Tooting the Horn

Well, as I had feared, the busy business of the academic year has thwarted my plans to make regular posts here every other week. I am disappointed by this turn of events, if not altogether surprised. But never fear! I have become inspired lately, thanks to chats with colleagues, following other peoples’ blogs, and the almost-final meeting of one of the committees I’ve been working on this year, to get back to the blog. Recalling its purpose–to keep me writing–I have decided to care a bit less about the subject of writing. So, rather than fret about not having time to think about scholarship and therefore not write much, I’m just going to put out this small post. It’s weeks overdue at this point, but it strikes me as completely in keeping with the professional purpose of the blog.

This is out:Image

If you follow the link embedded in the image, you will be taken to the webpage where you can learn a bit about this book and even order a copy. The volume itself, Discover and Distinction in the Early Middle Ages: Studies in Honor of John J. Contreni, is the product of six years (!) worth of effort. For those who are interested in stories about how things come to be, I can share with you the highlights of this journey.

To start with, there is a tradition in humanities fields for the former students and friends of an influential scholar to come together and create a Festschrift in that scholar’s honor. As you can tell by the term itself, the Festschrift custom seems to come to us from the German academic system; I’ll translate it roughly as “celebratory writing/publication”. Well, in 2007, my friend Steven A. Stofferahn, whom I met in grad school, and I came up with the idea to produce a Festschrift for our doctoral advisor, John J. Contreni. We got some ideas from John himself about what he would consider a good volume of collected studies, and then we set ourselves to the task of recruiting contributors. By and large, the response from people we invited was along the lines of, “Of course I’ll be happy to write something for John!” When it was all said and done, we had accumulated promises from fourteen scholars from different countries, plus the two of us, for a total of sixteen essays. Contributors from the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, France, and Germany, from very established leaders in our field to quite junior scholars just starting their careers, lined up to participate. Steve and I were to be co-editors, so we divvied up responsibilities and set to work.

I organized a series of sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies that met during May of 2008. We had three sessions featuring eight speakers and a response from John himself. The papers that these folks delivered became the kernels for their essays in the volume. The other half of our contributors were unable to participate at Kalamazoo that year, so they set to work things they had been meaning to write, or on aspects of larger projects ongoing, that would make a good tribute for John. We had a very good timetable set, with essays due at the end of summer 2008 so that they could be edited (by Steve and me) and sent along to the press for vetting and so forth. We had hoped for a publication date of 2010, knowing full well that it would probably not happen.

But things were moving along quite swiftly, and all the horror stories we had heard from people who had edited similar collections seemed like fairly tales meant to discourage young scholars from undertaking a Festschrift. I am still very proud to say that our contributors by a large were able to meet the deadlines, and that the refereeing process once the collected essays were out of our hands went fairly smoothly. We weren’t really going to make our pie-in-the-sky publication date in 2010, but that was fine. A Festschrift usually appears at about the time the honoree retires, so we weren’t in a big rush.

Things started to get a bit harried as 2009–a successful year in the progress of the volume, no doubt–became 2010, and then 2010 became 2011. At that point, the active working on the project on our end as editors was mostly past. We had to face delays caused by an elusive copy-editor and other forms of logjam at the press, as well as one of our contributors facing a tough professional situation and become hard to keep track of and contact. We kept in touch with the managing editor, whose support we had throughout the entire process, and whom we happily thank for her efforts. We probably lost about a year because of the slow-down. But 2011 turned to 2012, and things were looking up. It takes a good bit of time to actually make a real-life book, and at the beginning of 2012 we were at the stage of page proofs. By the end of the next year (which was last year, if you follow me), we had a nice set of handsome, nicely bound, real-life books!

All told, from the moment I sent the first email to Steve about planning this whole thing in April 2006, to the volume’s appearance as a physical book in December 2013, it took seven and a half years to execute. But really, we didn’t get started in earnest until spring 2007. That’s still a long time, and I wish it could have been shorter. But it really was a good experience, a far cry from some of the bad times I hear other people have had, and we are quite proud of the book. So, give that webpage a look (go ahead and follow this link) and buy yourself a copy. Best $60 you’ll spend all day, I guarantee.

A Confession, then an Argument

Confession: I love my job. I love teaching. I see true value in advising students and helping them in their efforts to achieve goals for college and beyond. I appreciate the significance of meeting with my department colleagues and with committees to do the business of the college. But… I hate not being able to work on research and writing consistently. Whenever I manage to get back to it, there always seems so much more just to read, so that it never seems like time to write… and it’s been this way for ten years. I don’t know why it really takes so long to complete an admittedly long project, other than putting writing on the back burner during each academic year, and then always feeling the need to read a lot more. And even then, given the piecemeal approach to work, new insights don’t always get incorporated very well when it comes time to write.

OK… now that’s off my chest. Turning my attention to scholarship, let me set up a bit of an argument between me and another historian. This fellow, Jonathan Jarrett, is clearly a good scholar who knows what he’s doing in studying charters—basically documents that record transactions involving property. He is not afraid of doing meticulous work. He is also a bit argumentative, often in what seems to be to be unproductive ways, in that he can treat the academic enterprise as a zero-sum game. If he is right about something, then someone else must be wrong. Still, he does excellent work, and I can refer you to his blog,[1] book,[2] and articles as proof.

I came into his crosshairs over ten years ago. In 2002, an article I wrote was published in the journal Early Medieval Europe (and won that journal’s annual prize for the best article that is the author’s first).[3] That was quite a feather in my cap, as EME is a top-notch journal. The next year, an article Dr. Jarrett wrote was published in the same journal and won the same prize.[4] In a footnote, he took issue with my interpretation of the aprisio, a type of land-holding that seems really to have existed only in early medieval Spain. In particular, this word applies to land that had been brought back into cultivation after a period of being either unsettled, unorganized, or unproductive, and it really seems to come from the Spanish March and Septimania, although there are clear parallels to practices known by other names in other parts of northern Spain. My article argued that Charlemagne used the aprisio practice as a way to get his royal authority to permeate down to the local level of Septimania and the Spanish March and to build a loyal following of individuals who were given right to their aprisiones as property without having to answer to the jurisdiction of the counts in the area. I made this claim on the basis of royal documents, and furthered the argument by pointing to later documents issued by Charlemagne himself and his successors to show that kings protected the rights and status of aprisio settlers.

So far, so good. But Dr. Jarrett didn’t see things in quite the same way. In that footnote in his 2003 article  that referred to my article of the year before, he mentioned that he hoped to publish a response to my thesis. That happened in 2009/10, again in the journal Early Medieval Europe, in an article titled “Settling the king’s lands”.[5] My name appears many times in the main text of that article, and my earlier paper is referred to in a good many footnotes. Dr. Jarrett’s argument in “Settling the king’s lands” is basically that aprisio was a local thing, and that kings and immigrants had pretty much nothing to do with it. He critiques my reading of some of the documents I had used and points out instances where I was more generous to the surviving source record than he thinks necessary. And you know, I am willing to concede some of those points. Having written the paper that seems to have set him off, I remember trying to figure out what to do in those situations. I was trying to flesh out my major point about Charlemagne while still a graduate student, and my training was not centered primarily on working with royal documents. (As a matter of fact, my graduate training was not centered on the study of any particular kind of source text, whereas Dr. Jarrett’s was. I am therefore fully willing to admit that he should be better at that than I am. But I digress.) Anyway, I remember grasping at straws to try to explain why later documents don’t repeat in detail the precise list of rights that earlier kings had granted to the aprisio settlers. I settled on the notion that they didn’t need to repeat the rights after decades of having them recognized. I knew at the time that my explanation was rather weak, so I’ll concede. So Charles the Bald cannot be proven to have actively protected the kinds of rights to immunity that Charlemagne had earlier issued. But that doesn’t mean that Charlemagne never issued them and upheld them when challenged.

We can get into a little debate as to whether only a group of people known as hispani were given such lands and rights because they were refugees from elsewhere in Spain. I emphasize the point that Charlemagne put such immigrants under his own protection, while Dr. Jarrett emphasizes established, local people doing their own thing. I can see Jonathan’s argument, but I need to go back to the sources before I settle my mind. The main argument between us is that we are placing our strongest emphasis on different aspects of the subject: his interest is local society, especially in the tenth century, while mine is royal authority in the late eighth and ninth centuries. I happen to think we can both be right; he seems less inclined to do so. And I can certainly accept his points about how the aprisio idea functioned as a way for local people to settle and organize land without royal involvement in the very late ninth century and throughout the tenth. My article in 2002 really didn’t go that far in time because it wasn’t germane to the thesis. But some things that Dr. Jarrett asserts in “Settling the king’s lands” just cannot go unanswered.

(Warning to non-specialists: there might be weird vocabulary in this paragraph.) For one thing, contrary to what he seems to say, I never claimed that Charlemagne “invented” aprisio, or if I did, I meant in terms of “inventing a new way for the king to link himself to locals by co-opting a local practice”. As king, Charlemagne was claiming deserted areas for his fisc and immediately granting them out retroactively to those who cultivated them, giving these people limited immunity from comital jurisdiction. Of course he was recognizing a fait accompli every time, not giving people permission to undertake something new. But these people became immunists and something like vassi dominici in that they enjoyed a direct relationship with the king. Rights of immunity are shown in a famous case from 812 that formed part of the backbone of my argument in 2002. Early documents from Louis the Pious also show immunity. I might concede that Charles the Bald’s documents of aprisio do not show it as part of a continuing royal program of immunity—that’s where I am forced to see the weakness of my earlier argument, as described above—but I’m not claiming that they were ever a royal program. I’m claiming that Charlemagne saw what was going on and seized the opportunity to turn it to his advantage. If Charles the Bald did not, and aprisio reverted in meaning to a simple label for land reclaimed from waste, so be it—that does not mean that such properties were not bestowed immunities in earlier years. The so-called “thirty-year clause” that appears in these documents[6] is important as a way to make the grant (because waste was theoretically and legally part of the fisc and thus only legally attainable by alienation from the king) part of the aprisionist’s patrimony. Now, did Charles the Bald have to grant aprisiones out of the fisc retroactively? Did later kings? By the end of the 840s, the rights of immunity are no longer enumerated, so does that mean that the aprisionists no longer had those rights? The right to recognize land reclamation seems to have shifted over from the kings to the counts by the tenth century… just the time when kings ceased to intervene in the secular affairs of the Spanish March more generally. It’s irrelevant to my argument about royal authority what kind of role aprisio played in the tenth century because my main point is about Charlemagne, really, and my 2002 article was colored by my interpretation of the 812 case, and I stand by that interpretation.

There you have it. Please, dear readers (if there are any), leave a comment. If I’ve done up this post in a way that renders it impossible to follow, let me know so that future posts won’t have that problem. If you’d like more information, I can provide it in the comments. If I have made some error in judgment, fact, or interpretation, by all means point it out. It may cause me to change my mind, as did some of Dr. Jarrett’s arguments, and I’m not too stubborn to change my mind in the face of good information. General comments about how to improve the blog are also welcome. Perhaps I should include photos or other images, or something else. Let me know what you think so I can make this as useful to others as I think it has been for me.


[2] Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways to Power (London: Royal Historical Society, 2010).

[3] Cullen J. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897,” Early Medieval Europe 11 (2002): 19-44.

[4] Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over past and future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses,” Early Medieval Europe 12 (2003): 229-258.

[5] Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010): 320-342.

[6] The record of the dispute, dated to 812 reveals that the land in question had become property of the hispani immigrants because they (or their ancestors) had held the land by royal permission for at least thirty years. The document is published in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, ed., Catalunya Carolíngia vol. 2, in 2 parts: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1926-1952), 312-314.

Here we go!

I’m not a natural born writer. By that I mean to say that I’m not somebody who has always had a burning desire or deep-seated need to get all kinds of thoughts onto paper (or the internet) before my head burst. But the more I’ve come to think about it, my head has always been filled with all manner of stuff. I had stories floating around in there when I was in fifth grade, only I acted them out with action figures (anybody remember He-Man?). I drew maps of the worlds these characters inhabited, backstories for their current deeds, the whole bit. I created alternate realities throughout high school and college, even if it was using Madden Football to create players and teams and leagues that nobody ever knew about but me. And maybe other things that I can’t recall right now. But never did I feel the need to write a story. In fact, my attempts at writing stories–or even worse, poetry–came only when required by school. And they were terrible. So, I’ve never considered myself to be a writer.

These days, though, I see myself–or rather want to see myself–as a writer. I know that I write stuff all the time: email messages primarily, but also letters of recommendation, reports for work, that kind of thing. I have also written a few scholarly papers in my time, for conferences and for publication. Throw in several book reviews, and it looks like I’ve written plenty for public consumption, for somebody who’s not really a writer. That’s not good enough anymore. For the last ten years, I’ve needed to be a better and more dedicated writer than I have been.

I used to stay up at night, losing sleep to all the thoughts and ideas running through my head. Not ideas about fantastical characters in faraway lands, unless that’s what you consider the people who lived in and governed the Carolingian Spanish March in the ninth century. I had ideas about how to structure the introduction to a book on the Spanish March, what to put in each of the chapters. I even got out of bed on a couple of occasions to write down what I considered at the time to be real gems, sentences that expressed where I was coming from or that I figured would be a really cool way to grab a reader’s interest. Many, many times I would get up and walk around in the middle of the night, get a drink of water or whatever, trying to deal with these ideas. I got caught in an infinite loop, I now realize, because I never gave those thoughts and ideas an outlet. They remained trapped in my mind, and I remained stuck in a rut, making no progress.

That’s why this blog exists. For too long, I have made excuses about not writing. I stand by many of them, because I love teaching and advising and so spend more time than serious scholars would say (um, have said) I should. I’m on too many committees. I put my family first, vowing not to be that guy who acknowledges the family he had to basically abandon in order to work on the book. That left not much time for research and writing. A couple of years ago, or maybe three or four, I realized that I would have to change up priorities in order to work on the book. I ended up leaving family for several weeks to go to Barcelona so that I could research in the archive. But during the school year, there have been enough other things to keep research and writing on the back burner. More like the side table. In the neighbors’ house. Across the street.

And so I came to the decision to start a blog. It’s more for me: to give me an outlet so ideas don’t get jammed up in my head, to give me a space to vent them before I start “really” writing, to give me a reason for continuing to make progress of some kind. But the good thing about blogs I’ve read and subscribed to is that others can see what’s up and offer feedback. That’s even better than doing it just for me! With that said, don’t expect to see funny stories of things that happened on campus. I do not intend to chronicle conferences. If a personal anecdote is the way to get a post started, then so be it, but this is a space for pre-drafting, for responding to things I read, and for working out the convoluted morass of my mind. Thanks for making it this far through my initial rambling rant. Here we go!