I was born in India, and spent most of my time from early
childhood until I was in my twenties studying music: I have studied both North Indian
classical music (the former quite intensively, the latter relatively
cursorily). I studied sitar with
Uma Shankar Mishra, israaj, and most extensively tabla (which I studied with B S
Ramanna and Shabbir Nisar), and later violin and viola. I started learning German
at sixteen, mainly because of my interest in music, but as I got familiar with
the language, I became increasingly fascinated by the literature too. After two
years of German and six weeks spent in Germany on a scholarship from the Goethe Institut, I began to work as a
freelance translator, and I also started teaching music. It became increasingly
apparent that for a variety of reasons, life as a professional musician was not
for me; and commercial translating, while paying well, was not really the way I
wanted to live my life. This realisation led to my move from
I have tried to maintain an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the middle ages, in which the ‘discipline’ is as important as the ‘inter’; for this reason, I have strived to acquire a thorough grounding in the auxiliary disciplines (palaeography, diplomatics and textual criticism), in historical research of various kinds (cultural, social, economic), and in philology (in the broadest sense, including the study of both languages and literatures). I am concerned, primarily, with trying to understand what I believe to be the fundamental aspects of medieval culture and society. Many of the questions I choose to ask are, in different ways, still relevant today; my interest in the past is, while hopefully not teleological, unabashedly fuelled by a desire to understand something fundamental about human nature, and thus I hope (without wishing to be crudely utilitarian in any way) that a better understanding of medieval people might also provide some wisdom about human society today as well. I was inspired as a teenager by the scholarship of Eric Hobsbawm, Johan Huizinga, and E. P. Thompson, and by the novels of Umberto Eco, and though I cannot claim either any particular affinity with their methods, interests, or approach, nor, obviously, any aspiration to their greatness, something of that inspiration remains with me still, in that I do my best to combine my interests in literature and culture with an understanding of the historical bases of that literature and culture; and I remain deeply interested in the experiences and travails of ordinary people, as I believe it is a responsibility of the historian to ensure that they—the silent majority of the past—are not forgotten in our increasingly unremembering age.
My early inspirations in history have certainly conditioned the directions of some of my own research as well, in particular two long-standing interests, in social and economic history, and in the cultural and social history of death. Economic history is seen as boring by many, I know—but I believe that understanding the basics of human existence is a fundamental part of historical research, and for me, the field is very much derived from the etymological sense of the word ‘economy’: I am interested in understanding how the ‘household’ in the broadest sense, functions. This means that I see economic history as a study not simply of numbers and data, but a means of understanding human social relations and the ways in which these change, since I believe that the ways in which people relate to the material world around them as well as to other people and human institutions condition and shape each other and have a profound effect on (and are affected by) other aspects of human life and striving. Economic history, in other words, can and should encompass all other branches of history, or at least be informed by them—just as other aspects of history must be nourished by understanding of the material bases of life without which the culture of the middle ages could not have existed. Here my inspiration has long been Hobsbawm’s effort to understand the links between economics and culture, or, to put it differently, between base and superstructure. The medieval literature that I love would not have been possible without the economic conditions in which it was produced, not least because for it to be written, the patrons required a certain amount of wealth, and while I have no clue how these things relate, it is surely not a coincidence that the great blossoming of literary culture in the Middle High German Blütezeit took place concurrently with a rapid growth in the German economy.
Inspired by a graduate seminar taught by Lawrin Armstrong, I began some years ago a project that will take up a good many further years of my life, trying to understand the transitions to capitalism in medieval and early modern Europe, in which I compare developments in Germany and England between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. Over the course of my research I felt the need to reframe the question somewhat, asking instead how it is that human societies moved from worlds in which most people themselves produced most of what they needed to survive, to one in which most of us produce very little or nothing of what we need for our subsistence. This is not the same thing as a transition to capitalism, but it is a necessary prerequisite, and a transition that has not, in my view, as yet been adequately understood. My work on these questions has resulted in a number of publications so far. The most theoretically ambitious of these is a theoretical and historiographic paper (inspired by, inter alia, the ‘Brenner debate’ and its more recent echoes), in which I argue that the debate on transition to capitalism needs to be re-framed, moving away from the view of England as an exception to normal pre-modern socio-economic formations, and therefore as the rule that had to be followed by countries making later transitions; I argue also that one must ask about the origins of capitalisms rather than a single capitalism, as there were different (and not mutually exclusive) paths to the development of different forms of industrial capitalism by the end of the nineteenth century. I suggest that in addition to England, other regions of Europe, and indeed potentially other parts of the world, progressed to highly commercialised and market dependent economies, even within so-called ‘feudal’ constraints. The key aspect of my argument is the growth (to a position of numerical dominance) of the ‘sub-peasantry’: the rural population that had not enough land for its subsistence, and was thus in one way or another dependent on the market; the other key aspect of my argument is that there are different kinds of market dependence, not all of which are necessarily equally ‘capitalist’. Thus I suggest that we need to differentiate between ‘commercialisation’ and ‘capitalism’, and understanding both the growth of the one, and the transition to the other, is something that can only be done in a comparative and long-term perspective. The purpose of my article (published in 2015 in the Journal of Agrarian Change) is to set out a hypothesis regarding the role of the sub-peasantry in the transition to capitalism, as well as the other factors that were needed for such a transition.
While working on this project, it has become increasingly clear to me that these kinds of large historical questions can only be addressed in a broad comparative perspective, and particularly with regard to questions of commercialisation and transitions to capitalism, it is crucial that one also considers developments outside Europe. I have therefore been devoting increasing effort to following the the debate on the ‘Great Divergence’ between Europe and Asia and learning about the economic and social histories of various Asian regions, in particular South Asia, but also China, Japan, and the Ottoman empire. An initial result of this work, which suggests that the ‘divergence’ debate needs to be linked to that on transition to capitalism, and attempts to reformulate to some extent (following the lead of two recent books by Prasannan Parthasarathi, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and R. Bin Wong) the framework of the debate, was recently published in the Journal of Early Modern History. A further paper, not explicitly on the debate on ‘divergence’, but rather a lengthy review essay on the economy of early modern India, has also recently been published in Modern Asian Studies as a part of a debate with Tirthankar Roy of the LSE.
These papers are all more or less theoretical; one of the issues I have faced is that for the region and period that I myself study, the German-speaking parts of medieval Europe, there has so far been insufficient empirical study of these issues. I have thus commenced (in 2015) on a long-term project examining the commercialisation of rural society in southern Germany in the later middle ages (with a focus on regions in the modern land of Bavaria, but also including parts of what are now Baden-Württemberg and Tyrol in Austria). Inspired not least by Richard Britnell’s book on England, this project will entail detailed studies of roughly 15,000 pages of sources from over 25 landlords from this region; a small percentage of these sources have been published, but most will be drawn from the deposits of the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv in Munich, as well as archives in Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Regensburg. The sources are primarily rent and income lists (polyptychs, rentals, or land surveys), as well as manorial accounts; the last type of source has been exploited with great effect for years in studies of England, but medieval German manorial accounts have scarcely been studied, and this project will be the first to undertake a large-scale evaluation of manorial accounts for Germany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The sources will need to be mined for data with regard to, among other issues, levels and forms (natural or money) of rents, prevalence of land sales and the nature of the land market, demographic data, incidence of non-agricultural production, and holding sizes, all of which will help to determine the levels of dependence on and involvement in the market; this work will involve creating a very large and complex dataset from thousands of individual documents. Simultaneously, I will also have to undertake a very thorough evaluation of the vast literature on social and economic change in this period, not just in Europe (where the focus will be on Germany, central Europe, the Low Countries, and England, but where other regions, predominantly France and Italy, will also need to be considered), but also in Asia (southern and western India, southern China, and Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, which last has thus far been largely absent from the ‘Divergence’ debate). This project builds on a paper published in 2014 in Agricultural History Review, in which I examined evidence for commercialisation in the polyptych of the abbey of Ellwangen in Baden-Württemberg in the mid-fourteenth century; I completed a further paper, this time on the account books of Scheyern Abbey, in spring 2016. This will be the first publication arising from my larger project on rural Bavaria that should, in the next ten years or so, result in a clutch of further papers (both empirical studies of this region, and more theoretical and comparative papers) and a monograph. Eventually, I would hope to be able to bring together the insights gained from this sort of ground-up empirical work, a wide range of comparative reading, and of course teaching, to produce a synthesis on the socio-economic transformations in western Europe c.500–c.1600—but that is a long way off still!
