Timothy Reuter

Timothy Reuter

Timothy Reuter was one of the finest British medievalists of my generation. He was a little younger than me, and I first came across him when he was recommended as someone who might prepare the maps of medieval Germany for my Atlas of World History, which he did with friendly efficiency and high scholarship. He was then at Exeter University, but moved to the  MGH in Munich soon after, and returned to the Chair of Medieval History at Southampton shortly after I went to Newcastle. Our paths ran parallel, but we met only once, at a conference in Utrecht in 1996. It was a singularly warm and fruitful encounter, and I looked forward keenly to the next, which never happened: it was easy to understand why his early and painful death so shocked and dismayed the many who had known him better. I was glad to have the opportunity to pay this tribute, in a review for the Journal of British Studies.

Timothy Reuter. Edited by Janet L. Nelson. Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006.

Timothy Reuter died in October 2002, at the age of 55. The collection of  papers which he had almost completed, seen through publication by Janet L. Nelson, is a fitting memorial to an outstandingly talented and creative medievalist and an apt, though uncompleted, epitome of his life’s work. Like so many exceptional  historians Reuter owed his originality in large part to a double inheritance: his father was German, he was born and educated in England, and he spent twelve years at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich between teaching appointments at the universities of Exeter and Southampton. The legacies of that formation included a keen sense of the differences between national  historiographies and traditions, and a profound, almost missionary commitment to the all too necessary task of improving the acquaintance  with one another of the two he knew best. That made him, among so many other things, the indefatigable translater of his selection of fundamental papers on The Medieval Nobility (Amsterdam, 1978) and Gerd Tellenbach’s The Church in western Europe from the tenth the early twelfth century (Cambridge, 1993), and the author of a fine introductory text, Germany in the Early Middle Ages, 800 – 1056 (London, 1991).  It is a pity that Medieval Polities does not contain a complete bibliography, though there is an excellent index, the more necessary because Reuter’s interests and comparisons ranged so widely.

Reuter was an active member of two historical communities, and much of his best work, even after his return to England, was published in German and remains unfamiliar among those to whom he wryly referred as his Anglolexic colleagues. In consequence this volume has a value well beyond that of most collected papers, for of its twenty-two papers five are published for the first time and seven, all among the most substantial, originally appeared in German (indicated in this review by (U) and (G) respectively: the number of each paper in this collection is also noted), amplifying and developing themes sometimes only touched upon in the English corpus. And these are not merely preliminary or epiphenomenal studies, hors d’oeuvres of books that never got written. An intellectual fastidiousness which allowed nothing to be glossed over, and exceptional sensitivity to every dimension of historical methodology, from the implications and connotations of language through the nature and limitations of source materials to the scrupulous assessment of the problem itself are consistently deployed even in relatively slighter pieces like the review article on ‘Pre-Gregorian mentalities’ (5), the powerful intervention in the Past and Present debate on the ‘feudal revolution’ (4), or ‘Whose race, whose ethnicity?’ (6, U), with its gentle implication that the latter concept amounts to rather less than ‘recent medievalists’ discussion’ has made of it. Those qualities made the learned article or paper Reuter’s natural medium. And as he remarked of his teacher Karl Leyser, whose own papers he edited with care and flair (Karl Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: 1, The Carolingian and Ottonian Centuries; 2, The Gregorian Revolution and Beyond, London, 1994), ‘to have preferred the article as a vehicle of expression by no means implies an unwillingness to take a broad view.’ The case for such a view is made implicitly and by example throughout, but explicitly and cogently in the Southampton inaugural lecture (U) from which the collection takes its title, and the thoughtful, ‘Medieval: another tyrannous construct?’ (2), which insist upon the insufficiency of national perspectives, and, in the context of world history, the pertinence and urgency of the continuing dialogue between past and present.

