Monthly Archives: October 2007

Seminary stew (V & VI)

As I mentioned a little while ago, the new season of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research has now begun, and because I’m teaching the same day I’m having no trouble making it to them for once. On the other hand, because of that teaching, I am having trouble finding time to write up anything about them… So here is a combined entry briefly discussing the first two, and more shall hopefully follow in a more timely fashion.

Detail of miniature from tenth-century MS of Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philosophiae Mercuriique

On 3rd October we opened with abstruse Carolingiana, the paper being by Sinead O’Sullivan, who was attempting to tell us “Why Did The Carolingians Read Martianus Capella?” Now despite the best attempts of one erstwhile supervisor of mine to soak all their students in Carolingian high culture, I didn’t have a clear idea of who Martianus was—I wound up being a documentary historian instead, although said supervisor preceded me in that too so who knows where I’ll finish up—and I’m guessing that many readers won’t know Martianus either, so I’ll explain. He was, in fact, an early fifth-century African author who put together a 9-book work, of which the seven last are a one-by-one description of the Liberal Arts. The first two however are an elaborate allegory of a marriage of Philosophy and Mercury, which is incredibly recondite, loaded with hidden and double meanings and really really hard to read. Dr O’Sullivan argued that actually, in the rarefied scholarly atmosphere of the Carolingian court, that actually made reading it, and understanding it, more attractive because it meant you effectively belonged to a very select club of really clever people. She was arguing this from the glosses we have on the text in manuscripts from the Carolingian era, which are incredibly elaborate and often themselves loaded with extra and double meanings, sometimes concealed in Tironian notes.

Generally the discussion was accepting of the theory but some people wanted to hold out the point that if texts like this were being glossed, there was obviously some interest in learning from them and/or teaching them, and that implied a wider audience. This group suggested an alternative view of the text, which basically ran, ‘all human knowledge is here so obviously people are interested in the work of getting it out’.

I think there must be room for a compromise here. I think of Alcuin’s Disputatio Pippini, a long and elaborate dialogue in which he and Prince Pippin set each other high-falutin’ riddles, and it seems to me that although there definitely was a literary élitism in the Carolingian court, it was one to which the insiders were keen to recruit people, and that that kind of concern seems to explain the tension we got at the seminar. But it was still a fascinating glimpse of a really arcane world and text, if you let yourself sink into the murky waters rather than staying firmly on the ploughed sod.

Medieval monastic scribe at work

Then on the 10th October we had Hilary Powell, whose title was “Landscapes of Legend: folklore in Anglo-Latin hagiography”. She was addressing a debate about whether or not we have genuine folk traditions embedded in saints’ Lives written in Latin in England after the Norman conquest. Me, I’d be quite prepared to believe that we do in some cases but she wished to be more certain. She was quite rightly pointing out serious issues with the way that folklorists often consider that if a literary motif occurs in a story, whose origin cannot be placed in the Bible or Classical traditions, it must be ‘folk’, and use indexes of such things to trace folk idioms through the ages. There’s the potential for all kinds of circular reasoning here and many motives that crop up in several such genres. So far so good.

However, she wished not so much to move beyond such approaches but to refine them and combine them. Finding problems with almost all the ways in which ‘folk’ content has been detected by various scholars, she had me convinced that they were all pointless and that we had to go back to a basic analysis of text in context, but she seemed instead to think that if rather than using one of these methods only we used several at once the balance of probability to things they count as ‘folk’ being genuinely ‘folk’ was raised. I think it probably just multiplies the errors together, and further think that if a method is demonstrably flawed, checking it against something else doesn’t cure it. For this reason I found all her actual examples quite unconvincing, and Alan Thacker, Susan Reynolds and Jane Martindale all, quite rightly to my mind, moved away from the idea of a separation between monastic and ‘folk’ zones of culture and towards the idea that monks liked folk-tales as much as the next man and could easily get at them and write using them without having to pop down the village and sit round the fire of an evening. All the same, anything involving hagiography always comes with some impossible stories, and the knowledge Ms Powell has of her material is clearly very deep. She’s a good speaker and the fact that I didn’t believe a word of it may just prove, again, that I Is Skeptical Historian

(For those not necessarily listening in medieval, it’s kind of like whether Dylan post-electric has anything to do with actual folk. OK? Cool. No, I’m not saying where I stand.)

