urgency

Joshua Roberts, “A group of counter-protesters march against members of white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia,” originally published in Priscilla Alvarez, “A State of Emergency in Charlottesville,” The Atlantic(August 12, 2017)

In a large crowd, a young white man holds a homemade sign. Beneath the raised fist of the Black Lives Matter movement, it reads: “DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.” This photograph was taken at the Unite the Right rally, which brought together neo-Nazis, white nationalists, the Klu Klux Klan, and other hate groups in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was purportedly the largest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades.

12 August 2017, the date this photo was taken, seemed like a moment for monsters. The United States convulsed as white supremacist groups marched through the streets bearing torches and shouting Nazi-era slogans of hate (“Blood and soil!” “Jews will not replace us!”). Though monsters have been around as long as humans, since they define us by stalking our borders and mirroring our traits, there are times when monsters seem particularly potent, prevalent, even necessary. The man with the “DESTROY ALL MONSTERS” sign was one of the marchers who came to defy the torch-bearing mob, and his sign said more about this moment than he might have known.

In hipster fashion, he seems to have taken his slogan from Ishirō Honda’s eighth sequel to Godzilla, released in 1968, in which the monsters from previous kaijū films (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and others) attack cities through the world under the command of scientists who are, in turn, under mind control by hostile aliens. This slogan, then, is a fitting response to the sense that American cities are being attacked by an outside force yet this is not an alien invasion. The Unite the Right marchers are American citizens, and, despite the foreign origins of many of their symbols, they are part of a long-standing American history of hate groups.

The fascist marchers in Charlottesville and those who sympathize with them are participating in one of the oldest—and most pernicious—of human impulses, to define themselves through the exclusion of others, to raise their sense of self-worth through the insult of, denunciation of, and outright assault on and murder of other individuals and groups. This role is one of the central functions that monsters serve across time: monster-making is exclusionary, and monsters bear the seeds of that exclusion within themselves. No doubt, monsters are fun—tremendous, city-smashing, fire-breathing, shape-shifting, boundary-pushing, messy, sexy, crazy fun. But if you only see the fun, you miss a great deal of the importance of monsters and the power we grant them to shape our societies. As St. Augustine of Hippo tells us, these monsters demonstrate so much we can learn from; they bear substantial meaning.

The trouble with the counter-protester’s slogan is that we can never destroy all monsters. Anyone familiar with monster narratives, from Grendel to Godzilla, knows that there is always a sequel, always a Return Of, aBride Of, aSon Of…Always a Godzilla Raids Again. Surely, it has seemed that the Nazis were thoroughly and absolutely defeated, yet the Unite the Right marchers wore and waved swastikas, gave the Nazi salute, shouted “heil” this and “heil” that. A poisonous ideology that seemed long dead shambled back to life. Of course, monster movies have long literalized this fear in a seemingly endless series of Nazi zombie movies.

They return because we are all one another’s monsters: inside everymonster lurks a human being. Peel back the mouldering swastika, fur, or slime, and there we are. This is because all monsters are human creations. We therefore owe them our care and attention. That care and attention will be rewarded—because monsters perform important work for us, policing our boundaries, defining our norms through their transgressions. Through their bodies, words, and deeds, monsters show us ourselves.

In assembling this collection, we celebrate monster theorists, monster stories, and the monsters they unleash or attempt to contain. We have organized the readings into two volumes: Classic Readings on Monster Theory and Primary Sources on Monsters. Our first volume introduces the most important modern theorists of the monstrous and some allied theorists whose ideas enrich Monster Theory—from J.R.R. Tolkien to Edward Said. Our second volume collects some of the most influential and indicative monster narratives from the West—from the Epic of Gilgameshto Slender Man. Together, they form a reasonably coherent set of materials, allowing us to witness the consistent, multi-millennium strategies the West has deployed to disempower and dehumanize a range of groups and individuals. The readings in volume two are all primary sources—fictional, religious, scientific, or historical texts. Images play a prominent role as well, unusual in a source reader like this, because many monsters are highly visual or known primarily through their appearance.

