An illumination of a feast

Transnationalism at Court, University of Liège – 21st and 22nd March 2019

After a series of study days held in Oxford, the MALMECC team co-organized a conference at the University of Liège with the local research unit Transitions: Moyen Âge et première Modernité. Focused on the much debated question of ‘Transnationalism’, it gathered researchers from both the continent and from the UK. Speakers continuously crossed disciplinary borders and historiographical traditions, creating great discussions during the conference and dinner.


After welcoming speeches by Marie-Élisabeth Henneau (co-director of Transitions) and Karl Kügle (MALMECC Principal Investigator), the audience quickly entered the main conference theme, Transnationalism and fourteenth century Europe. Through the case study of the late medieval Luxemburg dynasty, Michel Margue and Eloïse Adde addressed the central question “is it relevant to use the modern concept of ‘Transnationalism’ when studying a period, the Middle Ages, which did not know ‘nations’, in the sense of the modern concept?” The answer seemed to lie in the multiple tensions that continuously shaped medieval courts around multi-faceted, successive or simultaneous, cultural influences. “Transnationalism” was a phenomenon first conceived in the modern sense in the context of the geopolitics of the 1960s . It was intended to take into account political actors that were not themselves national states—even if some of them ultimately so—but nonetheless had an important role in politics (e.g. during the decolonization process). The concept of transnationalism may thus help us to understand that there was no such thing as a clear, homogeneous and undebated courtly identity in the Middle Ages. The weight of cultural actors did not depend on how close they were to the centre, and peripheries could also create lasting models, which were sometimes adopted by the centre itself.


Nicola Morato then drove discussions concerning the difficulty of following the popularity of a text throughout its history. Reflecting on the Guiron cycle, he convincingly proposed than in order to get a better idea of this, we could use the stemma codicum. This kind of genealogical tree was originally created to follow the evolution of a text through history, each major change in it creating a new “family”. But this could also be used to consider which versions remained appreciated without major changes and how cultural context could explain major or minor, changes in texts (i.e. by introducing, reshaping or cutting off episodes).


Alain Marchandisse showed, through a careful study of marriages organised by the Burgundian Valois dynasty, (and more particularly some that involved their allies, the Rheinish family of the counts of Clèves), that weddings created the space for cultural transfers, but also that finding “foreign” husbands or wives was a way of strengthening a political power inside given geographical limits.


After a well-deserved lunch, two members of the MALMECC team introduced their research. David Murray emphasized how Pilgrim archbishop of Salzburg was a witness, if not a supporter, of the introduction of French, and more largely Latin musical and literate models into a Germanic city. This echoed what was discussed before, that there was hardly such a thing as a definitive and geographically-driven courtly model (or models) in fourteenth century Europe.


Laura Slater then thoroughly illustrated how counts of Namur, in modern-day Belgium, proved keen to emulate British fashion. They ordered several sets of needlework following the opus anglicanum (the British way). This was not just a political statement it seems, even if there were regular and strong connections between the Low Countries and England at the time. Aesthetic choices clearly went from one place to another as long as they looked nice, or should we say prestigious, enough to potential owners. This prevented the emergence of an overwhelmingly local, pre-national taste, and encouraged long-distance cultural transfers.


Mario Damen was the last speaker of the day. He dedicated his talk to a well-known, and very cinematographic expression of late medieval courtly life, tournaments. Going beyond the Huizinga view of a declining chivalry fooling itself with pointless ceremonials, Mario rightfully highlighted how these events were key in the ongoing reconfiguration of noble identity, amongst other things in its relationships with an ambitious, and possibly stronger than ever, overlord, in this case the duke of Burgundy, later succeeded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.


The second day of the conference started with a series of trips between Savoy and England, following the paths of Savoy military architects to Wales and English chivalric offerings to the Alpine earldom. Eva Pibiri made a case for how strong mutual influences partly shaped late medieval martial and chivalric practices. Savoy appears as an ideal model to understand how a princely court could serve as a crossroads of various influences.


Karl Kügle went on crossing borders by following ecclesiastics and music practitioners who did not confine their musical career to a single geographical area. Karl convincingly demonstrated that this approach appears to have been key not only for collecting high positions, such as pope, but also for ensuring the circulation of musical models.


In the last session, Christophe Masson studied the courts of the Avignon cardinals using transnationalism. He argued that cardinals contributed to the survival of the late medieval Church organization, and ensured their role inside it, by merging multiple influences into their cultural practices. Far from slavishly replicating their diplomatic choices, culture was used by cardinals to express that they were not just “nationals” from a given kingdom or principality but were strengthening and defending the universal power of the Church.


The last speaker of the conference was Jane Gilbert. Echoing the first presentation, she explored how the creation of noble or dynastic identities was produced by a constant dialogue between a number of actors. Moreover, the case she discussed, the one of an Alexandre manuscript, offered numerous examples where creators of the actual volume (that is scribes and painters) showed themselves shaping these aristocratic identities, through marginal illustrations and even inside the text itself.


The conclusions were delivered by Eric Bousmar. Amongst the several points he emphasized and connections he made, it is worth keeping in mind that courts were a nexus. Often ‘composite’, that is created by a personal union of various territories (see the dominions of the dukes of Luxemburg or Burgundy), late medieval polities may have gathered several courts, instead of merging all of them into one, as it was the case in “complete states” (such as the kingdom of France). Nonetheless, personal union and complete state appear quite close to each other on several levels. The number of transfers occurring at courts were extremely numerous. The non-existence of a (pre-)modern state did not prevent either local identity or shared cultures from developing. Additionally, all of these influences had so many origins (family, education, political obligations or ambitions, careers, personal experiences, to name but a few) that they should be considered as complementary, not as hierarchical. Transnationalism may thus be one of the tools we need to properly understand how states interacted in the Middle Ages, and how they were seen by fourteenth century courtiers.


The MALMECC project would like to thank all organisers and participants for their help in making the conference a success.  We look forward to seeing you again soon. 


top banner image: Royal 14 E IV  f. 244v, by permission of the British Library

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