Long-promised conference report (Unislamic Vandals, Perverse Christians and Heavy-metal Arabic Gospels)

It already seems quite a long time ago, but at the beginning of September I was at a conference in Exeter, to wit the Second Colloquium of the Cultures of Christian and Islamic Iberia, whose web-presence seems to have already been killed off by over-zealous admins. I promised you a report on it and by golly a report you shall have, even if it be brief.

I’ve not yet been to a conference in Exeter that didn’t tell one a lot about how not to organise a conference—little tricks like signs directing people to the venue and an organised and informed registration desk really didn’t ought to be beyond possibility—but it was a good and select gathering. In fact possibly too select, as there were only two people present but not presenting, and as one of those was Ann Christys I’d have rather it had been fewer than that because she had been… But still. What we got was good.

I’ll give a list here, but only comment in extenso on those that I had something extra to say about below; anyone wanting more details I don’t give, do comment.

  1. Prof. Richard Hitchcock, “Vandals in al-Andalus?”
  2. Prof. Roger Wright, “Placenames in Medieval Documents: the case of Cabra”
  3. Dr Leonor Sierra Macarrón, “Tipologías documentales del monasterio de Sahagún (siglo X)”
  4. Dr Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani Perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’”
  5. Mr Charles Tindal-Robertson, “The Reconquest in Historical Epic”
  6. Dr Geraldine Coates, “Muslim Rule and the Body Politic in the Estoria de España
  7. Prof. L. P. Harvey, “The Forging of a Sacred Past: from the Votos de Santiago to the Sacromonte ‘Lead Books’”
  8. Dr Anna Akasoy, “Patronage in al-Andalus for Philosophy and Mysticism”
  9. Raquel Sanz Barrio, “The Jewries of Málaga and Vélez-Málaga on the Even of the 1492 Expulsion”
  10. Dr Grace Magnier, “Philip III, Millenarianism and the New Jerusalem”
  11. Dr Juan Carlos Bayo, “Moors and Jews in the Habsburg Sate: on the first performance of Calderón’s El Tuzaní del Alpujarra

Professor Hitchcock’s paper was perhaps the bravest, as it was more hypothetical even than mine. There were some parts of it I couldn’t really admit to believing, but the core of it was a perfectly sensible consideration, which I can encapsulate as follows. Procopius tells us that the Visigoths drove a population of some 80,000 Vandals out of Spain to Africa, and as we know a prosperous and Romanised kingdom in North Africa resulted that there’s been some exciting recent work about. That fell to Justinian’s armies, and then a century and a half later—five generations?—the Muslims took over. Within twenty years they were invading Spain, with armies mostly locally recruited from Africa. So what happened to the people who in 565 were still being identified as Vandals? Presumably they didn’t all die off, but had children, also Vandals? and so on. Must they not therefore have been a fairly sizeable slice of the population that the incoming Arabs called barbarî? And doesn’t that in turn mean that a big part of the army that invaded Spain in 711 was actually coming back to the homes of its forefathers?

Argument with this paper, because of course there was some, centered firstly on Procopius’s numbers, and then on the unknowable questions of acculturation of the Vandal incomers into the population that we would identify as Berbers. Some agreement seemed to be reached that this would probably have varied between city and countryside, and that populations descended from Vandals would probably not have had a great deal in common between the two environments by the time of 711. Almost everyone was forced to admit, though, that whatever their extraction or history, most of the army that invaded Spain in 711 probably spoke Latin, because the alternative would seem to be tens of thousands of people being taught Arabic in a few short years of Muslim rule, and as Professor Hitchcock rightly said, by whom? Surely not enough people. So lots of stuff there to think about.