Some of the “monsters” we have assembled throughout these two volumes are nightmare creations of unadulterated malice. Others prove to be downright sympathetic. In the end, it is not horns, fangs, or claws that make a being monstrous, but the purpose for which they are used. Ishirō Honda’s Destroy All Monsters [SPOILER ALERT!] has an ironic twist: it is the monsters, led by Godzilla, who ultimately save humanity. They are scorned, feared, and attacked by the world’s powers, but want only to return to their peaceful island of Monsterland. The world needs its monsters—and its monster stories. This is the impetus for our collection. Whether the monsters are deadly enemies or unlikely saviors, their stories are essential to our understanding of the world, and our place within it.

by Asa Simon Mittman and Marcus Hensel

Meet Danièle Cybulskie!

In my work as a writer (at and elsewhere), my goal has always been to be a bridge between people interested in history and the scholarship that will answer their questions. Rather than being the foremost expert on any one subject, my aim is to whet peoples’ appetites, and then point them in the direction of the experts.

In late November of last year, I was brought onboard at Arc Humanities Press, giving me the chance to explore another way in which I could connect people to great historical scholarship. Although I’d been involved with publishing from the other side of the press, I’d never been part of the process behind the scenes. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure acquisitions was going to be for me, but then I realized it tapped right into that connective nature that’s always been a part of my historical DNA.

At Arc, I look for authors to contribute to a couple of series involving subjects close to my heart: Curation Development, Cultural Heritage and Digital Humanities, and European Medieval Battlefields. With both of these series, I get to find people working on cutting-edge heritage and digital humanities projects that are bringing the Middle Ages to people in all sorts of new and innovative ways. As a person who’s spent a decade dedicated to reaching out to the public, being involved in spreading the word about new ways to use museums, galleries, archives, and heritage sites to draw a diverse crowd of people into history is continually inspiring.

Right now, I’m creating a new series that explores the periphery of medieval military action: all the interesting stuff that was a huge part of the everyday life of thousands of soldiers. Things like where did people build their latrines? What kind of field medicine did they use? What was it like to be a soldier in between battles? The aim is to get a clearer picture of the people actually involved in the battles, and what it was like to be in their shoes. Getting the right scholars together to explore this in book form for the betterment of the academic community and the wider community is an exciting prospect. Beyond the enjoyment of helping scholars reach a wider readership, learning more about this fascinating stuff is a reward in itself.

In the future, I’m looking at developing another new series that looks at the Americas during the time period we think of as medieval in Europe in order to make it easier to look at this moment in history on a global scale. Helping to create more resources, especially for a new generation of students who will (hopefully) see history in global terms is, in my mind, a goal worth striving for. There are so many scholars doing such excellent work, and so many avenues to explore that the possibilities are endless.

For a girl who wants to get more people talking about interesting stuff, finding myself at Arc turned out to be a good fit. I welcome any opportunity to expand the conversation, and if you’re interested in working with me to do the same through publishing your work at Arc, please drop me an email, or take a minute to say hello this week at Kalamazoo!

By Daniele Cybulskie

Arc Humanities Reference
Arc Impact
Collection Development, Cultural Heritage and Digital Humanities
European Medieval Battlefields

Writing Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics

There were two reactions that I would often get, one following the other, from colleagues and friends asking what Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics was all about. The first reaction was a nod and uncertainty. After all, how could the Middle Ages have any real impact on political discourse in 2018? The second reaction would come after I would say something along the lines of, “Did you see the runes on the shields of the white supremacists at Charlottesville?” That was the light bulb; right, that does seem worth investigating. Such extremists as the ones at Charlottesville last summer defend and validate their white identity by turning to perceptions of “heritage” and “traditions,” and my book for Past Imperfect starts from that faulty connection between past and present. MITP (Medieval Imagery in Today’s Politics) examines how the past is manipulated for political purchase and tries to serve as an introduction to political medievalism for any reader, both specialist and non-specialist alike, who hopes to get a foothold on the subject.

One of the core arguments of the book is that the medieval in popular culture and political discourse is in a state of eternal return, serving the ideological needs of whomever wields it. In a sense, this is the true nature of the medieval in political discourse: the period shapeshifts depending on the wielder. I suppose this is the way with any deployments of history in the service of a present political need. What makes the deployment of the medieval in political discourse today so disturbing is the way that it is used to bolster and legitimize ideas about communal, racial, and ethnic identity.

That rhetoric of white heritage and identity formed the project’s foundations as I set out writing, but it is only one aspect of the book, which starts with extremism but ultimately tries to show how such extremist rhetoric is not isolated and is not even idiosyncratic, emanating from decades, and perhaps centuries, of mainstream right-wing thought in the academy and politics. That more mainstream discourse too is studied in MITP, from mid-twentieth century American academics anxious to give the U.S. medieval European roots, back to the thought of Edmund Burke in the late-eighteenth century, whose work informed later conservative scholarship. Other political medievalisms today are also studied, such as the deployment of the term “feudal” to describe crony capitalism, as well as the increasing successes of right-wing political parties in Europe whose members sometimes turn to the medieval to bolster their anti-immigrant, xenophobic views and policies. One of my goals for the book is that it serves as an introduction and a rallying call for further study, analysis, and dismantling of white supremacist views of the Middle Ages as a time of white community and solidarity. I hope that it spurs medievalist scholars to continue to think seriously about the history and nature of our field, and that it encourages non-specialists to have a think about how their ideas about the past serve to shape and inform their political opinions. I hope for everyone to think about how historical narratives can influence ideals and principles.

The shortform nature of the Past Imperfect series serves this particular subject well, I think. It was certainly challenging, especially during the planning and research stage, to figure out precisely how to do justice to the topic in about a hundred pages. But as I drafted the work, I came to appreciate the form, and I encourage other writers working in this shorter format to see it not as a limitation but as a feature. As scholars, embarking on a new line of inquiry can be simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating, as we see in front of us the gulf of information that must be digested. The Past Imperfect series serves as a relief for those just starting out on a new line of inquiry or for anyone interested in getting a handle on the fundamentals of a particular problem. I hope that MITP productively serves both audiences.

By Daniel Wollenberg

Writing The Peace of God

Depending on which historians you read, the Peace of God was either one of the most important movements of the entire middle ages … or not a movement at all, and not all that important. It may have been sparked by an expectation that the approaching Millennium of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion demanded the total reform of church and society … or its millenarian overtones were nothing but traditional ecclesiastical rhetoric. It may have signalled the entry of the “common people” onto the political stage … unless that, too, was just conventional rhetoric for an ecclesiastical ideal of social unity. It was either a response to a sudden surge of warfare and violence by members of a newly empowered local aristocracy … or there was no sudden surge of violence at all and the new aristocracy was basically the old aristocracy. It has been seen as something utterly unprecedented in European history … and as nothing but a renewed deployment of old legislation and patterns of government. 

One reason for such divergent interpretations is that most scholars who have studied the Peace of God specialize on the decades when it first appeared and most quickly developed — the late 10th and early 11th centuries, in France. And most tend to be specialists on one particular type of source or one particular aspect of society (bishops, monasticism, church canons, hagiography, political power and institutions, church reform). But my career has been a bit odd. As a graduate student I worked mostly on 12th– and 13th-century ecclesiastical and secular legal procedures in France. Yet I published my first book on 10th– and 11th-century French rituals. After twenty years of work and retooling, I published my next book on 9th– and 10th-century West Frankish (i.e., proto-French) politics, charters, and historiography. And though most people probably think of me as primarily a political historian, I think of myself as someone who works on the intersections between religion and political power, and I actually do more reading on monasticism than on any else. 

That’s why when ARC approached me about writing this book I accepted immediately. I wanted to write a book on the Peace of God that would do equal justice to its pre-history in the 9th century and its prolongation in the 12th. I wanted to understand what in the Peace was secular, what episcopal, and what monastic. I wanted a chance to study for myself what in the Peace was new and what was different. 

I tend to write for myself. I try not to care too much whether others like what I write. If it satisfies me, I’m happy. And I’m really very happy with this book, because I accomplished exactly what I set out to do. I especially love the Conclusion. 

Of course, I’ll be even happier if others also like it.

Incidentally, if you’re curious, the dedication-epigraph reads, literally: “These are small pieces of jade and pearl.” It’s from “The Rhapsody of the Goddess of the Luo River” by Cao Zhi (192–232 CE). If you knew my wife, you’d understand. I hope it applies to the book, too. 

By Geoffrey Koziol

Writing The Transformation of the Roman West

The invitation to deliver a Plenary Lecture at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in 2016 set me thinking about how to tackle what I had come to regard as the major problem in late antique and early medieval studies. How can we bring together the excellent, but very divergent, scholarship of recent years? On the one hand there has been wonderful work on the socio-religious history of the period, spearheaded by Peter Brown, and on the other there have been major studies of socio-economic and political changes, where the contributions of Chris Wickham and Michael McCormick are just the tip of an iceberg. The solution that I chose to follow was to find a way to quantify religious change, and to set the figures that I came up with against other figures: numbers of barbarians, the size of the Roman army and of the imperial bureaucracy. That the number of barbarians was comparatively low was no surprise. The arguments of Walter Goffart have made everyone look carefully at the scale of migrations, although, of course, the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean has brought home the reality of people on the move. But with regard to the figures for the Church the result was a surprise even to me, despite the fact that I had been looking at the ecclesiastical accumulation of property for ten years or more, and had already argued in 2013 that around a third of the property of Western Europe was in ecclesiastical hands by the end of the seventh century. It had not struck me, however, that one might be able to estimate the number of clergy in the immediately post-Roman World, and even when I delivered the plenary at Kalamazoo I had still not realised the full extent of the documentation available. The task would have been extremely difficult before the publication of the Prosopographie chrétienne du bas empire, but I was also lucky enough to make contact with a project on priests in the late-antique/early-medieval world which is being run by Robert Wiśniewski in Warsaw. The fact that the resulting figures are directly comparable to the figures that have been advanced for the late Roman army allowed me to describe Late Antiquity as a period which saw a change from a secular society dominated by the Roman army and its needs

to an ecclesiastical society dominated by the Christian Church. When I showed a draft of my work to Chris Wickham he described the change that I had identified as ‘ecclesiasticisation’. Although the resulting book does deal with the barbarian migrations, it is essentially concerned with what the Roman World looked like in 300 and what the Western European World looked like in 600. I was concerned to characterise the change over those three centuries, rather than to explain it, although of course comments on the barbarians, on the actions of some ecclesiastics, as well as on the emperors and the senatorial aristocracy hint at some elements of an explanation. The barbarians themselves were not numerous enough to cause the massive changes that took place in Late Antiquity, although the failure of the imperial leadership to deal with them was a major issue. The reactions of churchmen to the general crisis of the period, and the impact they had on the population at large, which have been central to Peter Brown’s work over the last twenty year, are clearly central. But there is obviously a good deal more work to be done. For a start, I would argue that we need to add precision to our understanding of the ecclesiastical accumulation of wealth. Exactly when did gifts of land to the Church become more important than gifts of treasure? What impact did this have? It is worth remembering that an aristocrat could easily replenish his moveable wealth from property while he still possessed enormous estates. Did the Church’s accumulation of property have an impact on how land was exploited? In some regions the answer is unquestionably


‘yes’, but can we generalise? And there is a further question that is becoming ever more pressing, and which I only referred to in passing. What was the impact of the Justinianic Plague? The work which is being spearheaded in part by Michael McCormick is putting the Plague firmly on the map, as Kyle Harper’s recent study has made abundantly clear. But we need to look carefully at the chronology. The Plague is a development of the 540s. How much had changed already before it hit the Mediterranean? Most of the barbarians were already settled in Western Europe or North Africa by that time. Of the major groups of incomers only the Lombards had yet to find their place in the world. I don’t doubt that the impact of the Plague was massive, but had the shift from endowing the Church with property rather than treasure already taken place, or is it primarily a shift of the late sixth century? And if so, is the change a reaction to a situation that was taken by some as apocalyptic? Here we hit a major evidential problem, because the charter record, which allows us to quantify property, only becomes significant in the seventh century, whereas references to treasure can be found throughout the corpus of Church writing in the fifth century. That, I would suggest, is the problem that most needs addressing. But I hope that the initial conclusions of this short book at least demonstrate that we have to combine what have hitherto been separate socio-religious and socio-economic areas of study, because only by combining the different approaches can we fully get to grips with what appears to be the major change in Late Antiquity.

By Ian Wood

What’s going on with university pension schemes in the United Kingdom?

What’s going on over there?

So far, academic staff (lecturers, researchers, librarians, curators, IT staff, technicians, administrative staff) at about 68 universities in the United Kingdom–pretty much every university incorporated before 1992–have been on job action for a total of fourteen days in February and March.  In between strikes, they are working to rule, and are now planning a big strike to hit during final examinations in the late spring, targeted at each institution to hit the largest number of students taking examinations and the time at which assessments are most often due.  It’s a massive engagement.  Almost more interesting than the strike itself has been the huge presence on social media.  Academic staff all over the UK are tweeting constantly, building wikis, filing freedom of information requests, researching details about opposition activity and posting them to Facebook, and sending information in large bits and bytes to each other.  Their biggest issue now on this front is consolidating all these masses of material.

What is the main issue?  Well, the touchpaper is a rather complicated question of the riskiness of the pension scheme.  It’s a pooled scheme with all the members, administered by the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).  Government regulations on the financial risk of possible pension liabilities mean that recently an evaluation of the USS suggested it was at the outer edge of acceptable risk, and could be in a deficit situation going forward, especially if some of the member institutions were to fail.  The other member institutions would have to pick up the pension obligations of those employed by any failed post-secondary institutions (called the “last man standing” issue). Individual institutions were asked if they found this amount of risk acceptable, and some of them (possibly 42%) said no.  The USS and Universities United Kingdom (UUK, the overarching body) decided to impose draconian changes to the plan in order to reduce the risk, and the result has been extensive negotiations, strikes, occupations by students (twenty different institutions as of 15 March 2018) in support of the academic staff, massive amounts of anger and outrage, and and the usual chaotic failures of governance and accountability.  Some universities are not on strike because they could not get enough members out to vote, others could have made strides to resolve the problem except that arcane procedural rules prevented debate, and some vice-chancellors have demonstrated leadership and accountability–but the majority have not. The University and College Union (UCU) seems sporadically to be at the negotiating table with the UUK, after a proposed settlement was rejected with contumely earlier this week by academic staff.

What is the real issue here?

Many issues are in play.  The pent-up anger that has a lot of academic staff out carrying signs does not necessarily reflect a deep understanding of the apparent problem: the pension regulations, the end of the final salary option, investment de-risking, a gradual shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans.  More importantly, academic staff at most universities in the UK feel disrespected, ignored, not consulted, not treated with the dignity that is appropriate.  And they are certainly right.  But more fundamentally, many of them are speaking about the issue as part of the corporatization of the university, the commodification of higher education, the loss of the post-secondary institution as a place of informed debate and open discussion.  And that is also appropriate.  Anger has being built up over a period of years, over the great rise in tuition fees (and the absolute lack of any concomitant resources put into teaching and learning), the great rise in compensation for vice-chancellors and the almost nonexistent salary improvement for academic staff, the rampant casualization of academic labour, and so forth.

