Paul Bertrand’s roads

To the blog « Medievizmes »

There can only be a social history, but it must necessarily be built within a broad framework, by connecting documents, such as facts and objects studied, with other documents, facts and objects. Intellectual decentralization, both in relation to other spaces and times and to other disciplinary practices, such as sociology, ethnology or anthropology, feeds this social history. I therefore practice a study of connected written cultures, which allows me to write a cultural and social history[1]

To put it another way, I adopt a research paradigm initiated some twenty years ago, which considers that old documents are not only sources but are above all, from the time they were conceived,  important objects and actors in society: they have been built for certain purposes, used and distorted for others, abandoned or preserved for other reasons[2]. No document is an innocent source. By document, I mean any document on parchment or paper, but also, more broadly, any object conceived as an instrument of communication, vehicle or actor of a message. I therefore practice a history of written (“graphic”) material cultures. Based on this observation inherited from postmodernism, I have built my career as a researcher in connected cultural and social history. Connected because the history of these written cultures cannot be simply reduced to mere descriptions. However, to get out of that dead-end, this trap into which many researchers fall, it is necessary to connect documents, objects, people, places, times, in order to formulate hypotheses of cultural and social history that will be put to the test.

My favourite research field is therefore populated with medieval documents, manuscripts and especially archival documents, charters as well as technical or account registers; above all, my interest goes to these small formless documents, wrecks abandoned after the storms of the centuries, unclassifiable, between graffiti, receipts, lists, lost sheets, micro-charters, personal books, devotional manuscripts, illuminated, xylographic or printed pious images, books of hours, poorly studied chronicles, Vitae of minor saints, liturgical books too…—all this informal documentary production which I label as « ordinary », everyday writings, because it constitutes the essential part of the written production of the Middle Ages and has disappeared for the most part.  But also and above all, I call it « ordinary » because it reflects an increasingly mainstream, « everyday » interest of medieval society towards the written word, increasingly experienced as “natural” by ever larger strands of medieval society. My chronological span of research goes from the 10th to the 15th century, and even encompasses earlier and later periods, since historical connections call for letting go of traditional chronological frameworks, as well as spatial ones, moreover. The European space holds me back, with research skills built between the Rhine and the Loire and bridge headed over the Mediterranean world, even in Ethiopia.

My most recent projects focus on understanding feudal change through the approach of the written word, from the 10th to the 13th century: I am researching how the major social and political transformations of that time are in fact both the reflection and the consequence of specific documentary practices. It is within this epistemological framework that I want to launch, with colleagues from the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, France, Italy… a research programme aimed at studying diplomatics in a comparative and connected way from the 8th to the 16th century. It is in the same context that I am writing an essay on the perception of forgeries and falsehood in the Middle Ages, from the 9th to the 15th century. To the same purpose, I also intend to analyse medieval micro-institutions and social groups empowered by the practice of writing. Besides I have recently been commissioned by Amsterdam University Press to write a textbook on medieval graphic communities.

These broad and recently launched projects are based on other investigations in progress into the medieval gracious jurisdiction from the 13th to 15th centuries, still between the Loire and the Rhine, and particularly on the edge of the Empire and the Kingdom of France: a project funded by the FNRS (Belgian agency for research) on chirographs, charters written in at least two copies, one intended for each of the two protagonists and/or the administration which issues them. In this context, a doctoral thesis is in progress by Mathilde Rivière on almost 60,000 Nivelles chirographers still extant, while Emilie Mineo is conducting surveys on chirographers from the city of Tournai.  Other surveys are being conducted on medieval cartularies, through the MECA project (Medieval Cartularies), which is part of the five-year programme of the École Française de Rome, and is intended to feed a second edition of the CartulR database.

While several of my previous research and writing projects were successfully completed over the past few years, I am still very much involved with the issues they addressed. For example, investigations into everyday writing, focusing on the 13th and 14th centuries, a time of medieval revolution for writing, were brought together in a book published in 2015. As I have already outlined above, such investigations were characterized by a very broad understanding of the various forms of writing by all segments of society, including small religious communities unfamiliar with writing or simple clerics, from the 13th to the 15th centuries. They showcased how the formatted and structured writing as conceived and developed by the elites had been transformed, adopted, adapted by individuals or institutions which had never cared much about writing until then: people who were more or less literate but who were increasingly convinced of the need to use the written word and decided to adapt it to their uses and knowledge, in a highly technical perspective[3].  Before that research, in 2004, I published a revised version of my doctoral thesis on Mendicant convents in Liege in the 13th and 14th centuries, from a perspective of the pragmatical history of medieval property as Franciscans and Dominicans have experimented it, but also from a perspective of the practices of writing of the latter[4]. This work on medieval property and rent remains very much open: it is still a field too rarely visited by researchers because of its complexity and I hope to come back to it later – as well, the many works in the history of medieval hagiography that I have carried out and that I continue to follow.

The last field of research in this journey, which is probably too dense already, is in line with the passions that inspire me: digital humanities. I am an outspoken advocate for key concepts such as Open Access or Open Peer Review, but also for the strong integration of the digital humanities into disciplinary projects and not as a kind of autonomous meta-discipline that would justify itself by sacrificing to the ideology of innovation and technology.

I was trained in historical practices and methods at three major Belgian universities (the University of Namur, the University of Liège and the Catholic University of Louvain). My integration into French historical research has helped me to open up to the world and find new fields of adventure, which I continue to expand thanks to a new opening time outside Europe. I remain a man of diverted roads and hollow paths, in a kind of road trip, in balance, on the wire, a few centimetres from the ground. Writing is my battlefield and my poacher’s lair, open to the wind of day and night. The story I weave and the story I write are linked in reflections that I have been publishing since 2004 on my Medievizmes blog / research notebook and on my Twitter account @medieviz

To the blog « Medievizmes »

To Academia webpage

[1] What I call in French « Histoire des cultures graphiques ».

[2] Trained by Guy Philippart in the history of medieval hagiography conceived as a social history of medieval sainthood and as a history of medieval textuality and its diffusion, I naturally deployed the conceptual tools that I mastered in other fields such as medieval archives: P. Bertrand, in collaboration with X. Hermand, Livres et archives dans le diocèse de Liège, XIVème-XVIème siècle.  Pour une approche globale de l’écrit dans le monde ecclésiastique médiéval, in Gazette du Livre Médiéval, numéro 35, 1999, p. 1-9 =

[3] Documenting the Everyday in Medieval Europe: The Social Dimensions of a Writing Revolution, 1250–1350, Turnhout, Brepols, 2019 (USML 42).

[4] Commerce avec dame Pauvreté. Structures et fonctions des couvents mendiants à Liège (XIIIe – XIVe s.), Liège, 2004 (Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège).