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Books on the Road: Exploring Material Evidence for Social Networks in the Early Middle Ages

Clare Woods

Duke University

In order to reconstruct social networks for the early medieval period - whether friendship or patronage networks, or teacher-student relationships - scholars typically mine surviving letters and letter collections. While the information gleaned from letters is undoubtedly important, what survives from the early Middle Ages is patchy. Further, analysis of the networks we reconstruct from this data are all too often divorced from any material or geographical reality. We gain a more holistic picture of intellectual and social interaction, I argue, if we also explore the material evidence for the exchange and circulation of texts composed by medieval authors. Extant manuscripts are key pieces of physical evidence for intellectual connection, holding as they do geographical, temporal, and sometimes personal markers for interest in a particular text. Despite this, they remain an underused source in medieval network studies. This paper applies spatial and material dimensions to the project of mapping early medieval social networks by layering together two different kinds of evidence: 1) geolocated, contemporary manuscript evidence for some of the most widely-copied Carolingian (ninth-century) texts and 2) the Roman transportation network, still a relevant infrastructure model for the early medieval period. (Data available from the Stanford Orbis project.)

When we aggregate and visualize manuscript data (whether multiple texts by one author, or multiple texts by multiple authors) patterns emerge that invite scrutiny as to the realia of book travel. In my data visualizations, a small number of ecclesiastical centers stand out for the number and range of manuscripts they owned. Layering manuscript data with a transportation network allows us to appreciate the ways in which these centers were connected beyond the known personal networks of "in-house" authors or scholars. My paper focuses on two centers, St Gall and Lyon. Although long recognized as possessing rich collections of medieval manuscripts, no one has yet considered location as a factor in these centers' ability to acquire new texts. In fact, both St Gall and Lyon lie at or near to important nodes in the Roman transportation system, specifically in areas that were gateways to key Alpine passes. As this paper demonstrates, by including material and practical evidence to reconstruct early medieval intellectual connections, we gain a much more nuanced understanding of the ways texts and ideas circulated, of the routes books traveled, and the role of travel itself in shaping ecclesiastical libraries.

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Social Networks and Interconnections in Ancient and Medieval Contexts

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