But from my perspective as a medievalist the issue is really a deeper one.  The pension plan which was already altered significantly in 2014 (with effect in 2016) with its generous employer contributions (something around 17%) was to my way of thinking a legacy of the days when being an academic in a post-secondary institution was truly a lifelong commitment.  Retired members still supervised students, gave lectures, offered advice, served on some committees, turned out for all major celebratory events, and generally continued their involvement with the institution to which they had devoted their lives.  Some might indeed move away or retire elsewhere, or bop about the world, but the home college, the place of collegial and collegiate life, would always be there.  Hundreds of years ago a retiring fellow would simply close the doors of his (always “his”) rooms more often, and would expect to stay in those rooms up to and briefly after death.  Burial in the college cloisters would then take place, so that the fellow and tutor remained on site, albeit no longer to be consulted directly.  Admittedly, longevity was not advanced, and most fellows would die at what would today be well before retirement age (recollecting that Bismarck set a retirement age at which the German government expected the vast majority of the citizenry would be dead, and the shift in life expectancy has not sufficiently altered that age).  But the notion of a lifelong post as a lecturer and researcher in a university, a universitas, a guild of one’s fellows: that notion remains active, though perhaps not as consciously as it once was.

How does this really connect to the medieval university?

For me the connection is threefold.  First, the idea of a strong and continuing pension, a defined benefit pension which members of academic staff could count on for their old age, proffered a genuine reason to accept a lower salary, higher workload, and perhaps other complications of the UK university world.  It was a secure and settled option, and it offered academic staff the opportunity of paying no attention to this matter because it was settled and secure.  Peace of mind, and the time to focus on research and on teaching are in some ways priceless benefits.  The pension plan that was in place at UK universities was a very large piece of a social safety net.  Its inception must have been the strong duty of care for members that went back to the foundation of many colleges and universities before and just after the Black Death in Europe in the fourteenth century.  Although this particular incarnation of the pension plan dates only to 1974, when the pooled system established itself as a way to look after all academic staff in the UK (at 68 institutions but 350 employers), the idea inhered that institutions of higher education owed a duty of care through life and death to their academic staff, who settled in their jobs in their 20’s and remained in them until their 80’s or later, well after their working life was technically over at 65 or 67.

Second, the university remains for many a world of the “monkish ideal of contemplation.”  One of the most interesting things in the social media blitz going on is the extent to which individuals do not know that they are already well down the road towards a defined contribution pension scheme, and the current issue is more about how to rebalance the scheme so that the actuaries find the risk more tolerable, not about whether to be on this scheme on not.  So much printers’ ink, so many blogs and so very many lengthy conversations about the sellout of the university to the corporate world, and yet academic staff still, at a profoundly fundamental level, expect to be left alone to do their work.  Moreover, largely, they are.  Elements of control and bureaucratization are arriving, more every decade, but the basic system of teaching students, perhaps with PowerPoint rather than a lecture, and assessing student work and assigning grades at the end of the course or the year or the program: this remains remarkably the same.  The basic undergraduate degree has remained largely the same for many centuries, involving study for a few years to learn the basic elements and processes of a discipline, and taking examinations at the end of the course. So also does the system of doing research.  I have colleagues who have taught the same course on the same day of the week at the same time for their entire academic careers, and yet it does not seem to occur to them that this is a rare blessing.  Their lives have a pattern and a predictability that makes them rather like the medieval monks who taught Donatus at 7 a.m., perhaps making way for the friar who taught canon law at 10 a.m..

Still not convincing.  Is there a more tangible connection than this notion about how academics still live in an ivory tower and keep at this vocation to the last minute of their lives?