As I work on this topic, I get increasingly interested in the history of histories (and theories) of capitalism, and I hope that at some point something will come out of this interest. This would tie in to something else I find increasingly fascinating: the culture of early capitalism. The interest in this derives, at least in part, from the present moment in our economic, social, and cultural history, and from the fact that I am more and more convinced that the transformation of social relations to capitalism was not solely, perhaps not even primarily, an economic or materialist development, but had to do fundamentally with mentality and culture. It was not always the case that constant growth, constant increases in consumption, and the pursuit of profit over all else, were seen as absolute requirements of politics, economic policy, and indeed (it sometimes seems from what one reads) the primary goals of human life. In past societies, there have often in fact been severe moral, ethical, or religious constraints on pursuing profit and excessive consumption; how, when, and why did this change? Trying to understand the evolution of a ‘capitalist mentality’ is tantamount to trying to comprehend the origins of what we think of as modernity: not just a phenomenon of economic organisation, but rather, fundamentally a matter of transformation of culture and values.
At a rather more down-to-earth level, and connected with my interest in producing work that is also pedagogically useful, I would like at some point (if I ever actually manage to find some time) to put together a collection of primary sources (in translation) for early medieval economic history. From my work on this subject, I’ve found that the primary sources, not being intended for economic historians, are often very hard to find, scattered all over the place in the most unlikely of works; many of them are published in periodicals or series that are not easily accessible, and some have not been edited for a very long time indeed, making them even more difficult to locate. A collection would provide a useful tool both for students and for practicing historians, since it could put the important sources in one place, and provide brief introductions to the problems of the various different kinds of material (e.g. Carolingian polyptychs; cartularies; hagiographies; coins and other archaeological finds), as well as a brief discussion of some of the problems involved in understanding an translating this material. This would, I hope, be coupled with a synthesis (though hopefully not quite a ‘textbook’) on medieval (or pre-modern) Germany, something I keep thinking about, and for which I already have an outline, but alas no time to write it. It is certainly an important desideratum: there exists no good synthesis in English of medieval German history, and even in German, there is nothing up-to-date that really balances the various aspects—economic, social, political, cultural—in one volume.
Economy and society, then, comprise one aspect of my research; cultural, intellectual, and literary history is the other, and here, my main foci have been Middle High German literature, principally the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach; Old Norse literature, mainly the Edda and the Old Norse kings’ sagas; and related to the last topic, medieval historiography and the uses of the past(s). My primary interest in Middle High German literature remains the period known as the Blütezeit, and of the authors of this period, my main focus is on Wolfram von Eschenbach. My first publication was a paper on his Willehalm (in Euphorion ), in which I examined the confluences of ideas expressed by Wolfram and those current in the theological thought of the period, and attempted to add to the growing body of recent work that demonstrates how Wolfram, like some of his contemporaries, was heavily influenced by current theological and philosophical ideas, but nevertheless articulated a vision of the world that was more grounded in the realities of everyday life—without necessarily being completely overwhelmed by the ‘worldly’ concerns of the courtly context in which his texts were received. A second paper on Wolfram, this time on his Parzival, was published in March 2008 in the Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte; this is, to my knowledge, the first paper ever written devoted to the figure of Parzival’s wife, Condwiramurs, and also looks at, among other issues, Wolfram’s reactions to social and religious currents of his time, including, specifically, the notion of holy war and religious knighthood.
On Wolfram, I am working, with my old teacher Martin Jones, on a paper revisiting, and hopefully saying something new about, the major questions in Parzival: the problem of sin and grace, and how and why (and indeed whether) Parzival absolves himself of the one and attains the other; a draft of c.25,00 words was completed over Christmas, and (depending on both our other commitments) this paper should be ready for submission in 2015. A further longer study I hope to work on the next couple of years is conceived of, in part, as a response to Dennis Green’s last book, and concerns Wolfram’s views on women and marriage, and his presentation of utopian ideals in Parzival and Willehalm, but also his ultimate despair in the face of the social realities of his time. Finally, stimulated by a comment in Joachim Bumke’s Wolfram handbook, I have been thinking about the place of politics in Parzival, and how this sits within the context of contemporary political practice and theory, as well as how Wolfram’s text compares in this regard to versions of the story in other languages—an interest that brings me back to the connections between literature and history. Given that the last introduction to Parzival in English was written half a century, I am also—once again with Martin Jones—beginning to plan the writing of a new introduction to this text, aimed at students at all levels and scholars in cognate fields, but a book that we hope might also have a few small insights to contribute even to experts.
I retain therefore my interest in Middle High German literature, primarily Wolfram, but also in the works of Gottfried, Hartmann, Walther and Heinrich von Morungen, in particular in the ways in which these secular authors formulated what I like to think of as a ‘lay theology’: an idea of God and His relationship to the human world that was not identical to the theology of the schools and the theologically trained elites. Whether or not there are any common elements in the ideas enunciated by these authors, which join them in their difference from clerical theology, is something I am as yet uncertain about; even less certain is whether their views on the subject may be taken as representative of the courtly milieu in which they worked. Nevertheless, they provide as close a glimpse into the lay piety of around 1200 as we can get, and thus my work on the Middle High German Blütezeit is linked, in its themes, to my overarching interest in the religion of the laity in the Middle Ages.
If my interests in literature and history seem to be quite schizophrenic, with no real interdisciplinary bridge, my doctoral dissertation genuinely did, I think, straddle the disciplinary divides across which I try and work. It was an effort (inevitably not entirely successful) to understand some ways of imagining the past, stemming from a belief that some of the fundamental questions in any culture I know of concerns origins: where do we come from, how did we get here, and how does our past define us? In today’s multicultural world, we know all too well how divisive such questions and their various answers can be; but we also know how they may potentially have a unifying force. The early middle ages were also, in rather different ways, a period of cross-cultural contact and flux, and in my dissertation, I examined the ways in which historians writing about the new political entities formed after the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the west used concepts of the past, and to what purpose. The post-Roman world in western Europe inherited three broad means of conceptualising the past: Biblical, Roman, and ‘barbarian’ (the concept of the barbarian is far too complex to discuss here, and wikipedia is, I fear, not to be trusted with such things). The first two are relatively well-documented (though much needs to be done on understanding their use by medieval historians); the barbarian past remains a shadowy sceptre for us, visible only through the lens of Latin, Christian learning. My main focus was how this barbarian past was accessed, and integrated into a notion of history that was primarily Roman and Biblical; I examined these issues through a study of histories by Jordanes, Isidore of Seville, Paul the Deacon, the Fredegar chronicle, the Liber Historiae Francorum, the Latin heroic epic Waltharius, Beowulf, and (more briefly) the shorter vernacular texts from the ninth and tenth centuries that address the question of the past. The ideas that were eithe rformulated in the early middle ages or are projected back into them by modern scholarshop remained, in many cases, albeit in hugely altered form, very influential for the whole of the middle ages, and indeed often still have an influence today: it is important to remember, North America, that people do still care, in France and Germany, about whether or not Charlemagne was ‘German’ or ‘French’! Concepts of identity and nationhood first vaguely articulated in the middle ages have often been used in the times since, but unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion of medieval and modern concepts, leading to rather woolly and unnecessarily anachronistic readings of medieval views of identity. In my work, I tried to understand not so much the ‘facts’, such as they are, but rather the emotive and political content and function of historiography: why was a certain past remembered, and not others, what functions did it have, and what did people feel about their past(s)? It took me six years, but my dissertation, now substantially revised, has finally been published in the form of my second monograph, as volume 24 in Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages (click here for a pdf of the introduction). Given how heated debates on barbarians tend to get, I await the reviews with interest…
Earlier fruits of my interest in the uses and representation of the past in the middle ages include my first (and generally well-received) monograph that examines the historical value of the kings’ sagas (narratives about medieval Scandinavian, primarily Norwegian, kings), non-native influence in Scandinavian historiography, and the uses of the past in medieval Iceland (click here for an excerpt). An earlier paper, on the prehistory of Germanic heroic poetry, links my interest in early medieval historiography and Old Norse literature; I argued here against current theories regarding how historical events were transformed into literature, and examine the possible stages of transmission of the legend of the fall of the Burgundians (known to us mainly from the Edda and the Nibelungenlied) to the close of the Carolingian period. This paper appeared in Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Dichtung in 2007. I’ve also worked on the historiography of the Baltic crusades, and a paper on the presentation of crusade, conversion and customs of the heathens in Henry of Livonia’s Chronicon Livoniae and the Livländische Reimchronik recently appeared in the journal Crusades. With two books and two articles on medieval histories published in the past decade, I’m quite happy to take a break from the subject for a while, but I retain an interest in historiography, with current projects (that will, I must admit, probably take some years to complete, given how many things I have on the boil concurrently) including studies of the use and creation of the early Norwegian past in the kings’ sagas and the skaldic verse they use, in particular the so-far relatively little-studied compilation known as Fagrskinna.
The past is one thing; one of the greatest concerns of
people in the past, as in the present, was and is: the future. Where do we go
when we die, how do we ensure it’s a good place, and how do we control or
influence the actions of those who remain alive after us? This can, in a very
general sense, be called the social and cultural history of death, and of
attitudes to it. For medieval people, the concern with death was more important
than we can imagine, since Christian theology was, for much of the period,
based on the notion of an afterlife, and on ways of ensuring that one had a
‘good death’ so that one would be among the elect on the Day of Judgement.
Perhaps especially in the late medieval period, after the devastation of the
plagues, the concern with death becomes a very prominent theme in art and
literature; from this period, we also have an increase in numbers of
documentary sources, the most important of which are the hundreds of wills
extant from many urban centres of Europe. I first started working on death as
an undergraduate, with a paper on the Totentanz-texts, Johannes
von Tepl’s Ackermann,
and Luther’s sermons.
I became dissatisfied with what I perceived as a disconnect between the
artistic and theological responses to death, and the facts of everyday life: I
was not convinced that the wholly negative view of life so prevalent in most
works dealing with death from the later middle ages was necessarily shared by
most ordinary people, even when they were at the point of death. This lead me
to start thinking about other kinds of sources from which I could get some idea
of people’s reactions to death at a more quotidian level. The result of my work
is two further as yet unpublished papers, on the wills of Braunschweig, which I need
to expand with consideration of wills and other sources stretching into the
sixteenth century (I have so far only worked with fourteenth-century material);
and a paper on gender and death in sixteenth-century Germany. Both need to be
expanded considerably to provide preliminary studies to what I hope will
eventually become a wide-ranging project on lay religious practice in late
medieval and early modern Germany. As I have by now worked on a number of
different sources, ranging from artworks and literary texts, through funeral
sermons and theological tracts, to wills, I am beginning to get some idea of
how I could approach a social and cultural history of death, or more broadly,
study lay religious practice in my period, using responses to the fact
of death as one of the main kinds of evidence. The big project on this subject
(which will hopefully happen at some point before I myself have to deal with
death in a more immediate manner—though I don’t expect I will start working
seriously on this project for at least another ten years) will examine
theological and literary texts, art, and also, more importantly, and central to
my purpose, evidence of a more quotidian kind, such as letters, wills, funeral
orations and sermons, biographies and autobiographies, and in some cases also
chronicles. Any conclusions would, of course, have to be examined against the
backdrop of what is known of economic, demographic and social conditions at the
time. I’m hoping I’ll be able to work on the period roughly between 1200–1700,
since this would allow me to test the evidence for changes caused by the
Reformation, and perhaps provide some additional depth to what we know of how
this series of events affected the lives of people in German-speaking
My research, then, has encompassed a range of subjects and sub-fields within the broad spectrum of medieval studies; my teaching has been (and will hopefully continue to be) similarly wide-ranging.
At Oxford, I taught both for the Faculty of History and the Sub-Faculty of German, and my teaching ranged from a first-year introduction to economic history through an upper-level survey of the central middle ages and a specialist course on the Carolingians to Middle High German and Old High German literature, Middle High German language classes, and an introduction to Old Norse. At the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto (where I have my primary appointment), I am responsible for teaching Latin language classes, and will also soon take on teaching diplomatics. Graduate seminars I have planned for the next few years include courses on everyday life in the middle ages, economic history, and death and dying in medieval Europe. I hope I won’t regret saying that I look forward also to opportunities to contribute to teaching literature in the Germanic languages, and I expect I shall eventually teach some Latin literature too. In the Department of History, my primary duty will be undergraduate surveys, but I hope also to develop upper-level courses where I might perhaps be able to range over a greater time-span, perhaps starting with a final-year seminar on the Great Divergence, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Pomeranz’s book.