Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014.

Name in Print XIII & XIV and Lights VIII & IX: the problems are also possibilities

Even though this too is after the fact, it definitely deserves to be announced before I crunch through the relevant backlog. You first heard about it in September 2011, writing it in time for the deadline provoked me even to blank verse in December 2011, I actually told you what it was later that month; in March 2012 it was signalled that the revisions had been sent off; by the time we were dealing with proofs I was well into blog slough; but since October 2013 the world has been richer by a rather snazzy blue volume with my name on it, along with my co-editor Allan Scott McKinley’s, and this volume is called Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters. It is the eventual publication of some of the highlights of the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions that Allan, myself and Martin Ryan ran at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds between 2006 and 2011, and it is rather good if I do say so myself.

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout: Brepols 2013)

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout: Brepols 2013)

If you are wealthy, you can buy it as a good old-fashioned stack of bound pieces of paper between board covers here, or you can if you choose buy it in electronic segments here. Each chapter has its own bibliography so they stand alone quite nicely, though obviously, since we wrote them with sight of each other’s copy and often actually hearing each others’ thoughts at Leeds, and because as editors Allan and I knocked authors’ heads together virtually when they were addressing the same concerns, they stand better together. And who are these highly-esteemed authors, you may ask? And I answer with a list of contents as follows:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Introduction: problems and possibilities of early medieval charters”
    Written by me to an agenda thrashed out between myself, Allan, Martin in the early stages and Professor Pauline Stafford, one of the series editors, in the later ones, this tries to sum up where we currently are in early medieval charter studies and what this book is doing in them that’s new. I give you an extract below because I’m pleased with it both as prose and as publicity.
  • Martin Ryan, “‘Charters in Plenty, if Only They Were Good for Anything': the problem of bookland and folkland in pre-Viking England”
    Martin here tackles one of the most tangled problems in Anglo-Saxon history with clarity and balance; at the end he hasn’t solved it but it’s much much clearer what the problem actually is, and I was setting this to students as soon as it was physically possible for them to get it. Martin also deserves praise for turning in a damn-near-perfect text. Neither Allan nor I could think of anything to change in it.
  • Allan Scott McKinley, “Strategies of Alienating Land to the Church in Eighth-Century Alsace”
    The charters of early Wissembourg have been mined by many a historian looking for party alignments in the great struggle between noble families for domination of the palaces of the Frankish kings that would eventually end in the triumph of the family who would become the Carolingians. Allan, with characteristic panache, shows that this is probably wrong since the Wissembourg donors’ activities make more sense in local, family contexts. He also wins the contest for longest footnote in the book.
  • Erik Niblaeus, “Cistercian Charters and the Import of a Political Culture into Medieval Sweden”
    Erik joined in the sessions with the brief of showing something of how a society that was new to charter use picked up and incorporated them into its political operations, and he does so with great clarity whilst also finding time to give a few nationalist myths a reasonable roughing-up on the way. I learnt a lot from this one.
  • Charles West, “Meaning and Context: Moringus the lay scribe and charter formulation in late Carolingian Burgundy”
    Charles carries out a classic micro-study here, getting from ‘why does one village in tenth-century Burgundy have a layman writing its charters?’ to ‘why and how are documents changing across Europe in the run-up to the year 1000?’, and makes some very sharp suggestions about how the two join up. He also got his favourite charter onto the cover, so read this to find out why it’s important!
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia”
    I think this is actually my most rigorous piece of work ever. It has tables and pie-charts (though on those see below the cut), it uses numbers, it has a big dataset and lots of electronic analysis. What it shows, I think, is that the Carolingians didn’t change the way that documents were written when they took over Catalonia, but that the local bishops probably did in order to come up with something definitively local that was then spread through cathedral-based training and local placement of local priests. That might seem a lot to believe but that’s why I had to do it properly! Editor’s privilege: this is by far the longest chapter in the volume, but I think it’s important. Of course, I would…
  • Arkady Hodge, “When is Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe”
    Arkady definitely wins the prize for widest scope here: this chapter runs from Ireland to the Crimea via Canterbury and Bavaria, and what it finds in all these places is charters recorded in Gospel Books or other such contexts. He wisely asks: if this supposedly unusual preservation is so widespread, perhaps it’s… usual?
  • Antonio Sennis, “Destroying Documents in the Early Middle Ages”
    This one we were lucky to be able to include, a paper from before our sessions ran for which Antonio had not found a home. In it he asks why people would even destroy documents, and concludes that there are lots of reasons and far from all of them fraudulent or tactical, but all of which merit thinking about.
  • Charles Insley, “Looking for Charters that Aren’t There: lost Anglo-Saxon charters and archival footprints”
    Coming out of his work for the publication of the Anglo-Saxon charters of Exeter, Charles is faced with a lot of what diplomatists call deperdita, lost documents that are however attested in other documents, and does some very clever work to make something of the patterns of what does and doesn’t exist in his material. This one also probably has the most jokes of any of the papers, though Arkady is also in contention.
  • Shigeto Kikuchi, “Representations of Monarchical ‘Highness’ in Carolingian Royal Charters”
    If you’ve seen the texts of many early medieval royal charters you’ll have observed that the kings are no less splendid in their titles than our remaining European monarchs are now: majesty, highness, sublimeness, and so on scatter their documents. Shigeto however spots habits in these uses that seem to actually tie up to deliberate strategies of presentation and differentiation between the various Carolingian rulers, which not only may help to spot when something is off about a text but also gives us a potential window on the actual kings’ decisions on how to present themselves.
  • Morn Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of Mercian royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century charters”
    Contrariwise, in a thoroughly contextualised assessment of the titles used for Mercian rulers in their diplomas during the period when Mercia was both a political force and issued charters, Morn shows that what we have here is not necessarily the kings’ choices of self-presentation, but, maybe more interestingly, the recipients’ or their scribes’, and it’s very revealing.
  • Elina Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834–40: charters and authority”
  • Alaric Trousdale, “The Charter Evidence for the Reign of King Edmund (939–46)
    Despite their different centuries and countries of interest, these two papers are doing very similar things, which is one very familiar to me from Catalonia: looking at an area and time where there is almost no wider political narrative material available to historians and reconstructing events and power politics from the charter evidence, and both come up with new ideas about what was going on at their chosen monarchs’ courts at their chosen times as a result.
  • Julie Hofmann, “Changes in Patronage at Fulda: a re-evaluation”
    Julie here presents probably the most tech.-heavy paper, but it gives her extra chops: she goes about what would be an analysis of who gives what where quite similar to Allan’s except that having a database of the voluminous material from Fulda lets her seek precise answers to important questions like that necessary classic, “what are the women doing?” This not only offers some answers to that question but also explores the difficulties in gendering this kind of evidence and what it gets one to do so.