The common theme which shapes these papers is how political communities worked in a pre-literate world – a world in which ‘whatever view is taken about the role played by literacy and orality in the ninth or the twelfth centuries the oral was at least as important as the written: it was a world which depended in all sorts of ways on non-verbal communication in the form of ritual ceremony and gesture.’ That concern was already evident in Reuter’s classic papers on ‘The End of Carolingian military expansion’ (14) and ‘Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire’ (13), demonstrating the implications of dependence of political power on the profits of aggressive warfare, but in the new and newly translated papers it is systematically and skilfully pursued through the technique of ‘thick description’ – Geertz’s term is regularly used and his writings frequently acknowledged – and the insights that come with it into the nature and uses of symbol, gesture, and action. Before those insights can be applied it must be established to what extent and in what ways the sources can support them: the fascinating discussion of  ‘The insecurity of travel in the early and high middle ages: criminals, victims and their medieval and modern observers’ (3, G) shows that what appears to be the evidence on those matters is for the most part rhetorical, not sociological, illustrating not actual conditions but the attitude of the writer to the ruler of the day. The reading must be not only critical but scrupulous: by ‘Contextualising Canossa’ (9, U), we see that Gregory VII needed a resolution of their dispute just as urgently as did the Emperor, and examination of ‘symbolic acts in the Becket dispute’ (10, G) brings out the critical importance, overlooked by Knowles and Barlow among others, of Henry II’s public penance before the martyr’s tomb at Canterbury, in July 1174.

The new material focusses especially on two large, complex and inextricably interwoven themes, both classically central in the historiography – especially the German historiography – of medieval Europe, and both considerably advanced by the rigour and sophistication of Reuter’s treatment. ‘Assembley politics in western Europe from the eighth century to the twelfth,’ (11) a stimulating meditation on the nature of the political community of the early middle ages, and its persistence well into the twelfth century and beyond now combines with ‘Nobles and others: the social and cultural expression of power relations in the Midde Ages’ (7, G),  ‘Ottonian ruler representation’ (8, G), ‘Sex, lies and oath-helpers: the trial of Queen Uota (12, G), ‘Kings, nobles and others’ (17, G) and ‘Peace-breaking, feud, rebellion, resistance: violence and peace in the politics of the Salian era’ (19, G) to provide a coherent examination of the culture and social dynamics of the warrior aristocracy of Europe between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and hence an account of the nature and conditions of rulership, richer and subtler than any other known to this reviewer.

One conclusion that emerges persistently from these discussions, as it had done from Reuter’s thorough re-examination of ‘The “imperial church system” of the Ottonian and Salian rulers’ (18) is that when the difference between Germany and other parts of Europe is examined rather than assumed it is often less than we expect. So they lead ineluctably to, as indeed many of them arose from, what has been for the last two hundred years the central question for everyone interested in German history, directly addressed in ‘The medieval German sonderweg? The Empire and its rulers in the high middle ages’ (20). Why did German rulers ‘fail’ to develop the centralised systems of taxation, criminal justice and so on which elsewhere foreshadowed the modern state and constituted its foundations – a failure classically located somewhere in period in which Reuter was chiefly interested, between the reigns of Henry the Fowler (919 – 36) and Frederick Barbarossa (1152 – 90)?  Reuter was, of course, by no means the first to observe that it is a bad question, born of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the nation state and an excessively narrow conception of political history – the shallowness of the conventional formulation of questions about the personality and abilities of rulers is effectively brought out in ‘The Ottonians and Carolingian tradition’ (15, G) – but the sharpness of his criticism and the rich texture woven by his method brings new dimensions to the discussion. It is, obviously and inescapably, a comparative question, and unlike so many who in every national tradition address their perceivedly peculiar characteristics Reuter did not forget Kipling’s question, ‘What can they know of England who only England know’? Close comparison is notoriously limited by the differences between the interests and perspectives of the respective chroniclers, and by the wealth of adminstrative records on the one side as opposed to that of chronicles on the other, but in ‘The Making of England and Germany, 850 – 1050’ (16) and ‘Kings, nobles and others’ (17, G) we are shown how that reflects profound differences in social structure and aristocratic culture as well as in the position of the monarchy. In the concluding essays, on ‘techniques of rulership in the age of Frederick Barbarossa’ (21, U) and ‘the emergence of pre-modern forms of statehood in the central middle ages’ (22, G) those perspectives are harnessed to a remarkable insight. For the  rulers of   eleventh- and  twelfth-century Europe – its warrior aristocracy, including  monarchs – the institutions which have so dominated modern historiography were of secondary importance at best. The raising of taxes was not an end in itself, but a means to the end of securing the resources necessary for the display, generosity and warfare that the conduct of noble life demanded. If the German Emperors did not develop  centralised institutions, Reuter suggests, it was largely because they did not need to:  it seems that they always disposed (during the period under discussion here) of ample means. From this perspective national and regional differences were relatively insignificant: ‘the great assemblies, sittings of the royal court, festal coronations and the conduct of ‘international relations’ looked astonishingly similar right across Europe in the central middle ages.’