What do you really want to know about the past?

When you think about the past, what do you really want to know? Do you want to know what people thought and felt, their philosophy or understand their spin? Or, do you really want to know what really happened? What was their world really like, not what they said it was like? Sure we are all a little curious about both, but when push comes to shove, what do you want to know the most? Where will you invest your time?  These are really two very different approaches. I’ll soon be reviewing two books here that both look at nature in the Middle Ages and take opposite approaches.

The best example I have found of these diametrically opposed approaches is on medieval epidemics. Some historians will argue that it doesn’t matter what the disease was, all that matters is its demographic effect. Scientists will argue that you can’t really know anything about the epidemic without trying to characterize it medically/biologically, if not identify it. For many classically trained historians of medicine, retrospective diagnosis is not only a fool’s errand and waste of time, but bad practice. It is taking a lot of coaxing for them to accept scientific evidence that can identify the disease, and alas, some will look for any little uncertainty to cling to to reenforce their training. Scientists don’t help themselves by writing awful historical introductions to their papers relying on secondary sources that are themselves vintage to say the least.

Anthropology has been dealing with both approaches for a long time. In 1967, linguist Kenneth Pike first proposed the terms emic and etic to describe the two approaches. Etic, from phonetic, refers to measurable and observable traits. For Pike this meant the body structures and environments that effect human sound production, and today speech and language pathologies. Emic, from phonemic, refers to human interpretations of sounds that vary by culture to produce different languages and interpretations of sounds.   Pike’s book, published in 1967, was met with mixed success but his concept of emic and etic approaches has stuck. Moving beyond linguistics, the terms can be applied much more broadly.

An emic approach is interested in how people conceptualized and understood their world. If you want to know what they were thinking or what they believed, then you are asking an emic question. This is a humanist oriented approach used to study literature and language, cultural history and anthropology, religion and philosophy, art, etc. To study the past, this approach relies over-whelmingly on manuscripts, inscriptions and art (or interviews).

An etic approach is interested in what the world was really like using observable and ideally measurable data. If you want to know what caused a famine, not just what contemporary people attributed it to, then you are asking an etic question. This is science-oriented approach used by climatologists, biologists, archaeologists, ecologists and environmental historians, economists and some historians, (for example those who study military science or technology). The etic approach may also use manuscripts, some narratives but more likely technical drawings, tax rolls, manoral accounts, and other records. The etic approach is values physical data like climate proxies (ice cores, tree rings, etc), osteological analysis, pollen analysis, and analysis of physical remains.

Many fields use both approaches to  a greater or lesser degree. Anthropology is a prime example, but even here subdivisions develop with some competition. For example, (from what I have seen) cultural anthropology and medical anthropology primarily use emic approaches while archaeology and biological anthropology use etic approaches.  Likewise, academically linguistics is split into departments of language and literature, vs. departments of speech pathology and therapy. On the other hand, there are historians who use a lot of archaeology in their work along with manuscripts. I’m thinking of early medievalists in particular. One of the advantages of fields like Anglo-Saxon studies is that it can unite both approaches in a single field.

So what is your approach to history? Emic or etic? I am curious what approach my readers favor, so please leave a comment.


Emic and Etic, Wikipedia.

Harris, Marvin. “History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1976, 329–50.

Green, Monica. “Taking ‘Pandemic’ Seriously: Making the Black Death Global” The Medieval Globe, issue 1 (forthcoming)

Addendum:  I admit that I used poor judgement in regards to using disease as an example of the emic/etic distinction. I failed to understand the importance of Monica Green’s priority in applying the concept to medieval disease, plague in particular, as previously discussed on the discussion list MedMed-L and in the forthcoming issue of The Medieval Globe (which I am also a contributor to). My intention was for this post to be a preamble to a review of Richard Hoffmann’s book An Environmental History of Medieval Europe and his independent use and discussion of emic/etic evidence, which is planned as the next post for this blog. I apologize to Dr Green and recommend her forthcoming article to you.


Trading in butter?

You just never really know when you are going to find something unexpected. I’ve known for a long time that early medieval Ireland had a heavily cattle based economy, really a dairy based economy. Most of this product would be used for local consumption,  as a primary source of both calories and protein. During my research for Kalamazoo this past spring, there were many things I learned that were along the lines of what I expected.