I don’t think there’s a chapter here that isn’t important in its field, and there are several that I’m proud to think may be important over several. Most importantly, any one of them can probably tell you something extra about your own field. As I put it in the closing paragraph of the introduction:

“The eclectic selection of papers is therefore part of the point: all of these studies can inform, and have informed, several or all of the others. This justifies the hope that readers of this volume will come to it bnecause of something they need to read for their own purposes, but discover before putting it back on the shelf that there are other things that interest them which will also help them think over their material and its uses. We also hope, therefore, that even if some of the possibilities we present cause problems, the problems will also be possibilities.”

Continue reading

Name in Lights VII & Print XII

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotski & Jack Dougherty

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty

Some of the announcements I make here, despite backlog, deserve to be made while they’re still current. Such a one is this, though even it is a bit behind-hand: very shortly after my arrival in the new post described below, there emerged a volume edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty called Writing History in the Digital Age. This volume has had an interesting history, because it’s very largely been written and edited in public view online here. They solicited some contributions, got given others, had a couple of dedicated reviewers go through them but also let the authors see each others’ work (for once! why is this not done more often, and why does it make so little difference normally when it is?) and accepted comments from the open web too. These were surprisingly useful, and I know because I’m in it, and as I’ve recounted before wound up as a result in a collaboration I had never expected with a co-author I may never meet. In any case: the results are out, and because it’s in the University of Michigan Press’s digitalculturebooks imprint that means you can read it for free on the web here. Oddly, the title page names no authors, so you would have to be told that my/our piece is near the bottom, entitled, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy”. This may be a direct link to that essay, which is an oddly difficult thing to do. I suppose they would like you to buy the print version, which I believe exists and of which I am hoping some day to receive one.1 In the meantime, though, as well as our piece I would especially recommend the several pieces on teaching with Wikipedia, something many of us may have thought of doing but fewer met the complications and teaching points involved in trying. The whole thing’s pretty good, though, and well worth some browsing time I think. I humbly recommend it to the readership…

Boring statistics: three drafts of my original version, still visible here, and three of the combined one but thrashed out in only two fairly frantic days in 2012; submission of final text to appearance, 1 year 8 months, not bad by the standards of the Academy alas. I still think it’s worth noting these things, because especially when you’re writing about the Internet, as I know all too well, content dates fast. I hope we’re still more or less of relevance, though.


