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Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

Why did Milton write De Doctrina Christiana?

He didn’t. He dictated it, being blind.

Then how do you know he composed it?

His name is on the MS, which survives. Views expressed, such as on Predestination or Divorce or Tithing, match Milton’s views expressed elsewhere. His prodigious skills in the biblical languages match those of his other prose works.

So all the more, why did he undertake this enormous task?

Irritation, he says, with the mistakes and bad logic of other theologians; for only the Bible can be trusted as evidence for safe belief, and he will now assemble what the Bible says on every single point.

What does he mean by safe belief? And unsafe?

Unsafe beliefs include ones based on tradition and church authority. Safe beliefs on the other hand may be lesser ones. He’s very thorough. Tiny texts preponderate as proofs in the manuscript’s earlier layers.

Give some examples.

Milton works his way through all details of belief, worship and conduct, systematically, and often with prosaic declarativeness.  But at the other extreme he demolishes the current explanations of Trinity, as three “persons” in one God, in a chapter of many thousand words. This orthodox understanding of godhead in scripture, he says, is not to be found in scripture. He forgoes his usual organization by commonplace book topics, to tackle orthodoxy head-on. What he attacks, however, is both the current explanation of personhood in terms of hypostasis, and any explanation whatever. He won’t have a bar of it.

Is he usually heterodox?

Quite often, but more eclectic.  On Predestination he opposes Calvinism and sides with Arminian orthodoxy. On Divorce he opposes all the mainstream churches. On Tithing he rails against established clergy, the English one especially. The common thread is free will, and individual choice.

Is that all?

No, the other aspect is personal fervour, do-it-yourself, and a Latin eloquence which can become positively incandescent. In these places, the work waxes most readable, at its most passionate.

Doesn’t he seek to persuade by reason?

By his version of reason, yes. But “reason” includes many axioms, and a way he has of limiting interpretation, to a bare minimum. Least is best—for no obvious reason, since theology has grown rather than shrunk in scope, developing as needed or challenged such applications as the Trinity. Trinitarian theology has begun stirring even in the Old Testament. How much more likely that the New will become more, not less, open to it. It is well visible in Matthew 28.19, or in Pauline invocations.

Milton grinds axes, then?

Yes. And his presuppositions blind him to the very perspectives from which historical scriptural theology began, in Leviathan and elsewhere.

Stern words! What do you mean?

Milton says the Old Testament’s textual authority outweighed that of the New. This assists his line of thought (pre-known from the English pamphlets) on Divorce. The patriarchs divorced, just as they upheld polygamy: ergo both were still permitted. Yet how could the O. T. have a more reliable text than the N. T. when it tells of Moses describing his own death? But Milton must disallow development in the New, just as marriage customs must not have changed.

Then would not De Doctrina be a backwater, even had it reached publication before the Restoration prevented it?

Yes and No. Hindsight does negate Milton’s timeless and nitpicking scholastic synthesis. But his onslaught on the Trinity makes it count, as part of the mid-century questioning of the traditional thought-forms. In all his enquiries alike he has an admirable driving eagerness, not to mention a power of expression which is ill-served by translation but is manifest in the original Latin.

How would you sum up his undertaking?

He himself summed it up as a treasure, gained like that of the householder in the parable, and readied to be given forth. Perhaps the true imperative was more personal. To change the parable, De Doctrina expresses “that one talent which is death to hide.”

What do you think your own study [link] of De Doctrina achieves?

It recovers the commitment and intensity of Milton’s undertaking, its energy and zeal. Though these qualities seem at times misguided, and somewhat unlikely to produce safe belief for anyone but Milton himself, my study shows how his mind works, in a systematic theology—kinks, curves, and presuppositions included. And in his other theology, the poems, his mind works differently, with an awakened imagination that is revealed by the contrast.

By John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

Plagues Past, Paths Forward

July 29, 2019

Just about this time five years ago, I was finishing up what had been an extraordinary adventure. I had spent the year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, ostensibly to work on the impact Arabic medicine had had on 11th– and 12th-century Europe. I made good headway on that project, discovering at least a dozen new manuscripts, “cracking the code” on several key developments in intellectual history, and finally putting a human face on my key protagonist, the immigrant Tunisian monk, Constantine the African.

But at the opening reception for Visiting Members in September 2013, the Director of the IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf, had done what directors are supposed to do: he had given us a directive. “Forget the proposal you submitted when you applied last year, and do something big, bold, and urgent.” Those probably weren’t his exact words, but they were what I remembered. So, while I continued my manuscript hunting and textual collations, I jumped headlong into an additional pursuit: figuring out how to turn a new area of genetics into a new kind of history.

The “prompt” to this work were developments in genetics research that had occurred since the beginning of the 21stcentury. That might not sound very “medieval,” but you’d be surprised! New work in genetics had shifted the ground in studies of plague, one of the most lethal diseases in the world and the cause (“alleged cause,” some doubters might have said) of the pandemic events that bookended the Middle Ages: the Justinianic Plague of the 6th to 8th centuries, and the Black Death of the 14thcentury. This was history done not by traditional historians, but by “historians in lab coats.” I had been wrestling with this question myself since around 2005, when I first heard rumors that research was being done by microbiologists who do what microbiologists do: study microbes. (“How dare they?”) It took two iterations of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in London to persuade me, but by 2013 I was finally convinced that maybe this “new genetics paradigm”—studying the history of infectious diseases by working from the molecular level on up—had something going for it.

My bold adventure at the IAS resulted in the inaugural issue of The Medieval Globe, produced under the visionary editorship of Carol Symes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The volume, entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, brought together historians, biologists, and anthropologists to address a simple question: “So what?” What difference, we asked, did the new findings from genetics about the mid-14th-century Black Death, or other plague pandemics, make for what we did as historians of medicine, paleopathologists, immunology researchers, or bioterrorism experts? As noted in the review of the volume by historian Lester Little, the enterprise was intended from the outset to be provisional. We knew that new work from the sciences about the evolutionary history of the single-celled bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was coming so fast and thick that keeping up with it was a vertigo-inducing endeavor. With funding from the World History Center at the University of Pittsburgh, we were able to publish open-access, making the volume readily discoverable and facilitating interdisciplinary awareness of our work. 13,500+ downloads later, it has been a stunning success—its own quick obsolescence being the best measure of that.In the past five years, the field of plague studies has transformed several times over. In 2015, researchers discovered Bronze Age plague strains, and in subsequent years have pushed that new chronological horizon back into the Late Neolithic. Studies documenting the existence of what seems to be a unique European lineage of Y. pestis, seeded by the Black Death strain, offer strong support for our initial idea in 2014 that, as Ann Carmichael hypothesized, plague may indeed have focalized within western Europe itself. And while we knew already in 2014 that a Y. pestis genome from the First Plague Pandemic in the sixth century had been successfully sequenced, it has still been flabbergasting, in 2018 and 2019, to see genetic evidence of how early that lineage must have emerged out of the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and how much the Justinianic Plague strain diverged within Europe.

The work in genetics thus continues to dazzle. But traditional bioarchaeologists and historians have been no sluggards these past years (even if we remain much more poorly funded). Indeed, we’ve been keeping the geneticists on their toes. Medieval Globe contributor Sharon DeWitte has continued her prolific and pioneering studies, looking for factors that might have created differentials in survival or subsequent health of populations in northern Europe. Some of that work has been in alliance with Fabian Crespo, who has continued to investigate the immune competence of historical populations. The work of Anna Colet and her colleagues on the tragic persecution of the Jewish community in Tàrrega has become the focal point for new work by Susan Einbinder exploring the post-Black Death commemorations of Jews for the afflictions they had suffered.

Stuart Borsch has carried forward his efforts to document and quantify the demographic effects of the plague in the Islamic world, while Michelle Ziegler has pushed forward her interests in disease landscapes. Robert Hymes’ work on the possible presence of plague in Mongol China has begun to win converts, with a new book by Timothy Brook set to feature plague as a key factor in the fall of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty and the rise of the Ming. My work with Kathleen Walker-Meikle and Wolfgang Müller on the “misdiagnosed” leprosy image was taken up and furthered by Lori Jones and Richard Nevell, who not simply turned the mighty juggernaut of Wikipedia around, getting the leprosy image removed from the plague/Black Death pages in multiple languages (which get millions of views every year), but also persuaded numerous Internet outlets and publications to rethink their uses of other “misdiagnosed” images.

Fig. 1: Since 2014 when we first published our study about this image of leprosy in James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, the British Library has scanned the entire two volumes of Royal MS 6 E VI, thus allowing anyone in the world to examine for themselves the chapter “On Ministrations by a Disabled Cleric.”

And as if all those transformations weren’t enough, there has been the stellar success of Nükhet Varlık’s work, which she previewed in her 2014 essay, “New Science and Old Sources: Why the Ottoman Experience of Plague Matters.” Her 2015 book, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600, has earned an astounding four book awards, all from different academic societies, most recently the American Association for the History of Medicine. If ever there was proof of the broad historical significance of the intersections of disease and history, or the value in using the most rigorous methods to explore them, it is this pioneering study.

The most daring offshoot of the Pandemic Disease volume came out in December 2018: a special issue of the online journal Afriques on the theme, “The Black Death and Its Aftermaths in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Critical Exploration of Silence.” “Silence” was the operative word, since aside from a few passing references, the possibility that plague had penetrated Africa below the Sahara has not been a part of Black Death narratives. The work of archaeologists in Europe, where the presence of plague was now confirmed by aDNA, offered a new model of what might be considered a “plague imprint” in the physical, built environment: signs of contracted, or even abandoned, human settlements. Gérard Chouin, on the one hand, and Daphne Gallagher and Stephen Dueppen, on the other, took paradigm-shifting work, such as that by archaeologist Carenza Lewis, as a charge to look for absences in the West African late medieval landscape: things that are not there, signs that, in negation, mark an unnamed catastrophe. Marie-Laure Derat, another contributor to the Afriques volume, looked to the eastern part of Africa and found surprisingly rich documentation in Ethiopian written sources of the effects of plague there, right down to the importation of European plague saints by the local Christian communities.

And where was the “net” of genetics to support this great leap of faith in carrying plague’s story into Africa? What promise did palaeogenetics hold for other parts of the world if no plague aDNA had yet been retrieved outside of Europe and western Russia? As Lori Jones and I muse in a forthcoming paper on infectious disease history in the Indian Ocean World, local aDNA is not necessary to start seeing the larger, global implications of an evolutionary approach to infectious disease history. In my chapter of the 2014 Medieval Globe volume, I had laid out why the new evolutionary understanding of Yersinia pestis was pointing a finger at East Africa and saying “There’s something going on here!” In my essay for the Afriques volume, I revisited that genetics evidence. Just as a philologist infers textual transmission from a stemma, so an evolutionary geneticist can infer lines of biological inheritance from a phylogenetic tree. (In concept, the two kinds of diagrams are identical.) Using my 2016 observations about a split in the branching of Y. pestis’s evolutionary tree right after the Black Death, along with evidence from colonial records and oral traditions, I sketched out how a Russian strain of plague may have reached East Africa in the late medieval period. It survives there to the present day.

Figure 2: Detail of the Yersinia pestis phylogenetic tree marked to show the later medieval polytomy (the “Big Bang,” circled in red) and the new branches it created, both those retrieved from aDNA (black labels) and those from modern isolates (peach-colored labels). The African branch is “1.ANT.” From: Monica H. Green, “Putting Africa on the Black Death Map: Narratives from Genetics and History,” Afriques 9 (2018),

My ultimate goal in diving headlong into plague research had always been pedagogical. The blogpost I wrote for Arc Humanities in 2015 focused on my teaching, and I’m proud to say that my 2018 essay, “On Learning How to Teach the Black Death,” has been the second most frequently viewed and downloaded item on my public webpage.

