The creation of medieval papal history
Rosamond McKitterick, University of Cambridge, discusses her forthcoming article ‘The papacy and Byzantium in the seventh- and early eighth-century sections of the Liber pontificalis’, which will be published in Papers of the British School at Rome later this year.
I have spent most of my career studying the Franks in the early Middle Ages, but the place of Rome and Italy in the history of the Franks has increasingly occupied my interests. Apart from the politics, there is a straightforward connection, and consequently dialogue, between the Franks and Rome that took me for three inspiring months as Hugh Balsdon Fellow at the British School at Rome in 2002: the manuscripts containing texts emanating from Rome are almost exclusively extant in Frankish copies and compilations from the Carolingian period. This is especially the case for the Liber pontificalis, a history of the popes first compiled in Rome in the sixth century, and subsequently continued in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. I am fascinated by the way this major contemporary historical narrative constructed a particular representation of the history of the popes and of the city of Rome within Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. This paper argues that the seventh- and early eighth-century sections of the Liber pontificalis, too often simply mined for nuggets of information about church buildings, represent the pope in a significant way, both in relation to Byzantium in theological and political terms, and as the successor to St Peter in Rome. I suggest that this papal narrative undermines the usual assumptions about the so-called Byzantine Reconquest and the Roman perception, if not the reality, of the degree to which ‘Byzantine rule’ was exercised in Italy between the middle of the sixth and first half of the eighth century. The seventh and early eighth-century ‘continuations’, therefore, have important implications for any interpretation of the purpose and construction of the Liber pontificalis, and of its dissemination beyond Rome in the seventh and eighth centuries.
My work on the Liber pontificalis has also progressed in tandem with a ‘Special Subject’ on ‘The City of Rome and its rulers, 476-769’ that I offered between 2011 and 2015 for final-year History undergraduates in Cambridge, hugely stimulated by a succession of outstanding and wonderfully enthusiastic undergraduates. Each January I brought the current cohort to Rome for an intensive three-day field trip to study the physical remains of early medieval Rome, with the aid of a generous benefaction from two Cambridge alumni, and we stayed in the British School at Rome (BSR). The hospitality of the Director, staff, award holders and residents of the BSR greatly enhanced my students’ experience. The BSR staff, moreover, were able to secure access to some wonderful sites, not least Santa Maria Antiqua in the Forum, thereby extending our knowledge from the texts into the physical remains of early medieval Rome – buildings, frescoes, marble floors, brickwork, statues, and mosaics. The Special Subject effectively precipitated my participation in two collaborative volumes, Rome Across Time and Space, edited by C. Bolgia, J. Osborne and R. McKitterick (Cambridge, 2011) and Old St Peters Rome, edited by R. McKitterick, J. Osborne, C. Richardson and J. Story (Cambridge 2013). All this forms part of the framework for my current work on a monograph on early medieval Rome and its rulers.
Image: Pope John VII (705-7): portrait mosaic. A remnant from his oratory in Old St Peter’s Rome, now in the Vatican grottoes of St Peter’s Basilica.
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