The Irish recognized several forms of milk and milk products. Law codes and other sources mention whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, cream, curds and whey, and nine different kinds of cheese (graded based on their chewiness!). Butter was a special food for the elite and eaten both fresh and salted. Out of these products, I would have expected cheese to be a primary foodstuff and a trading product. Afterall, cheese is the most durable dairy product. Yet, I really couldn’t find evidence for trade in Irish cheese.

Butter! Butter is the only dairy trading product mentioned. Why butter? Well, real butter doesn’t need refrigeration so it could be transported. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan found a letter between Waldebert and Bobolenus found within the prologue of Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, written in the 640s, that life at Bobbio in northern Italy was so austere that  the monks barely have enough Irish butter (‘ex Hibernia…butyrum’) to get by compared to the luxury Mediterranean goods at other monasteries. They view this as indicating that Irish butter was cheap and plentiful as far away as Italy. They note that in the 19th century, Irish butter was traded across the Atlantic without refrigeration so that it would have been possible. Ok, so we have Irish butter kings… (sounds odd) but never the less, still why butter rather than cheese? Perhaps since cheese is more durable, making butter was something only done where there really is a lot of excess milk, not often done in most areas with fewer cattle. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan calculate that an average productive medieval cow could produce about one pound of butter per day easily producing enough for trade and local consumption. That being said, Irish cattle management was not very advanced; many of their cattle would not have been productive. Cattle in Ireland at the time didn’t calf until age 4 and a calf had to be kept with them to keep them milking. There is little evidence of butchering calves or yearlings.

So for all the novelists out there, feel free to spread the butter around. Only put it on bread for elites though, because the poor didn’t have much bread at all. They ate mostly gruel or porridge made from barley or oats (essentially oatmeal). I imagine they cooked with a lot of milk, cream or butter for added nutrition and flavored with salt and honey. They could also add some meat (mostly pork) and vegetables including peas or  beans. I imagine ham and beans could have been on the menu occasionally.

(Another cattle based trade product was leather. Not just as raw leather hides but shoes are specifically mentioned in trade accounts. Irish ships arrived on the continent with clothing and shoes for trade.)



McCormick, F. (2008). The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland. Peritia, 20(-1), 209–224.

Kerr, T., McCormick, F., & O’Sullivan, A. (2013). The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland. (pp. 1–103). Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) program 2013. (open access)

McCormick, F., Kerr, T. R., McClatchie, M., & O’Sullivan, A. (2011). The Archaeology of Livestock and Cereal Production in Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100 (pp. 1–813). Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP2). (open access)

An Anniversary Survey

While I’m off at Kalamazoo, you all can help me determine the direction of Heavenfield for the near future. You can vote for more than once choice (or more than once).

Thanks for the feedback!

An Anniversary Update

This week is the seventh anniversary of Heavenfield. The emphasis has changed a lot here over those seven years. I am still interested in seventh century Northumbria! I’m just taking the long way around to get back to it. I’ve spent most of the last year reading and writing on modern plague research for a project that will be released this coming fall. I’m ready to get back to the medieval North Atlantic! I’ve got a couple new projects in mind that you will probably see here eventually. In the meantime, I’m heading off to Kalamazoo tomorrow and I plan on tweeting the Congress this year, so watch the twitter feed for news.

Ireland’s First Easter Vigil

This is one of my favorite posts from the Heavenfield archive:

From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:

“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this night before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.'”

[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness...]

“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)

Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):

“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”

Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.

Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.

Have a blessed Easter Sunday!


Celebrating St Cuthbert’s Day

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Durham Cathedral posted a few pictures of their celebration of St Cuthbert’s feast day this year (yesterday) on facebook. I thought I would share this one. This is from the evensong service after the procession at Cuthbert’s shrine in the Cathedral.

A picture of the shrine below comes from their facebook page. I wish I could see the banner on the wall better. I think its St Oswald on horseback with his raven. Oswald’s skull is still in the casket with St Cuthbert. The pre-Reformation status of Cuthbert holding Oswald’s head is along the wall near the top of the grave. It was damaged during the Reformation.

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

The shrine is an enclosed chapel behind the main alter but also near the back center of the cathedral. There are more alters along the back wall behind the chapel. It seems to be a pretty unusual plan, or better yet a survival of a pre-Reformation floor plan. It’s possible only because of the huge size of Cathedral. The only one I saw remotely similar was the tomb of the Black Prince and kings in Canterbury cathedral but those were much smaller. (I have to say that the sight of all the Black Prince’s war gear displayed in church really put me off.) I saw lots of large coffins/sculptures in the middle of the floor in many English churches, but not walled off like this one.