Jake Purcell

  • Fellowship year:2019-2020
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Medieval Europe
  • Dissertation Title: Parsing Truth in Merovingian Gaul: Evidence and the Early Medieval Critic
  • In my dissertation, I consider how people evaluated information and distinguished truth from falsehood in Merovingian Gaul, a set of post-Roman kingdoms lasting from the mid-5th century to 751 CE in a region including much of what is now France and western Germany. In many histories of knowledge production, from law and science to theology, the post-Roman era and Merovingian Gaul in particular represent a nadir of stifled inquiry and irrationality. But the period also saw a number of major transformations with challenging implications for inquiry: the spread of the cult of saints and the trans-continental trade in relics, the reification of documents as the preferred kind of legal evidence and main instrument of governance, and the fragmentation of official and imperial networks for transmitting information, among others. To show how Merovingian people and institutions grappled with these changes, I use literary, legal, and philosophical sources to investigate religious fraud, the cultivation of personal judgment, the forensic creation and evaluation of evidence, and the epistemology of testimony. This uncertain period demanded and produced many kinds of critical engagement that collectively offer new ways of approaching rationality as a historical category.