1. Yes, there is still apparently a market for print works about the Internet. Have fun typing in those URLs… Full citation: Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Writing History in the Digital Age, edd. Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty, digitalculturebooks (Detroit 2013), pp. 246-258, doi:10.3998/dh.12230987.0001.001.

In Marca Hispanica XXII: how hard can it be to get at an actual charter?

Not all of the apparently many things I did in May of last year were in Oxford, however much it might seem that way. I actually managed to squeeze a short research trip to Catalonia in between teaching as well! Because of the short time available, this had to be very targetted, and the strategic priority was the project on priests around Manresa, bits of which have already turned up here. In May 2013 I was set to give two papers on this project in the next two months, and you may remember that while it had become clear that I was going to need access to the original documents to do it properly, so that signatures could be compared, I was not going to be able to get this out of the abbey of Montserrat, where most of Sant Benet de Bages‘s parchments have wound up. So instead, I had to try and get pictures of all the rest, or at least, all the rest where scribes about whom I was suspicious might occur. That actually seemed fairly feasible in a two-day trip, but it meant starting with this place, about which you have heard my reservations before.

Entrance to the Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón

This is of course the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Despite its outward appearance, the ACA is actually quite a nice place to work. They have all the printed editions you might require, it is quiet, there are sufficient terminals to access all the digital resources and there are quite a lot of those, largely excellent, at which you can only get on the premises. There is also lots of desk space, but I don’t know why because the one thing they won’t let you do here is look at original documents. Sit with you and work through a useless microfilm, yes, talk you through the slightly arcane file structure of the digitised documents (based on the equally arcane eighteenth-century archival one, to be fair), but fetch up an actual parchment and put it in front of you, NO. (I subsequently discovered that they do in fact have to write to Madrid for permission to do this, so it’s not something you can achieve in a day at all.1) So I knew already that an order for reproductions was as good as I was going to manage, an order that was unlikely to be fulfilled in time, but which would hopefully stand me in good stead later. And they had actually simplified the process for doing this—there were now only four steps and none of them had to be approved in Madrid!—so I ordered digital reproductions of one charter from the Cancilleria, five from the Monacals d’Hisenda from Santa Cecília de Montserrat and, with some reluctance, one hundred from the Monacals holdings for Sant Benet de Bages, which was apparently the smallest subdivision of that collection one could order. I should have figured out why, but alas…

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals d'Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals d’Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto, reduced from the much large image actually supplied to me. Here I was after Sunyer, whose signature you can probably distinguish at the bottom.

So, inevitably, these turned up way after the papers were given, but they did turn up, in an odd-shaped package that turned out to contain a CD-R and a roll of microfilm. The latter was why one could only order a hundred Sant Benet documents at once; the ACA are not, apparently, going to digitise whole microfilms for you on demand. But since I’d chosen and paid for digital images, this was extremely annoying; I was now going to have to digitise them myself, at my own expense. It damped considerably my delight at how good the digital ones they had been able to send me had been (and indeed always are, it seems). And worse was to come.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto, enhanced by me in software and shrunk for web

I’m pretty sure that on my original order form I’d ordered reels 1 & 2 from the collection (not realising that was what I was doing). The confirmation form that is part of the process however listed reels 1 & 8, and I didn’t stop to wonder why. Once I got the film onto a reader at Birmingham, however (because that’s how long this took, though on the other hand it turned out that the library here had just bought some software for digitising microfilm which they were keen to have tested) I found out: I had fifty documents from 1000 to about 1011, and then fifty more from the mid-twelfth century, all very useful I’m sure but sadly not to me. And while some of the relevant ones are like the above, unfortunately rather more are like the below:

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto, after enhancement in software

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto

Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto, likewise after enhancement. The verso image here I just couldn’t distinguish to enhance, I’m still not sure the charter’s actually in it.

I haven’t seen the like of this for a while, because I’ve forgotten what badly-developed films look like. In the room where I was doing the digitisation, which suffers from too much daylight for imaging work, as said in the caption, I couldn’t tell in a couple of cases whether there was a charter in the photograph at all. But this is the official state of access to these documents. There are also several numbers missing in the sequence and two documents photographed twice. I don’t really feel that I got my money’s worth out of this, and it doesn’t seem that ACA did when they paid for the original photography. At least this may constitute an argument that gets me access to the originals next time I try…

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

But folks, it doesn’t have to be like this, as I found even that same day (because since they wouldn’t let me actually see anything, I was done at the ACA quite quickly). So I trekked across town (photos will follow) and got myself to this place, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, which I’d never used before, and it became probably my second-favourite research library within the hour. It was no trouble at all to get a reader’s card, a five-year one even, and then it was equally unproblematic to identify and order up the five documents I wanted to see. And there they were, within half an hour, in plastic folders on my desk. And after I’d been looking for about five minutes, the desk attendant whom I’d asked about photography came back to tell me that actually these documents were all on the website, if that would make things simpler for me?

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto, shrunk for the web

The website’s lovely, too, another obvious point of comparison. The ACA has a portion of a larger state site, and the only means of electronic contact is a form that doesn’t work. The BC not only has all kinds of social media enabled but also a crowd-sourced transcription initiative.2 One could be forgiven for thinking they actually wanted people to use their collections. And it is a lovely place to sit and read, indeed, and I hope to do so more in the future. But the contrast between it and the ACA could really not be more sharply drawn!


1. The person who told me this also suggested that one would need to sacrifice a black goat under a full moon for this to achieve any actual result, but obviously I’d guessed that already. (This is sarcasm, by the way.) The more canonical strategy for Spanish archives beloved of English investigators, to wit, buying the archivist lunch until he decides you’re OK (this is not sarcasm, it’s well tried and tested), won’t work at the ACA because its staff is too large and rotates, and in any case my Castilian’s not up to it…

2. They currently have up requiring transcription an unedited, unpublished tenth- and eleventh-century charter collection from the Priorat d’Organyà, and I tell you, it is very very hard not to procrastinate with that…

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.


I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

Link

An alternative manifesto for this blog

“If I could live in any decade, it would definitely be the 960s.”

Probably as thinking humans you all read The Onion already and saw this when it was new, or when Another Damned Medievalist also linked it (though I can’t now find where she did so), but it appeals on so many levels…

“… Everyone was in this vibrant period of transition between Byzantine autocracy and fealty to large landowners, just trying to discover themselves. For a brief moment you had this optimism that made you feel like you could just stick your thumb out, hop in a passing cart transporting waterfowl, and go. Didn’t even matter where—you’d just take it easy at the next fiefdom and figure it out. Who was going to tell you no? The king? Edgar the Peaceable was on the throne and he didn’t care. It was a simpler time…”

I mean, I’m probably more a fan of the 970s myself—so many exciting possibilities as Europe begins to have access to gold again, even if it comes with a side-order of Muslim military campaigns of terror in Spain and Southern France, Norman ones of opportunity in Southern Italy and Viking ones of conquest in England… But the arts were so much more ambitious!—but he’s totally right about the 980s. That can only seem like a good decade if you don’t remember it!

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9


1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth': examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia

I hope that this again delayed conclusion to the series of posts in which I try and work out my position on the importance of different agencies in frontier settlement in the early Middle Ages needn’t be as long as the last one. I’m also planning to concentrate it much more deliberately on Catalonia than the previous four, and if it talks to the Escalona and Reyes case about Castile that started me off on this it will do so more by setting up an alternative and implicitly inviting consideration than by actual address.1 That all said, its first and most important question is one to which their answer is important, which is: whom do we consider a lord in these situations? My answer, however, as usual takes a lot of words, so here’s a picture and you may if you choose pursue the text below the cut.

Miniature of an oath of homage from the Liber feudorum maior of the counts of Barcelona

At least one of these people is a lord even though one’s a lady. “Maior8” by Anonymous – http://www.mcu.es/archivos/MC/ACA/Miniaturas/miniaturas/llibre02/007.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading