Dr. Erin Thomas Dailey is the professor of the Roman world and its aftermath, from late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages at the University of Leicester. His studies focus on the transformation of social practices and the emergence of new political, intellectual, and institutional structures within the post-Roman world. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds, published as Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite (Brill, 2015). His other landmark book is Radegund: Queen and Saint of the Merovingian Kingdoms (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2022). Dr. Dailey is also the co-editor of Monastic Space through Time (BIMR, 2013). Dr. Dailey has worked with the academic publishing industry as a Copyeditor, Developmental Editor, and Acquisitions Editor for Brepols Publications and Amsterdam University Press. He is currently conducting a vast project on the sexual exploitation of enslaved people within the households of the greater Mediterranean world, from the fourth to ninth centuries.
Dear Dr. Dailey, it is my great pleasure to interview you regarding your excellent research on the medieval world. Let’s start with this question: which period do you recognize as medieval?
My research stretches from the late third century to the early tenth century, a period that can fairly be described as both ancient and medieval. It is a difficult period to label, because it was one that experienced profound change – and this problem of labelling is the first challenge faced by anyone working on the period. But such change is precisely what interests me most. At the beginning of the period, the Roman and Persian Empires opposed one another across a Syriac and Arabic frontier. But as the period progressed, the Roman Empire lost its Latin lands, which became ‘barbarian’ kingdoms. People went from being Romans to thinking of themselves as Franks, Goths, or some other new identity. Then the old frontier between Rome and Persia became a centre of a new empire, a Caliphate ruled first from Damascus, then Baghdad. Similar shifts in identity occurred in this new landscape as well. And, of course, there is a religious transformation, in which a polytheistic world faded away and monotheisms sharpened into view. How did that happen? And what did it mean for the people who experienced it?
Can you please explain a little about the content of your remarkable book, Queens, Consorts, Concubines, Gregory of Tours, and Women of the Merovingian Elite? How did you get interested in this subject?
The writings of Gregory of Tours – a sixth-century bishop, historian, and hagiographer – are filled with interesting stories. There are cruel overlords, religious frauds, ambitious slaves, and fierce warriors, set alongside powerful saints, righteous bishops, and industrious peasants. Scholars have long been attracted to these subjects, for their historical importance and, if honesty is allowed a hearing, for their entertainment value. It’s a profoundly interesting corpus of works to study. Gregory also had a lot to say about women, including women who were absolutely crucial to the history of the period. Yet scholarship has spent considerably less time investigating these subjects. My own interest was first captured when I read Gregory’s account of rebellious nuns in Poitiers, who ransacked their monastery in an ultimately failed attempt to remove their abbess from power. The book elucidates Gregory’s opinions about the women who were important to him and to his moment in history and speculates about their motives and goals.
The Merovingians ruled over a territory that once was part of the Roman Empire. In your book, you mentioned that Merovingians identified themselves as distinct from other kingdoms, and from the Roman inhabitants of Gaul, such as Gregory himself (who calls them “barbarians”). Can you please explain how Merovingians were different from other kingdoms that appeared after the collapse of Rome?
The Merovingians and their Frankish elite had legends and stories about their origins. One fanciful story implied they were the offspring of some sort of sea monster. Another claimed they were a lost remnant of the Trojans. The Merovingians had such stories because they needed to create a sense of identity that made them distinct, and superior, to other barbarian groups, when in fact they were not so different from the other people who took over a portion of the Roman Empire.
When the Roman Empire lost its political control over vast swathes of its own territories, the people who lived in these regions (like Gaul, for example, which eventually fell into the hands of the Merovingians) did not immediately stop thinking of themselves as Romans. Just as we would not immediately exchange our own identity if we found ourselves under the rule of some new group of elites. The new rulers came from groups of people that Romans had long called ‘barbarians’. The Merovingian royal family, for instance, led a people (initially, more of a warband) known as the ‘Franks’, who had long fought alongside the Romans, as well as against them, in the tumultuous events of the fifth century. The Franks and their Merovingian royal dynasty came to rule over Gaul and to establish in these old Roman heartlands a kingdom larger and more powerful than any other in the West. Their power and influence are probably their most distinguishing feature (and they knew it).
Your research is focused on the late Roman Empire and its aftermath, from late Antiquity through the early Middle Ages, which is a very important transitional period in history. Do you see a big transition in the slavery system, especially women slavery? For example, did Christianity try to stop or change the slavery system?
Roman society distinguished between the slaves who worked the land of great estates, and those who fulfilled household tasks. The former has been the main focus of research until recently, with historians attempting to track how these field slaves gradually became medieval serfs. The latter has not been examined as extensively, even though their proximity to the free elite – sharing the same intimate space every day – suggests that they were of major significance in this time of social upheaval. Most domestic slaves were women or children (though certainly not all). Their experience was defined by their vulnerability, including physical and sexual abuse, and this condition remained remarkably stable despite the turmoil and transformation of the period. The spread of Christianity did not lead to a stop in this system. The Church-owned slaves, associated with ecclesiastical properties, throughout the period, and Christian moralists voiced little opposition to the practice of slavery itself, even if they had ideas about how slavery should and should not operate.
You have written at least two fantastic papers on Monasticism. Can you please explain a little this concept and how it spread throughout the medieval world?
Monasticism represents the effort of individuals, alone or in groups, to reject the world and its temptations in pursuit of holiness and the rewards of the afterlife. ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world’, reads the biblical First Letter of John, ‘If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them, for everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.’
These ideas had roots in Near Eastern society prior to the emergence of Christianity, but monasticism came to hold an important and distinctive place in the practices of the Christian Church. Groups of like-minded individuals lived together in communities as unmarried people vowed to a life of sexual abstinence, who practiced self-discipline and self-denial – fasting frequently, wearing humble clothes, secluding themselves within a monastery, and spending much time in prayer and devotion. These monasteries became important in their own right and, although the monks and nuns were pledged to a life of simplicity and poverty, the institutions themselves accumulated much land and wealth. They became centres of production and knowledge, part factory and a part powerhouse of prayer. This tension created opportunities for corruption that, in turn, necessitated reform, on a cyclical basis.
In the Quran (Surah Al-Hadid), monasticism is described as an effort by men and women to please God, one that they invented but then failed to observe diligently. ‘We gave their reward to those of them who believed, but many of them are wicked’ (57:54). That critique, appearing in what is essentially a seventh-century text, expressed a critique particularly relevant to the period, one that emphasized the distance between ideal goals and practical outcomes, and the continuous need for reform, in a manner that deeply understands the dynamics at work in the monastic movement.
In ‘Confinement and Exclusion in the Monasteries of Sixth-Century Gaul’ and ‘Introducing Monastic Space: The Early Years, 250–750’ (in Monastic Space through Time) you examine the relationship between Monasticism and Space and how it has changed or continued through time. Can you explain a little more about this subject?
Monasticism began with a few intrepid individuals journeying into the desert, the wilderness, to draw closer to God in the absence of the world and its temptations. But it led to the creation of large monastic complexes, centres of production where wealth was concentrated and expressed in monumental buildings. That historical process can only be understood if ‘space’ is examined as an object worthy of historical study. Monasteries created a relationship with the outside world by establishing various layers of seclusion, like a temple with its inner sanctum, its anterooms, and its forecourt. The process by which this development occurred, and not without opposition, reveals much about the dynamic forces at work in early medieval society.
For conducting such distinguished research, you are equipped with certain skills like reading manuscripts or knowing multiple languages. Can you please explain how these skills and knowledge helped you do the research?
For me, the most important skill when reading an ancient text is the ability to read between the lines. Texts should not be treated simply as quarries to be mined for information. They are, instead, a dynamic conversation between author and audience, in which the norms and expectations of wider society are detectible. Language skills are, of course, very important, since the original form of the text contains much nuance that is lost in translation.
Does medieval history attract many minds of scholars and students in England?
Yes certainly. The medieval period left its mark on the landscape of England, from Anglo-Saxon churches that survive (and even remain in use), to the great earthwork barrier along the Welsh border known as Offa’s Dyke. Many who encounter these monuments experience a curiosity for the period that they wish to explore as students or as professional scholars. Others encounter some of the fantastic artifacts that have survived from the period and are on display in museums, or manuscripts in archives. For some, inspiration comes instead of a journey to another location, perhaps family holidays to France, which leads to an interest in the subject. Some people with a family heritage that traces beyond England study medieval history as a means of encountering a past that is of particular interest to them, perhaps with an eye to connections between medieval England and another part of the medieval world. This sort of research topic is full of surprises. Take the gold dinar of the aforementioned Offa, for example, a coin minted in England by an eighth-century king, that lists his name on what is otherwise a copy of a dinar by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, complete with the Kalimah ‘there is no God but Allah alone’.
Can you please let us know about your forthcoming book Radegund: Queen and Saint of the Merovingian Kingdoms?
This book will be published in 2022, which is (as best as can be ascertained, at least), the 1500th anniversary of Radegund’s birth. It is a biography of the sixth-century queen, whose life was very important to the history of the early medieval period. Born a princess in the Kingdom of Thuringia, Radegund was captured at a very young age and held in captivity by the Merovingian king, Chlothar. When she reached maturity, Radegund found herself forced to marry Chlothar, the very man who had killed most of her family during the conquest of her kingdom. She endured this marriage, and the hostility she faced from the other women close to Chlothar until he ordered the murder of her brother. This tragedy overwhelmed Radegund, and she left her husband’s side, at considerable risk, and successfully established herself as a nun in his kingdom. She then founded a famous monastery, Holy Cross in Poitiers, where she engaged in extreme acts of self-discipline and self-mortification that she considered being heroic and spiritually profound and that others understood as a sort of living martyrdom. She came to be seen as an exemplar for sacred queenship, whose life many other women sought to imitate throughout the medieval period.
Do you have any new projects in hand?
I am currently setting up a major research project that will bring together a team of scholars to investigate the sexual exploitation of people enslaved within the households of the greater Mediterranean world from AD 300–900. The aim is to examine this period of profound social transformation by zeroing in on the household as the fundamental unit of social organization and to examine the asymmetrical relationship within the home to better understand the impact of dynamic forces redefining identities and relationships: male/female, slave/free, adult/child, local/foreign. This research project will reconstruct the motivations and justifications behind the sexual exploitation of domestic slaves, identify how the lived experience in the household shaped the content of our sources, reveal how a common Roman inheritance impacted later practices, and map the similarities and differences in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities in the region. You can read more about it on: https://dosseproject.com/
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Interviews by: Maryam Kamali