So yes, this project was “big.” And “bold” (or boldly ambitious), too. But was it “urgent”? Five years ago this month, I left Princeton and was driving home to Arizona. When I had radio reception, I was listening to news coming out of West Africa. The still-uncontained outbreak of Ebola was taking dozens of lives every week. The barely contained panic in the reports was palpable. When I returned home, I knew that my task—the one way I could help as a historian—was to “teach the crisis.” With a new colleague-in-arms, Stephen Casper, I started an Ebola Archive: the crisis could best be understood, we thought, by getting a sense of where the disease came from, where it might be heading, and how those most immediately affected (not simply healthcare providers but the local populace) might have understood what they were experiencing. In other words, we attempted to bring all the perspectives that I and my colleagues had just used to approach the Black Death. In January 2015, I wrote up a new foreword to the print edition to Pandemic Disease: “The Black Death and Ebola: On the Value of Comparison.” It breaks my heart to re-read it now, with a new Ebola epidemic still out-of-control in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What does the medieval past have to teach the present? Sometimes, looking for “medievalness” is the wrong thing to do. Madagascar’s outbreak of plague in 2017 had nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but everything to do with the modern processes of globalized trade and labor. But we only know when and how to make such comparisons by having a deeply immersed understanding of both past and present. The “new plague paradigm” has proved a powerful tool, not simply for geneticists (for whom Y. pestis has now become a “model organism”), but for historians and archaeologists, too. If I could give a directive to other medievalists, it would likewise be to “do something big, bold, and urgent.”

by Monica H. Green

Elite Byzantine Kinship

By the end of the twelfth century, Byzantine aristocratic families looked in many ways like the more familiar noble lineages of Western Europe. Marked by a surname and a strong sense of collective identity, these families both dominated imperial politics and developed a distinct system of cultural values and social hierarchy. Within this system, the genose merged as the cornerstone of aristocratic self-awareness and factional politics.

The Byzantine aristocratic genos (γένος, pl. γένη/genē)is alternately treated by modern scholars as a western European-style lineage, some kind of nebulous “clan,” or is simply left untranslated. Most scholars have viewed it as a kind of amorphous, poorly defined Byzantine “extended family,” and have contrasted the genos with the oikos/household or nuclear family. Despite the fact that it was foundational to the social and political structure of the Byzantine aristocracy from at least the eleventh century, the precise nature of the genos as a distinct form of kin group remains relatively unexplored among modern scholarship. Even a basic definition of the concept can be hard to come by.

Elite Byzantine Kinship, ca. 950-1204 is a study of the genos as both a social group and, importantly, a concept. Its purpose is to ascertain the role and function of the Byzantine aristocratic genos as a distinct entity as it appears in a variety of sources between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The analysis focuses primarily on the social and political elites of the Byzantine Empire both because of the nature of the sources and because many of the structures and ideals associated with the genos as kin group pertained primarily, if not exclusively, to them. Even if some aspects of the genos were shared by all people in the empire, a central argument of the book, the average peasant farmer probably had a more restricted view of his lineage and extended kin than a member of the Constantinopolitan court in the eleventh century. As in contemporary Western Europe, for the lower social orders in Byzantium, the household probably reigned supreme.

Each chapter utilizes a different approach and methods to bring to light various aspects of the Byzantine genos. The first chapter offers an analysis of both the Byzantine sources and the modern historiography in search of a clear definition of the genos, while chapter two traces broader changes in the vocabulary of kinship between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to argue for the central place of the genos in the Byzantine understanding of kinship. Chapter three focuses on legal sources and contends both that the genos was the principal form of the singular family in questions of marriage law and that debates in marriage law at this time were framed as debates over the nature of the family itself.

The fourth chapter turns to philosophical and medical treatises to explore the culturally specific knowledge of reproduction and the significance of shared blood, which gained momentum in the period covered by the study. This includes an exploration of the role of gender in the intergenerational reproduction of the family. Chapter five contends that the heritable surname was perhaps the single most important development for the aristocratic genos in the period covered in this study. The surname, as the outward marker of one’s genos, encapsulated the family’s reputation and was more likely than most other properties to survive intact from one generation to the next than other possessions. The power of the family name could even outlast the social or political relevance of members of the genos itself. The final chapter of the book places the genos back into the politics of the tenth through twelfth centuries, offering a broad overview of political and social changes in this period with a special focus on developments related to family and kinship.

To say that the genos played a central role in the Byzantine aristocracy of the eleventh century and later is not a controversial statement. The histories, hagiographies, orations, poetry, and lead seals of the late tenth century onward are full of references to “noble lineages” (εὐγενεῖς γένη). Praise is consistently lavished on individuals for their famous and wealthy family members, past and present. Heritable surnames become ubiquitous by the eleventh century. The political maneuvering and civil unrest that so dominated Byzantine politics in the late tenth and eleventh centuries consisted of factions largely divided along family lines and built upon family ties. Under the Komnenian dynasty (ca. 1081-1185), the genos formed the very basis of both the government and of the aristocracy as a whole. This book attempts to bring some clarity to the precise nature, role, and function of the genos in Byzantine society between the tenth and early thirteenth century by approaching it through a wide variety of sources and methods.

by Nathan Leidholm, Ph.D.

The Who, Where, When and Why of The Vikings

It is almost a thousand years since the Viking Age ended, and yet the exploits of the so-called Vikings, malevolent or otherwise, continue to figure in the popular and academic imaginations. Indeed, the ‘Nordic hoards’ might be said to hold a similar fascination – albeit with different characteristics – as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans. In a concise book written to be accessible to interested laypeople, students and academics seeking a route into current perspectives, our survey analyses Viking religion, economic life and material culture in and beyond the Scandic homelands.

Although there is a conventional Viking Age timeframe of ca. AD 800 to 1050 (the Scandinavians are usually associated with hit-and-run attacks beginning with the raid on the Abbey of Lindisfarne in AD 797), their military expeditions actually started earlier and were directed eastwards. The end date of 1050 is a movable feast, reflecting a mixture of Christianization, notable deaths, or simply convention. We explore social and economic attributes associated with Scandinavian-led population movements as warriors/marauders, traders and farmers moved beyond the Baltic coast to Constantinople, to western and southern Europe, including the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The essentially unpopulated islands of the North Atlantic Ocean were subjected to a Norse-led diaspora with the Scandinavian settlers perhaps over-reaching themselves in Newfoundland and ultimately abandoning their Greenlandic colonies.