Professor Wright’s paper was as his usually are inarguably referenced, learned, interesting to anyone who studies language, and outside most of our kens. He says people never have any questions for him and I think it’s mainly because there’s only about five people in the world qualified to argue with him.

Dr Sierra very kindly brought me offprints of loads of stuff of hers, and her Sahagún paper probably interested me more than anyone else, but I don’t think I could tell you much to spark that interest in a blog audience because it was kind of specialised, so I’ll move on.

Someone or other talking to some Hispanists

This guy Jonathan Jarrett had a load of beardy waffle that hardly merits a mention, but I can at least give you his abstract:

Centurions, Alcalas and ‘Christiani Perversi’: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’

In recent years attention has repeatedly been drawn to evidence that allows critics of older theories of depopulation and repopulation in the Spanish Reconquista to prove that the supposedly deserted lands into which the frontiers of documented Christian society were expanding during the tenth and eleventh centuries were in fact populated. This paper expands on such anti-dogmatic exposés to set out, in an exercise in documentary archaeology supported with material evidence, some of what can be said about the organisation of such `external’ groups on the southern and western frontiers of the tenth-century Catalan counties.

It was all rather sketchy and hypothetical, but there were some pretty slides, and I gather the guy is going to give and hopefully publish a rather better-founded version early in 2008, so you may hear about this again before long…

I think, despite Professor Hitchcock’s attempts, Professor Harvey’s paper was the one I found most enthralling, and that mainly because of the way it matched up with my own interest in weird documents. A while ago, in my most popular ever post, I showed you a slate charter from seventh-century Visigothic Spain, almost the very beginning of the Middle Ages. Professor Harvey was instead talking about apocryphal books of the Bible inscribed, in Arabic on lead discs that were ‘dug up’ at Sacromonte in 1595, right at the other end. He was linking these with an attempt by Santiago de Compostela to claim ecclesiastical offerings from the whole of Spain, but although these texts, which still exist but are locked away in a museum where the curator reckons that the anathema on them pronounced by Innocent XI in 1682 is still binding and so won’t let people see them (!), do contain a new, I’m sorry ‘lost’, Gospel of St James, their actual production probably had motives more local than that.

Sixteenth-century drawing of two of the Plomos de Sacromonte

Because of access restrictions as mentioned, it’s very difficult to tell you much about these documents (of which there were about 20), but what is currently known is presented in a recent book edited by Manuel Barrios Aguilera and Mercedes García-Arena, called Los plomos del Sacromonte: invención y tesoro, which appears to be on sale still in a few corners of the web, and I have to admit, had I but world enough and time, I’d be reading it now.

Those, for me, were the highlights, but I have enough notes on the rest that I could probably tell you more if you wanted. Mainly it was nice to get back to Exeter. There are after all things to be said for talking about the Middle Ages with this kind of setting:

That same beardy bloke pontificating over dinner

(Many thanks to Juan Carlos Bayo for firstly organising and secondly providing the photographs, and to Professor Hitchcock and Dr Sierra for offprints; also to Peter Lahiff for vital drinking assistance…)

ZOMG I r fust lolhistorian

It would seem that I is less-than-serious historian, at least to the outside viewer…

I ar lolhistorian

And I wouldn’t post this necessarily, except that right now it seems that ‘lolhistorian’ is absent from the readily-searchable web:

Look no Google!

So if any further proof were needed of my academic originality, there, surely, it is.

No actually I have been really busy. Honest.


If, by some chance, you have no idea what I’m talking about, may I humbly suggest you go back to your Chaucer?

Added in passing II

Firstly, whereas before it was not, now the schedule for this term’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is up on the web. Happily for me, this is the same day as my KCL teaching, so I should be able to make it to most of them, and hopefully report back here having so done. It will not escape the alert that the first has already happened, and I will therefore so note it when I have time.

One of a great many differing covers of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare

Secondly, in trying not to let my previous reading pile go entirely unattended while I try and put together lectures, one recent late night found me briefly picking up John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. Now I’ve been enjoying this, but I have to say, his coverage of the early Middle Ages, in about six pages, is pretty impressively useless. You could read it and be left with the impression that between 476 and the First Crusade all warfare in Western Europe except for some Reconquista campaigns in Spain was internecine quarrels between local knights. It is just about mentioned that the Carolingians raised armies, but what use they put them to, such as for example and e. g. putting together and briefly holding the largest empire in Europe between the Romans and the Habsburgs at their peak (which may not even be fair on the Carolingians), you would never guess from this.

This is a pity, but despite the fact that I gather this is not the only problem critical readers have had with the book, it’s very readable and gives a first orientation in many areas about which I knew very little. (And it was free :-)) But as with so many wide-ranging books like this (I guess the last was the inspiring and fascinating but rather deterministic Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond) the few places where it touches my own field leave me aware that in following up its references (of which, let it be said, there are a fair few) I shall want to be checking for more up-to-date work in pretty much every case…

(To be fair on Diamond, my reaction there was generally more along the lines of “Hmm. I’d want to read the site report myself before I was sure about that.” I’m pretty sure that what he is saying is not sixty years out of date as Keegan’s ideas of the early middle ages seem to be. Perhaps Keegan just hasn’t been reading articles in the right places…)

Winner’s Preservation II

A quick reflection brought on, between writing lecture material and doing my actual job, by an article of Jinty Nelson‘s that, as with so much else, I should have paid proper attention to a long time ago. One of the things that makes me think I must be doing something right these days is that now almost everything I read falls into that category. But I digress.

In the article, “Literacy in Carolingian Government”, Jinty is arguing that effective participation in Carolingian power entailed being ready to deal with at least a bare minimum of the written word, whether yourself or through notaries and clerics who would read stuff to you.1 At the very least, she argues, you had to know what the Emperor was sending you to read. Well, I think that depends on how high up the structure you wanted to get; Matthew Innes‘s work on the Middle Rhine suggests to me that you could be, with a decent family background in an area, so entrenched that the centre would have to deal with you one way or another whether you got copies of royal cartularies made at the local cathedral for your archive or whether you just carried on dealing with your subjects as had seemed equitable (or inequitable but possible) to you beforehand and likely your forebears too.2 Jinty would say, and does in the article, that this seems pessimistic in a world where even peasants coming to plead a case at court were expected to bring written briefs, but I think that possibly the sort of peasant who can economically afford come to court to plead a case, no matter how royal legislation may forbid a lord from refusing such a suit, is already up the ladder a good few steps compared to a colonus in Rhætia for example.3 There, just because it’s a well-known example, if you can’t deal with the local bigwig or the Bishop of Chur, you probably can’t do anything.4

You have to bear in mind, however, when I say things like this, that Jinty obviously, and if you didn’t realise this already the article would make it extremely clear, knows an awful lot more than me, and I should really be more careful than this with my opinions, were I not sure that she would be happy to take this as a suggestion and correct me where necessary…

The eleventh-century church at the priory of Perrecy, under which once lay their archive

So yes, that therefore isn’t actually the point of the post. The point of the post was that it reminded me that actually we have Continental answers too to the question I raised some time ago, what happens in our documentation when the Church, that preserves it, loses a case at law? She mentions a little clutch of documents that are familiar to me from work on Lay Archives and exposure to Matthew’s work, but that she was the first to exploit, from a place in Burgundy called Perrecy (now Perrecy-les-Forges). This place had a priory that was acquired by Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, or Fleury as we tend to call it, towards the end of the ninth century, and that house therefore picked up its archive.5 That archive, excitingly, appears to contain a smaller private archive belonging to, not I believe, pace Jinty, the Count of Mâcon, a guy called Heccard who owned the priory, but to the bailiffs of the counts. The archive mainly preserves hearings over whether or not people in the bailiff’s areas were free or whether they owed servile service to the fisc that these men ran for the count. The hearings start before Heccard comes into office, and last beyond the first bailiff, Fredelus, so I think it’s actually associated with the vill they worked from, rather than being personal, and whoever’s in office when either the count or bailiff dies makes sure the documents are safe for the next incumbent of either office. Anyway, I’m digressing again.

The point is, simply, that that dossier also contains a case where the Archbishop of Bourges took Count Heccard to court and lost.6 Now of course we still have this because of winner’s preservation. But the point is that where we have genuine lay archives, which I’m afraid is a rare rare thing, we have documents in which the Church lost. So the original claim of Josep María Salrach, that the Church monopolised writing so much that it wouldn’t lose cases very much or at all, looks as if it might fail if there were only more evidence.7

Back to the coins!


1. J. L. Nelson, “Literacy in Carolingian Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 258-296.

2. Matthew’s work most obviously being his State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), but see also idem, “Land, Freedom and the Making of the Early Medieval West” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 16 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 39-73.

3. Nelson, “Literacy in Carolingian Government”, p. 286. For coloni in Rhætia you can actually get at a thorough-going estate survey of the fisc run by the local bishop as E. Meyer-Marthaler & F. Perret (edd.), “Das Urbar des Reichsgutes in Churrätien (9. Jht)” in eidem (edd.), Bündner Urkundenbuch. I. Band: 390-1199 (Chur 1965), pp. 373-393.

4. Again, this area has actually got some really useful sources for local bigwigs, and you can find out about them in K. Bullimore, “Folcwin of Rankweil: the world of a Carolingian local official” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 13 (Oxford 2005), pp. 43-77, or M. Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in J. Davies & M. McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot forthcoming), pp. 000-000.

5. The documents are edited in A. Prou & M. Vidier (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Documents de la Société historique et archéologique du Gatinais 5 (Paris 1900-1937), 2 vols, doc. nos IX-XIII, XVI, XVII & XXIV. Heccard gives Perrecy to Fleury in ibid., doc. no. XXV.

6. Ibid., doc. no. XXIV, mentioned by Jinty in Nelson, “Literacy in Carolingian Government”, p. 275 n. 74 where she cites her fuller treatment, eadem, “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia” in W. Davies & P. Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 46-63 at pp. 53-55. The hearing is translated there at p. 53, and reprinted thence as “Wulfadus Goes to Court” in P. Dutton (ed.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 1st edn. (Peterborough ON 1994), pp. 467-468. I believe it’s in the second edition too but I don’t have it to hand to check.

7. J. M. Salrach i Marès, El Procès de Feudalització, segles III-XII, Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).

Added in passing I (a series of rushed posts)

Two things just to show I haven’t left the blogosphere under a sudden deluge of essays.

Firstly, after some last-minute furore, I have now submitted for consideration by the panel of the International Medieval Congress the three three-paper session proposals that I hope will make up the coming year’s “Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic” strand, and it’s looking good. It’s very nice to have that safely squared away and into someone else’s to-do list.

Cover of Julia Smith’s Europe After Rome

Secondly, though you may already know this, Julia Smith’s Europe After Rome is really good. It thoroughly deserves the praise that’s been heaped upon it, because it manages to cover and continually stress the diversity of medieval European life, while at the same time structuring it in such a way as to provide unified themes through which it is possible to actually approach the period and area as a whole. I can see why it was so hard for her to write.

One thing though: you really need to know the political history first, because you won’t find it here. This is in fact a bit of a problem with medieval history textbooks in general, and one about which I’ve often felt myself slightly on my own (I realise that’s an absolute but this is written in haste, forgive me). I really found having a core narrative somewhere to read and refer to was a help when I was a student, and I still find that students like one now, however impressionistic and experiential the prevailing wind in the scholarship (and therefore the teaching) currently be. And this is why, despite the number of historians whom I’ve met who damn it as old-fashioned, or even write books to try and replace it, Roger Collins’s Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 is still in print: there’s almost nowhere to send your students of this period for that sense of what happened where when. Or is there? Anyone else teaching this period find something else adequate or better? Or am I being similarly old-fashioned by thinking it necessary at all?