New Directions for 2014

Happy New Year!

2014 is already shaping up to a big year for history, with anniversaries for Charlemagne, Bannockburn, WWI and – although you’ll probably miss it – the Edict of Paris (614 ‘Magna Carta for the French aristocracy’, y’know). And next year it will be Columbanus Year! So much fun.

Anyway, I thought I’d start the year with a post about Where I am Going, research-wise. That is, after all, part of the point of this blog. Research, however the media represents academia, is still a crucial and explicit part of my job rather than an indulgent sideline. But also, I thought it would serve a brief meditation on the challenges of picking new projects. There are more works of history being produced than at any other time in human history, there are political pressures, and there are no doubt technological curveballs to come.

So, yesterday I got good news about my second monograph, now tentatively retitled The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. It looks like the publisher is going to take it! Both anonymous readers enjoyed it thoroughly and thought it did important things. Now, a lot of people – even and especially colleagues – smirk a little at the idea of someone writing about the apocalypse because they immediately think of ‘crazy’ things like David Koresh at Waco or Harold Camping. But in fact End Times scenarios are hardwired into Christianity, Islam and Judaism and have played a not-inconsiderable role in shaping political institutions, social activity, art, maybe even natural science. Apocalypse is mainstream. Watch the news. Pay attention to the ways in which people apocalypticise events, especially when they encourage you to reform. That’s what apocalypse is about on the whole – not dates and charismatics.

It is always useful, as a medieval historian, to be able to write about topics which have ‘contemporary resonance’. Historians have often shaped their research in response to current affairs to a greater or lesser degree. (The historiography of the 1930s and 1940s is fascinating). This can bring scorn, of course. It is currently trendy to write about sex or China or Islam, leaving people who work on less exotic things to feel that perfectly good research is under-supported because it does not tick the boxes of a funding body or appointments committee. Also academics can be rather ‘indie’ – they don’t like sell-outs, who sacrifice their principles to write populist but pointless rehashes of well-worn topics or, worse, appear on TV. The most common advice I’ve been given while trying to think about what to do next is just to do what I want to do.

So what should Book III be? A publisher asked me the same day that I submitted the manuscript of Apocalypse whether I would consider writing a Big Book – 200,000 words – on the Frankish Church. This immediately appealed to me because I want to do more work on the Merovingian period, not least because it’s that wonderful transitional period between a Europe that looks ‘Roman’ and one which looks ‘medieval’. (People who work on the period will find that characterisation horribly lazy and problematic, but they will concede: lots of fundamental things changed). A book on the challenges of massive structural change in a Europe beset by economic and political problems compounded by large-scale migration and religious change. ‘Contemporary resonance’ comes ready-made.

But can one sell ‘the Frankish Church’ as a topic that needs doing? Is it sexy enough? Is a new history of ‘institutional religion’ useful to our understanding of Europe’s crises in the period (and, indeed useful to us, now)?

These problems are compounded by the demands of writing a Big Book. Such works are often part reference work, synthesising scholarship into a coherent whole. It could rapidly become ‘a big book of stuff’ rather than something with a clear intellectual purpose – although opinions of friends and colleagues are split here, as some believe that it should be relatively stuff-driven, and some believe that it should be relatively argument-driven. Will it say enough new to make it worth reading? Will it contain enough original research to make it ‘REF-able’? (REF is a national research audit in Britain in which the international excellence of our research is assessed on the basis of whether it has the quality of being excellent). Some people might also argue that the book is dead as a format anyway, but I think that long-form writing will still exist in some form or other, regardless of technology. Maybe it will just make big books more fun.

Another point might be that Michael Wallace-Hadrill has already produced a book called The Frankish Church. But that was 31 years ago and a great deal has happened in research in the period since then, including most of the output of Peter Brown, Jinty Nelson, Chris Wickham, Rosamond McKitterick inter alia. I could spend ages describing how the field has changed but I won’t because it would take ages.

The simple response to many of these issues is that ‘it will depend on how it is done’. These are the Big Issues which interest me at present, and which I think make the project worth pursuing:

  • The Frankish churches were crucial to the ‘transformation of the Roman world’ on at least two fronts: 1) they provided some form of institutional leadership when state structures receded, and then went on to dominate politics into the Carolingian period, and 2) they changed the moral codes by which communities lived, with both moral and economic consequences. (Think about it: if aristocrats were giving more money to founding and supporting churches, they were spending less on luxury goods…).
  • The Frankish churches provide fascinating cases of the interplay between the universal and the local. There are all these institutions notionally bound to the same ideals, practices and views on the future. And yet it was so diverse. Why? How significant was this diversity? How did different cultural interactions affect matters, such as when Irish and English Christians set up in the North? How sustainable was universality as the Frankish polities grew in size? How did Christian identities sit with ethnic or regional identities?
  • Relatedly, I am most interested at the moment in the ways in which Christian communities interacted with and conceptualised religious ‘others’ – predominantly pagans in the north, Muslims to the south and east, Jews anywhere, and also Easter Christian communities. These interactions were crucial to the ways in which different regions saw themselves and developed. (I will be talking more about this at the Ecclesiastical History Society meet in London on Saturday).

A new history of the Frankish Church would quickly become a study about Europe’s cultural diversity and regional responses to crises, perceived or real. And that, I think, would be worth pursuing. In time-honoured fashion there will be some articles on different aspects of this while I flesh out a proper thesis. And no doubt there will be more apocalypse. But that is where I am going in 2014.