The book is well illustrated with maps, photographs and diagrams – many in colour – and text-boxes reproduce important and fascinating written material ascribed to Nordic chieftain Ohthere’s witness statement to King Alfred late in the 9thcentury; Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlān’s candid 10thcentury depictions of the Scandinavian Rus; and the Irish monk Dicuil’sdescription of what is generally interpreted as the Faroe Islands, indicating that the archipelago was populated before the Vikings arrived – as seemingly shown by recent archaeological discoveries.

Landscape and ruin group from Hvalsey Fjord in the Eastern Settlement, showing the church (thirteenth century) and the adjacent ruin group which may date originally from the early Norse settlement of Greenland.


Texts can enliven histories in a way that other sources cannot. Of course, like the later saga literature, we need to be circumspect about the veracity of such material. Other evidence suffuses contemporary Viking studies, and the opportunity is taken to foreground the enormous contribution from such areas as archaeology, place-names, genetics, and environmental science.

The Vikings have maintained a resonance up to the present day. Re-enactment groups, films, and television series keep their history alive – more sinister is their appropriation by ultra-conservative political movements. The actions of the Vikings when venturing beyond their homelands provide distant echoes of other invasions and migrations closer to our time. This book is intended to appeal to those who want an up-to-date account of the who, when, where and why of the Vikings.

by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide (Bergen) andKevin J. Edwards (Aberdeen and Cambridge)

Vikings in the East

While a whole library has been written on Vikings in the West, much less is known of Vikings in the East, and what is written of the subject, mainly discusses the stories about Rus’. The Viking Eastern Baltic talks about Viking Age Eastern Baltic peoples, who have often been depicted as predominantly passive in the large-scale Viking movement towards the East. This seems to be far from the truth!

The quite broad zone between Scandinavia and Kiev Rus’, present-day Finland and the Baltic States, was unavoidable in East-West communications. During the Viking Age, it was a land full of harbours, hill-forts and international trade routes. Several distinct features of the period – for example, the emergence and development of trade centers or the struggle for the spheres of influence – were directly mirrored in Eastern Baltic archaeological material. This evidence is often little known in English-speaking countries, and more or less never before taken into consideration in one interregional study.

An initial point presented in the book is that there was never any common “Baltic” archaeological culture incorporating the territories of the present-day Baltic countries.  The Viking Age Eastern Baltic could indeed be divided into two larger spheres based on their language and the concomitant culture: the Baltic Finnic and the Baltic. Viking Age trade and also the role of the maritime element in the local culture, contacts, and cultural influences from east to west all functioned differently in these different regions. Recognition of this is crucial if we want to have an adequate picture of the processes operating in the Viking Age Baltic Rim.

This book demonstrates how communication networks over the Baltic Sea and further east were established and how they took different forms in the northern and the southern halves of the Eastern Baltic. Archaeological as well as written sources indicate the impact these networks had on the development of local societies.

Based on available information, raids in the Baltic Sea were earlier than the Vikings’ first forays into Western Europe. As a result of these, the common cultural sphere of warriors emerged in the East Scandinavian and Baltic Finnic coastal areas in the last centuries before the Viking Age. This shared cultural milieu was evidently based on not just mutual raids but also on close personal contacts, adopted values and beliefs. Archaeologically, the shared cultural milieu of warriors renders it somewhat difficult to decipher what is of “Scandinavian character” in the eastern territories, thus illustrating the international and multicultural nature of the processes at work during the period.

The situation in the southern half of the Eastern Baltic was different. The only Scandinavian colonies in the region are known from areas inhabited by ethnic Balts – in Grobiņa and Kaup. At these sites, a number of Scandinavian burials, both male and female ones, have been unearthed. The Scandinavian influence on the material culture of the surrounding areas, on the other hand, remained modest.

A lot of attention in the book has been paid to written sources – and the understanding of them changed remarkably when looking at the written sources from a transregional perspective. The first surprise was to find out how much more frequently the northern half of the Eastern Baltic had been mentioned in certain kinds of sources when compared with the southern half. Discussing changes in place names in sagas and other documents, it was possible to put forward a theory that the name Garðaríki did not include simply areas in present-day Russia, but also in Estonia and Latvia. In addition to this, the origin of the name Rus’, as well as its interconnection with the name Chud’ was discussed.

The book is a short version of many years of research published in other places. The main result of the study is, however, that the inhabitants of present-day Finland and the Baltic States were more engaged in the Viking eastern movement than is generally believed. We hope that the study presented here encourages interest in the role the Eastern Baltic played in the Viking world, and thus leads us to a better understanding of this special epoch in European history.

by Marika Mägi

Q&A on A Companion to Global Queenship

What is the main argument presented in your book?

This collection argues that we need to expand the focus of queenship studies to embrace ruling and royal women in a global context in order to truly understand the queen’s role. There has been an incredible amount of fantastic scholarship about queens and queenship in the medieval and early modern periods but much of this has been done in a purely European context, with a real emphasis on Western Europe. Our collection aims to push the boundaries of previous studies, bringing in examples of female rulers and royal women from Asia, Africa and Australasia as well as from the ‘fringes of Europe’ such as Kievan Rus’, Georgia and Islamic Iberia. Such a diverse group of case studies opens the door for fruitful comparisons of how queenship functioned in different places and in different periods. Indeed, many of the studies, such as the one by Tracy Adams and Ian Fooker on the courts of early modern France and the Ooku of Japan were deliberately comparative—juxtaposing the experience of royal women in very divergent settings to look for common threads.

Can you summarize what your book is about? What are its findings?

