Cultural Whiplash

Been away for a bit doing home stuff, work stuff, breviary stuff, and some research stuff.

I had an interesting moment last night in the research stuff. Distance collapses distance. It’s easy for us to look at the past and fall into the trap that past is past but in any good solid historical research you get reminded that it’s never that simple…

I was reading a sermon in a manuscript from around 800 and, in the midst of an illustration, it used the phrase “a clientibus suis” (from/by his clients). The scribe had glossed it: “a servis suis” (from/by his slaves).


What a gulf appears between those two words… I was struck with a strong sense of the distance between Late Antiquity that still looked back upon Roman society for means of structuring relationships  and the structures and relations of Early Medieval Europe.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Whiplash

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    Actually, historically speaking, the translation of “cliens” as “slave” may not be that far off the mark. The word refers to the dependent state of a person who makes himself a vassal of another wealthier or more politically influential person (“patronus”) who will, in return, protect the “cliens” and his interest. It was sort of like connecting to the Mafia where one put oneself under the protection of the Godfather, but then also always had to do whatever the Godfather wished — and so is, in a sense, a “vassal”or “slave” of the Don. This was culturally normative (especially in classical Mediterranean cultures) for anyone who wanted to “advance” socially.

    I don’t know the context of your quotation, so I don’t know if this is applicable, but it COULD be a fairly valid translation.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Oh, I understand the background of the word. I’m most familiar with its Latin use in the Late Republic and Early Empire; servus does make sense as a translation but misses the mark culturally for what the image is intending.

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