Well, my third and strongest connection is the role of Oxbridge, Oxford and Cambridge, in the brouhaha.  Some, though by no means all, of the colleges at these two universities have pretty deep pockets, having been in existence for more than eight hundred years.  They have been jittery about the pension fund before, and have contemplated ways to exit the scheme.  However, both universities (after some procedural fun and games, admittedly) reversed themselves, and Cambridge in particular has been establishing the high moral ground, with tweets and letters to the editor of The Times by its relatively new (and Canadian!) vice-chancellor.  In his letter to the editor, Stephen Toope argues: “reducing students to mere consumers makes sense only if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. Universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breathtaking discovery and disruptive insight” (Letter to the Editor, The Times, published 16 March 2018).

The Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not wrong to feel concern about the “last man standing” provisions, since the principal concern of their governing bodies (which, unlike North American universities, include predominantly the academic fellows of the colleges) has to be the continued existence of the colleges.  There is no question but that the UCU and USS are taking advantage of Oxbridge, as their documents often refer to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges somewhat obliquely.  Take, for example, this point: “The deficit remains within the affordable means of the scheme’s 350-plus sponsoring employers – including the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country – to recover, over time.”  This reference to “the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country” is an obvious ploy to indicate that all will be well because there are deep pockets in the scheme.  Moreover, the distinction between the 68 universities and the reference here to 350 employers clearly cuts apart the colleges inside universities from the universities themselves.  In the early days of the strike action, much time was spent excoriating the fact that the employers expressing concern with the risk element including specific Oxbridge colleges, which were counted as if separate entities from the university.  And yet, the colleges are not directly involved in the whole strike, since the pension scheme is for all academic staff, through their university appointments.  It’s all a bit confusing, with Oxford and Cambridge being used both to allay fears about the future viability about the scheme, and to raise fears about whether the plan is sustainable.  The medieval universities cannot win in the modern media blitz.  Toope’s interventions, initially positive, faded to platitudes in a meeting with students who had been occupying his central administration building at Cambridge, and the scholars of Oxford and Cambridge are stepping forward to make strong arguments.  Compare, for example, Nicola Headlam, who is part of an Urban Transformations project funded through the School of Anthropology at Oxford. She is among the more indefatigable tweeters, and she argues in a tweet @networknicola on 7 March that: “[t]he debate on pensions is also a debate on restoring academic democracy, restoring academic community, restoring academic honour and restoring goodwill.”  The great medieval doctors of learning–Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and Bonaventura–would all have approved entirely.

Any conclusions?

In his brilliant little book, The Rise of Universities, Charles Homer Haskins argues that in the Middle Ages the theologians and professors of canon law rose to bishoprics and appointments as cardinals, describing them as “all the great array of doctors angelic, invincible, irrefragable, seraphic, subtle, and universal” (68), and describing the medieval university as “the great age of professorial control” when “in a quite remarkable degree, the university was self-governing as well as self-respecting” (68-69).  (He has a few pointed remarks about boards of trustees and state intervention in universities in the present day of 1923.) Haskins’ strong views point to a deep and continuing tradition about the autonomy and centrality of the role of academic staff in the university today.  Despite all the changes and modernizations to the university, the fundamental interaction remains that of a teacher and a student learning together.  Anything that jeopardizes that interaction occasions extensive commentary and complaint.  Some might think that strikes are a modern invention as a way to re-establish a better balance of academic staff as decision-makers.  But, the first strike over university autonomy was at Paris in 1200, the second in 1229.  Striking at universities is a venerable tradition.

A note on my sources

The reference to the “monkish ideal of contemplation” comes from Ian Angus, Loves the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2009), p. 44.  Angus constructs a model of seven ideas of the university: the classical humanistic tradition, the modern research and teaching university, the public university, the multiversity, the democratic university (an ideal from the 60’s which inspired Angus), the corporate university and the network university (the emerging new form).  Readily available as a digitized book on the internet is the gem, Charles H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt, 1923); the lectures were originally given as the Colver Lectures at Brown University in 1923.  For background and information on the current issues in the United Kingdom I am particularly indebted to the queen of information, Alison Roberts, Curator for European and Early Prehistoric Collections in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

By M.J. Toswell, University of Western Ontario, and author of Today’s Medieval University