By bringing together such a wide range of studies, we hoped to show both ‘constants’ of queenship which can be seen across different time, places and cultures as well as the variety of experience that women had in these very different monarchical settings. For example, one area which was very different was the experience that royal women had in monogamous cultures—where there would be only one woman who could be the wife of the ruler at any given time, versus areas which practiced polygamy or allowed for concubines as well as wives for the monarch. Yet, while this did make a clear difference to the framework that royal women inhabited and to their official position, we still find queens operating in similar ways. For example, Renee Langlois’ chapter compares the regents of early modern France with those of the ‘Sultanate of Women’ period in the Ottoman Empire. She demonstrates the both the French and Ottoman regents used similar strategies to maintain and display their authority, in spite of very different practices within both monarchies and courts around the role of royal women and their theoretical visibility. The role of maternity which gave royal women a key role in terms of bearing, or selecting the heir can also be seen to be a vital element of the queens role in different geographical and cultural contexts as Diana Pelaz Flores’ comparison of queen mothers in Europe and Africa or Seokyung Han’s chapter on the role of dowager queens in Choson Korea both demonstrate.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by a keynote speech given by Merry Wiesner-Hanks at a conference a few years ago. She has long been a proponent of global studies and encouraged us all to think of our own disciplines in a global way. It made me think about both queenship and royal studies and how they have been perhaps too Eurocentric. Even since then, I have been striving to push the field in a global direction, to try to seek out those who are working on queenship and royal studies in extra-European contexts and bring them into discussion with other scholars so that we can gain a much deeper understanding of how queenship and monarchy work across all times, places and cultures.

What was the most surprising or exciting thing that you discovered during your research?

One of the things which really struck me when I was writing the introduction of the book is the difficulty of nomenclature-even the word ‘queen’ is linked to a very Eurocentric notion of monarchy. The word doesn’t translate easily into other languages and cultures-Fatima Mernissi talks about this in her fantastic book The Forgotten Queens of Islam in terms of how difficult it is to find an equivalent word in Arabic for example. Some of the chapters in our collection, like Jane Hooper’s, Lennart Bes’ and Aidan Norrie’s discuss how Western visitors to Africa, India and New Zealand tried to apply the term ‘queen’ and the European meaning that they were familiar with to the situation of royal women abroad, but it was an awkward fit which demonstrated that these visitors didn’t fully understand how power and authority were exercised by these women. In the end, even though it isn’t a perfect solution, I decided that it made sense to use the word ‘queen’ for the women in this collection, even though it is both loaded and limited by its own etymology and cultural context, to denote the position of the highest woman in the land and/or the consort of the ruler so that we could have a foundational term to build on.

What impact do you hope that this book will have?

I really hope that this book will kickstart a conversation about global queenship and inspire more scholars who currently work in a European context to look at royal women in other periods and places. I also hope that it will encourage scholars who are already working on royal women in an extra-European context to collaborate with others working in the field of queenship so that we can continue to produce more comparative studies like this one. Hopefully, this collection is only the beginning of a new direction and approach to queenship studies.


by Elena Woodacre

How a Study of Processional Theatre Grew into a Book about Donkeys, Dissonance, and Blasphemous Pageants

What began for me as a fairly simple history of the processional theatre of Palm Sunday soon ran up against some puzzling questions:

  • Why is there no verifiable record of a live donkey taking part in a Palm Sunday procession before 1424? (A few retrospective “records” are demonstrably false.)
  • Why is Christ’s entry into Jerusalem still widely celebrated on Palm Sunday as a “triumphal” entry when biblical scholars of liberal and conservative persuasion alike agree that it was “nontriumphal,” “atriumphal,” or even “antitriumphal”?
  • If early Church authorities also agreed that Christ’s entry was a deliberate rejection of the pomp of imperial and other military entries, when (and why) did Palm Sunday processions start to resemble triumphal entries and when (and why) did military triumphs start to appropriate the language and iconography of Palm Sunday?
  • Why were life-size, wheeled, wooden images of Christ on a donkey, generally known as Palmesels (palm donkeys), introduced to Palm Sunday processions in the mid-tenth century?

  • Why were children allowed to ride behind Christ on the wooden donkey? Why were Protestant reformers and “enlightened” Roman Catholic prelates so hostile toward Palmesels? And, if all other processional images were (and are) carried at head height or above, why has the Palmesel alone been pulled at ground level?

Digging into these and other general questions soon unearthed a number of even more specific historical questions:

  • Why do scholars insist that the Quaker James Nayler’s ride into Bristol on October 24, 1656, was a deliberate reenactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Nayler rode a horse, not a donkey. He did so six months after (or before) Palm Sunday. His followers neither waved palms or other foliage nor shouted “Hosanna.” At his trial before the Puritan parliament, Nayler was accused both of “horrid blasphemy” and of being a “traitor,” but not of imitating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The coronation of Oliver Cromwell as king was thought to be imminent. Is it possible that Nayler’s series of muddy entries into Wells, Glastonbury, and Bristol, for which he was cruelly punished and imprisoned, was a parody of a triumphal royal progress?

  • In the annual Moscow Palm Sunday procession, why did the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia ride a white “horse, covered with white linen down to the ground, his ears being made long with the same cloth, like to an ass’s ears”? And why did the ruling tsar lead the horse?
  • Why do villages in lowland Bolivia still pull a wheeled image of Christ on a donkey in procession on Palm Sunday? How did the Palmesel, which flourished in German-speaking lands north of the Alps, reach Bolivia?

  • Why was the first person recorded as having ridden a donkey in a Palm Sunday procession of sorts in Rome not a member of the clergy but a startlingly eccentric, fifteenth-century, apocalyptic lay preacher?

Answering these and a host of other questions gradually transformed my book-in-progress from a simple work of theatrical and liturgical history into a much more complex exploration of the radical dissonance between Palm Sunday processions and other public enactments of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the biblical story to which they all claimed allegiance. A curious theme emerged: those embodied representations of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem that were, at one time or another, labeled blasphemous, idolatrous, or superstitious by those in power were arguably most faithful to the biblical narrative of Palm Sunday, while those staged with the purpose of exalting those in power and celebrating military triumph were arguably blasphemous pageants.

By Max Harris

On writing Eastern Europe in Icelandic Sagas

My studies are in two senses “beyond medieval Europe,” as both Old Rus’ (a territory in Eastern Europe that interests me mostly) and Iceland (a place where practically all my sources had originated) are medieval regions lying beyond medieval Europe in the traditional sense of the term. This research aims at investigating the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, chronicles, and other texts from the point of view of their validity as a historical source for scholars of the history of Eastern Europe, and Old Rus’ in particular. In this vein this issue has not been raised in the framework of Old Norse studies outside Russia. Only certain questions of East European and Russian history reflected in the sagas are discussed in scattered scholarly works, and the studies that I have been carrying out in this field for four decades are being translated into English for the first time.

The book falls into two completely different parts.

The image of Eastern Europe in toto, and of Old Rus’ in particular, which is discussed in part 1, can be called both historical and geographical. Here, an attempt is made through reading Old Norse texts—skaldic poetry, runic inscriptions, sagas, chronicles, and geographical treatises—to formulate the idea of the Scandinavian oecumene, to reconstruct a “mental map” of medieval Scandinavians, and to imagine the place of Eastern Europe on this “mental map”, that is to see Old Rus’—with its ways, rivers and towns—through the eyes of medieval Scandinavians. It should be noted that the quantity of ethnic names and different place-names of the Eastern Baltic region, Old Rus’, and European North was considerably larger in the Scandinavian tradition than the information this tradition possessed about the countries of Western Europe, including England and France. Scandinavian Vikings became acquainted with the geography of Eastern Europe as a result of their first trips to the east, although it is hardly possible to date this process with any precision. The knowledge of rivers with their currents, location of settlements, customs, and traditions of the peoples inhabiting different parts of the waterways, and so on, was vitally important for the success of expeditions. This information was passed by word of mouth. Numerous expeditions to and continuous stays in the Old Rus’ of merchants and warriors, who participated in the military enterprises of the Russian princes, accumulated and enriched geographical information. This information started to serve as a background for stories of Viking activities in Eastern Europe and was even organized into more systematic descriptions, such as lists of rivers, towns and so on, which occur in later geographical treatises and sometimes in the sagas. This knowledge could not be acquired from books, so it definitely was the result of a living oral tradition. It is evident that ancient Scandinavian society had a fairly stable collection of ideas about Eastern Europe. To some extent, this was a picture of the world of the time when the sources under consideration were being recorded, but there is no doubt that some background knowledge and general geographical ideas of the Viking Age have been preserved in it.

In part 2 the reader will find some information on the history of Russian-Norwegian political relations of the last third of the tenth and the first half of the eleventh century from saga stories about the stay in Rus’ of several Norwegian kings. Sagas and skaldic poems have preserved information on the visits of the four Norwegian kings to Rus’, namely Óláfr Tryggvason in 977–986, Óláfr Haraldsson in 1029–1030, his son Magnús from 1029 till 1035, and Haraldr Sigurðarson in the early 1030s and in about 1043–1045. All the four kings are seeking a short-term refuge in Rus’ and obtain it. They are welcomed by the Russian prince and his wife and are highly honoured and respected here. Óláfr Tryggvason and Magnús Óláfsson are brought up by the Russian prince (Vladimir and Yaroslav, respectfully). Óláfr Tryggvason, Óláfr Haraldsson, and Haraldr Sigurðarson occupy a high position in the Russian military service. All of them leave Rus’ for their own country in an attempt to gain (or regain) power in Norway. Old Norse sources have recounted the activity of Yaroslav the Wise in the field of foreign affairs: the Russian prince is said to have used not only diplomatic means and military support of the Norwegian kings, but also espionage and bribery of the leading chieftains in Norway. The life of the Norwegian kings in Rus’ is described in the sagas with great laconicism, and with the help of a set of stock phrases. On the one hand, this demonstrates a lack of concrete information. On the other hand, it reflects the saga authors’ tendency to exaggerate the role of a noble Scandinavian outside his own country. Still, the very fact that these four kings had been to Rus’ (in spite of the absolute ignorance of the Old Russian sources on this matter) cannot be denied, since Icelandic skalds, contemporaries of those kings, quoted by saga authors, confirm the saga information.

by Tatjana N. Jackson

The Manifesto, Received


1. Who read the Manifesto?
2. Who reviewed the Manifesto?
3. Would I write a different Manifesto if I wrote it now?
4. Down with the drawbridges!
5. Up with public-facing scholarship!

It’s been a little over one year that Medievalism: A Manifesto was published as the inaugural volume in the ARC Humanities Press series PastImperfect, and it’s been a fascinating ride. My own horizon of expectations had been one of optimistic curiosity. I knew the time was right for me to publish an essailike the Manifesto, but I was (in aenigmate) aware that, when sending the manuscript off to Simon Forde, my own life and career clock was probably not entirely in sync with all the rapid developments in medieval studies and medievalism studies. That turned out to be correct. The reviewer for Medievally Speaking, for example, rightly reminded readers and me that I seemed “in some ways to be late to [my] own party. This is not unexpected—as a driving force in the study of medievalism, [Utz] has been vocal about these issues for some time, and the ideas themselves have evolved in a relatively public manner.”

Who read the Manifesto?

Thus, while I was writing from the vantage point of someone who had been engaged with the study of medieval culture over the last three decades, some of my readers, especially those whose careers began later, naturally viewed some of my recommendations as a status quo they had already reached or perhaps even left behind. While some ‘seasoned’ medievalists told me that my choice of weaving my own biography into the fabric of my sketch was a bold (“I can’t believe you put your own parents on the cover of your book!”) and epistemologically productive move, some from among the generations of younger medievalists commented on it as a nice touch, a turn they were already performing in much of their own work without the need for further encouragement. Another reason for “being late at my own game” was, of course, that I had presented some of the foundational ideas for the Manifesto as the plenary, “The Notion of the Middle Ages: Our Middle Ages, Ourselves,” at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in 2015, and summarized them for the Chronicle of Higher Education in “Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists.”

Who reviewed the Manifesto?

As I reflected on these matters for this blog entry, I noticed that most of the published responses to the Manifesto so far have come from online or relatively ‘young’ journals and blogs, that except for the reviews published in Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen and Literaturen (I do hail from Germany) and Arthuriana (I am on their advisory board), most established journals (think: ClioJEGP, Medievalia et Humanistica, Parergon, The Medieval Review, Speculum) or outlets of what some consider the current medievalist avant garde (postmedieval; In the [Medieval] Middle) did not engage with my essai. Perhaps some residual resistance against that which reeks of the extra-academic and popular; or against that which references Arendt and Dinshaw instead of Adorno and Žižek? Hard to say.

I did receive fascinating in person responses from the participants in Daniel Kline’s ICMS session in 2017. And I also received detailed and thoughtful responses from readers writing for less established and ‘popular’ outlets like The Public Medievalist,, The (Pop)Culture Medievalist, and Personal appreciative e-mails came mostly from independent scholars and colleagues working at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities, not major research institutions. And two thirds of the published reviews and responses originated from scholars and journals outside the United States (Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Spain, Venezuela). This could mean that the Manifesto’s objectives had more relevance for colleagues outside the U.S., and for independent scholars and colleagues at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities. ARC Humanities Press informs me that the volume exceeded their sales expectations; I know of at least a dozen teacher-scholars who have been using the text in their classrooms; and three colleagues told me they made reference to the Manifesto in an effort to entice their administrators and tenure and promotion committees to value their efforts at public scholarship. I couldn’t be happier with these outcomes, which are also reflected in the following published responses:

Medievalism: A Manifesto aims to do nothing less than to reform the ways in which we think about academic engagement with the Middle Ages, and with medievalism as a whole. […] [Utz presents] a fundamental, challenging, and difficult intervention aimed squarely at those who may not want to listen, and who, for that precise reason, most urgently need to do so.” – Andrew B. R. Elliott, Arthuriana

“This book—especially its final chapter, which comprises the real ‘manifesto’ of the volume—should be required reading for every medieval studies Ph.D., and taped to the door of many a public history professor.” – Paul B. Sturtevant, The Public Medievalist

“Utz is the scholar/teacher as rabble rouser, in the very best sense of the term—though some of the rabble are his own colleagues in the academy. He argues for a fresh approach to a new topic in a way that embraces not just the academy but also larger audiences with their own distinctive views of and responses to what we call the medieval.” – Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University

“Richard Utz publicó en 2017 el manifiesto del medievalismo, donde busca repensar la manera en que conectamos, desde el mundo académico, con la cultura medieval. Su objetivo último es que desde los intramuros de la academia procuremos dialogar con aquel público general que, afuera, también se interesa por el mundo medieval, aunque no primordial (o exclusivamente) desde la teoría, sino a partir de la observancia y disfrute de las manifestaciones postmedievales que recrean ese periodo histórico-cultural, como pueden ser la literatura, el cine, las series de televisión, la música…La vocación comparatista de este manifiesto no se observa solo en esta finalidad interartística e interdiscursiva que subyace a su escritura, sino también en los procesos iniciales que guiaron su inspiración.” – Laura Camino Plaza, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela

“Im vorliegenden Manifest … erscheint dieses Plädoyer aber ungewohnt intensiv, und das liegt vor allem daran, dass Utz sich nicht zum vermeintlich objektiv-neutralen Kommentator emporschwingt, sondern seinen Werdegang als medievalistund medievalism-isteng mit seiner privaten Biographie verknüpft. Dabei gereicht ihm zum Vorteil, dass er auf lange Erfahrung einerseits im deutschen, andererseits im US-amerikanischen Universitätssystem und auf entsprechende Einsicht auch in beide Gesellschaften blicken kann.” – Jan Alexander von Nahl,

Medievalism: A Manifestois well-argued, inspiring, and also timely, as its immediately sold-out first print run indicates. This book is for the scholars who need to shed their guilt over ‘cheating’ on their scholarship by indulging in fun medievalism; it’s for the grad students who need to be reminded of what inspired them to first set foot in our field; it’s for the department chairs who are wondering how to make their departments ‘more relevant’. In other words, Medievalism: A Manifesto is a must-read for anyone in our field, and a rallying cry for scholars in general to harness the power of public platforms to better society. If you need a quick read to relight your fire, this is it.” – Danièle Cybulskie,

Would I write a different Manifesto if I wrote it now?

All things considered, somewhat “late to my own game” I may very well have been. However, the overall reception indicates the Manifesto has been making a difference for a good number of its readers, and perhaps beyond. Would I have written it differently if I had finished it in early 2019? Absolutely! Since I submitted the manuscript in late 2016, the dramatic changes in U.S. and global politics and academe have revealed, more quickly and more powerfully than 100 years of scholarship, how deeply the practices and traditions of academic medieval studies are imbricated in the nationalism, sexism, and racism that helped anchor the study of the Middle Ages at the modern university in the second half of the nineteenth century; how the violent and discriminatory origins of these practices can come to the fore if one scratches the medievalist ‘veneer’ of Confederate statues and stained glass windows, in the U.S. as well as in other countries; and how these practices continue to prevent a comprehensive understanding of medieval culture, one broadly inclusive of non-white and non-European or minority peoples, artifacts, languages, and scholars.

Over the last two years, medievalists have been negotiating how to combat the increasingly widespread misinformation about what is and what isn’t “medieval”. Some, like Andrew Elliot (Medievalism, Politics, and Mass Media) and Paul Sturtevant (The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination) have provided sorely needed sociological and media studies approaches to our discussions; others, like Geraldine Heng (The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages), the Medievalists of Color, and numerous other individuals are doing the foundational work to fill in the scholarly lacunae left by predominantly Eurocentric approaches; and again others, and here I am thinking of the hundreds of colleagues contributing to The Public Medievalist (series on race and gender),, and widely read news services, magazines, and blogs, have lowered the artificial drawbridge between the academic and the so-called dilettante world and critically discuss local all forms of medievalism.

Down with the drawbridges!

