Stuart Airlie

Stuart Airlie a junior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, is working on a study of the politics of the Carolingian aristocracy.

Soldier, Saint

Stuart Airlie, 19 February 1987

Most of us are familiar with Jacob Burckhardt’s thesis that the Italian Renaissance witnessed the ‘discovery of the individual’ while Medieval man’s self-consciousness simply took corporate form: ‘Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, a people, a party, a corporation, a family.’ This view is no longer held in its crude state, and sophisticated work by Colin Morris and other Medievalists has made a strong case for the 12th century, with its ‘Renaissance’, as the era of the discovery of individual self-consciousness. If a biography of a Medieval figure is to be attempted, the 12th century offers a fruitful terrain: the increase in written sources for this period makes the biographical approach (just) possible, while the birth of individual self-consciousness makes it appropriate.

Medieval Fictions

Stuart Airlie, 21 February 1985

Few images from Medieval Europe are as familiar, or as potent, as that of the armoured knight on horseback, riding off in quest of adventure. It is an image that has inspired varied imaginative treatment down to our own times, in films like John Boorman’s vulgar and energetic epic Excalibur or Bresson’s stark, pessimistic Lancelot du Lac. It is rumoured that Jancso is now preparing a film, inspired by the work of Georges Duby, of the great clash of knights at Bouvines (1214), one of the few decisive set-piece battles of the Middle Ages. Such artists, like their Romantic predecessors, find in the culture of Medieval knighthood what they want or need to find. Historians can behave like this too, as the example of Huizinga indicates, and the temptation is particularly strong for anyone trying to discover what realities underlay the gorgeous trappings of chivalry. Such trappings were part of Medieval reality and contemporaries too came under the spell of the mounted knight; the Middle Ages could succumb to its own enchantments. The historian of Medieval knighthood has to recognise the tension between aspiration and achievement that inspired and disappointed contemporary commentators, as well as to approach with imaginative sympathy that least sympathetic of human activities, war, which provided the raison d’être for the parfyt and gentle knight.


Stuart Airlie, 17 November 1983

Confronted with kings called Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, Charles the Fat and Louis the Blind, and chroniclers like Notker the Stammerer, Benzo of Alba and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, we might be tempted to think that the history of France and Germany a millennium ago can offer us nothing more than the dreary spectacle of one barbarian succeeding another on the banks of the Seine or the Rhine. Even the fame of the great figures of the period makes them less than real to us, turning them into figures of myth, so that the Charlemagne of The Song of Roland is quite a different figure from his historical prototype. While modern French scholarship busies itself with probing the dreams of the poem’s king in order to uncover a ‘feudal libido’, can we recapture the dreams that troubled the original Charlemagne (a light sleeper, as it happens)? Already in the Early Medieval period people were in the business of making images for themselves and investing belief in them. Thus the learning of the Saxon historian Widukind inclined him to think that the Saxons were descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Similarly, some Franks fondly imagined that their people had a Trojan origin.

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