This general movement toward an inclusive study of medieval culture and its afterlife is what I see growing every day. What distracts from and even discredits such inclusive and generous research are spurious accusations against some of the public forums that have historically been the most open for academic and non-academic lovers of medievalia: for Anglophone and non-Anglophone scholars; for faculty and students of all ranks and from research universities through community colleges and schools; for multiple approaches, methodologies, and theories; for traditional and new geographical, temporal, and intellectual notions; and for readings focused on class, gender, and race. These large and open forums, including especially the Kalamazoo and Leeds congresses, with their intentional efforts at keeping registration cost low and including local and regional communities, continue the promise of a true public exchange about the Middle Ages. Those who only want to congregate with colleagues who already share their own convictions, who find the ‘popular’ interest in medieval culture too uncomfortable and time-consuming, who denigrate other colleagues’ work to puff up their own, and who, if in charge, would deny non-conforming colleagues access to conferences, Facebook pages, and journals, will not make the study and engagement with medieval culture more truly democratic and diverse. I am afraid too many of them only want to replace ye olde drawbridge with a newe one, of their own making.

Up with public-facing scholarship!

Ironically, conservative (old) philologists and quasi-Rankean historians, who may not really mind for medieval studies to remain stuck within its nineteenth-century nationalist, racist, and sexist roots just as long as they don’t have to change, seem to agree with many of the most avant-garde and woke medievalists on one thing: the need to keep the academic study of the Middle Ages unsullied by the efforts of so-called dilettantes. Both of these groups feel foundationally threatened by the work of non-academic medievalists in castellology, reenactment, role-playing, digital gaming, and other presentist and/or praxis-oriented endeavors of reception. My hope is to convince the vast majority of medievalists, who have their epistemological habitat in the vast space between these two extreme positions, to bring to bear their specialist education to explain various local, regional, national, and global medievalisms to their fellow citizens and to collaborate with all those who share their own (albeit professionally sublimated) LOVE for the ‘medieval’. Such publicly engaged scholarship, as I wrote in the Manifesto, “is hard work and demands a more adventurous and entrepreneurial kind of academic than the one we have too often attracted and rewarded over the last 130 years.” The Past Imperfect book series has been instrumental at making such scholarship happen.

By Richard Utz

Kriston Rennie on Writing Medieval Canon Law

  1. What is your book about?

My book is about the early medieval origins and development of canon law. What differs is my approach. I apply a slightly different interpretive lens, tackling the subject through a social-history framework. What this means in practice is a big part of the story. Concentrating on the law’s formative centuries (ca. 400-1140) presents the opportunity to understand the ancient traditions, norms, customs, and rationale of the Roman Church in shaping legislative procedure. It also provides a chance for treating the canon law as a living and breathing organism; as an integrated and pervasive aspect of medieval life and society, before the emergence of professional lawyers, law schools, courtrooms, and universities.

  1. Why write another book on this subject?

It took some convincing at first. The field of medieval canon law is steeped in tradition. There are so many great and influential works, whose eloquent and comprehensive analyses fuel a rich historiographical legacy. That was one initial reservation. I also wondered about the genuine need for another book on this subject, its potential audience, what my contribution might be, and whether I was the right person for the job. I’ve always felt like an interloper into the world of canon law, an imposter coming to the field from a different background, with different historical interests and questions.

Ultimately, I decided to turn this experience to my advantage. The Past Imperfect book series provided a creative space for another perspective – something accessible, dynamic, and provocative. There’s an obvious attraction to a book of this nature, whose framework, conception, and production are refreshingly different from the traditional academic monograph. The chance to write something succinct, punchy, and colloquial was extremely appealing. So, too, was the opportunity to shed some of the stricter conventions, which can often weigh down a History book. There is something to be said for this approach to research and writing, which I found extremely rewarding.

I suppose that answers the personal aspect of the question. The intellectual justification for writing another book on this subject is slightly different, though it relates in part to the series’ objectives. I wanted to produce a short book that: made sense of an important subject, highlighted contemporary advances and methodologies, and fostered an appreciation for the field among specialist and non-specialists alike. It took me a long time to realise that canon law is not separate from the political, social, religious, theological, or intellectual traditions of the Middle Ages. As I argue in my book, it both informs and shapes this world. It’s a core and unavoidable component, which demands a better understanding. So, for these reasons, I had to write this book!

  1. What is your particular approach?

My particular approach began with a question I’ve been asking myself all along: why does canon law matter? Or, as Jason Taliadoros and I once enquired: ‘Why study medieval canon law?’

My approach was framed by a desire to explain the law’s formulation in the simplest and clearest way possible. That is, its fundamental purpose, its reason for existence and proliferation, even the methods for its creation and collection. I introduce the subject of medieval canon law as an invention: ‘an evolutionary story of human industry, ingenuity, and change.’ From this vantage, my ultimate aim was to explain how the medieval Church and society were influenced and controlled, how the law actually functioned. I wanted to make the subject tangible in some way. On one level, this meant cutting through the rich historiography and textual tradition, which is exactly what the Past Imperfect series allowed me to do. I don’t mean ignoring this foundational work, but rather harnessing it into a more digestible package.

  1. What do you hope that readers will gain from your book?

Medieval canon law is too often treated in isolation, as an esoteric and highly specialised sub-field of History. There is some truth to this view, as I suggest in my book. But the reality is far more engrossing. While I spend some time explaining the master narrative of canon law, its structure, collections, and rationale, the crux of my book arrives with a chapter on ‘Practice (Reality)’. I wanted to find a way to write about the law as more than a product of textual criticism, but rather as something that was made and enacted; something that influenced everyday lives; as an instrument of authority, clarification, and defense.

By adopting this unique vision and interpretive framework, I hope that my readers will develop a richer appreciation of the canon law’s influence on medieval European society. I’ve positioned the subject as a bountiful source and object of historical study, the engine of a rich cultural, intellectual, political, social, and religious tradition. I hope that my book serves as a ‘call-to-arms’ of sorts, inviting and challenging a budding generation of historians to dip their toes in the canonical waters.

by Kriston Rennie