Monthly Archives: July 2008

Pitching to a future market

I got a dose of dejà vu from an article that I’d been having trouble getting round to, William Chester Jordan, “Saving Medieval History; Or, the New Crusade”, in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 259-272. He spends half the article saying that interdisciplinarity actually helps more than it hinders, that anthropologists and social scientists also find inspiration in the work of medieval historians (he cites Clifford Geertz, which is good enough for most people, but I could think of others) even as we do from them, and that new subjects and new ways of thinking should be embraced as long as they try and make themselves comprehensible, which I would entirely endorse even if it’s a battle that really doesn’t need to be fought seventeen years later.

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

But the second half of the article’s where the dejà vu hit, because he spends a few pages pointing out that there’s a huge huge market for medieval stuff in the USA’s population at large, revealed by novels, films and cartoons with a medieval setting, and that really people are interested in our subject and we don’t need to worry about that. And at this point of course I bethought me of the recent blog forum post at Modern Medieval led by Jeff Sypeck which said more or less the same thing and challenged us to get out there and talk to it. I mean, this could be a comment in that thread:

… we ordinarily think of our audience as the university—other scholars and ‘motivated’ college students…. But these ‘motivated’ and ‘traditional’ college students (dwindling in number as some think) have not come to their interest in the Middle Ages from reading scholarly books…. Interested students come from a wider ‘popular culture’ eager to drink in something about the Middle Ages. Though routinely ignored by professional medievalists, the public this culture serves needs our attention. And if they get it, that can only translate into stronger enrolments (and all the moral value that some people think comes from studying the Middle Ages). How do I know that the deep well of interest is out there? I checked. (p. 266)

And from there he goes on to inventory ‘medievalising’ films and books he’d picked up in a recent trawl by his children. And as I say, Jeff Sypeck is telling us to get out there and talk to this public. Jordan however has a different attack, which is to ask why this popular interest doesn’t make it through to us as students in self-evidently important numbers such as would stop people asking whether history was really worth teaching. And his answer is that terrible textbooks put them off. Get to the schools, he says:

One vibrant accurate paragraph on castle-building of the chivalric orders in the Middle Ages in one of the books used in the California or Texas system would do more to sharpen children’s interest in the Middle Ages than much of the verbiage in bland, boring, flat social studies books does now. (p. 268)

And he goes on to discuss film-making, classroom videos and so on. There is much in all this—some of us of course are well ahead of this curve—, and I think it merits discussion, especially the books. How do we get those books to exist? Are they even the best way or should we all be imitating JLJ and making web videos? And so on. There are a lot of people out there better qualified to deal with this question, not least because of being in the USA, whereas there are things other than media which bring my students to the period. (Where did I get into a blog conversation about this? I can’t find it now.) But I thought it was worth starting this hare, if anyone wants to chase it.

Leslie Alcock book review

Somewhere in the two, or maybe three, entries I already wrote about Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), I promised a review once I finished it. This time actually came some time ago but there were other things in the way. Now however I’ve got to it.

Cover of Leslie Alcock\'s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

Cover of Leslie Alcock's Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

It is a slightly odd book. This feeling starts with the ampersands in the title, and persists throughout the maze of headings and subheadings; the book is very finely divided, and although there are 23 chapters and 460 pages each actual section is quite short: few are more than two pages and some as short as a paragraph. Sometimes that’s just all there is to say about Northern British drinking vessels or whatever, but sometimes it’s because the section bearing the title only introduces the topic, which is then actually explored in a following section about some particular example under a heading of the same weight. If I’d been copy-editing I’d have shunted a lot of these bits around; as it is the whole thing flows rather intermittently, and one is never quite sure if what one is reading is a summary of knowledge or an argument in a debate. In those 23 chapters there’s quite a lot of, not repetition, but return to points now illustrated from a different angle. This contributes to the weirdness of layout: he actually gave the general set-up first and the detailed explanations afterwards, and this is the right way around, because where he went into detail you know what difference it makes; all the same, it is almost like someone sandwiched a bunch of big lectures and a lot of snippets about sites and objects together and published it, which since it was based on lectures initially may even be what happened. It is also overbalanced towards certain subjects: warfare, especially, gets three solid chapters, only partly justified by Alcock’s insistence that not only was it the ruling class’s primary pursuit, but that many books all but omit it and this needs redress. On the other hand there is, when Alcock had little to say on a subject, little said.

When he did get involved in the debates here, Alcock was usually pretty careful to summarise scholarship on any issue, and although he very often opted for a safe “we can’t know” point of view, sometimes he was quite willing to throw his hat into the ring. This is faintly dangerous, because as he was at several points almost proud to admit, some of his views were old-fashioned, at least among archaeologists—that texts have anything to tell archaeologists, that religion is a relevant subject for understanding and so on—and he was not fully up to date with the latest scholarship: “To give a striking example of the problem: as I wrote this Preface [in September 2001], I received a bookseller’s flyer listing six major books highly relevant to my period, all of them published in early 1999.” (p. xv) So although he was involved with the debates and the evidence, he was so from a position slightly behind the curve. That said, it’s rarely possible to discount his views straight off. An example for you: he discusses the Hilton of Cadboll stone, a section of which is depicted below. He notes that most people have read the uppermost middle figure, who appears to be female, as riding side-saddle, and somewhat caustically suggests that anyone who’s done any riding, as the sculptor must have known, knows that people side-saddle don’t look like that; he instead suggests that she’s seated sideways on the horse, and therefore that perhaps she is watching a hunt laid on for her as a spectacle, rather than taking part. The interpretation is of course questionable, though imaginative; but, she is certainly not in a side-saddle position as we recognise it. So: was the sculptor a numpty? Was there some other compulsion acting on him (or her)? Or was there something different going on here, and if so was it as Alcock here suggested?

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

Detail of the central panel of the Hilton of Cadboll 2 cross-slab

This quite nicely illustrates what will, for some people, make this book worth reading. Alcock’s imagination and insight made him a sympathetic and interesting writer, and very few people can have known the archaeological material so well, or contributed as much to its exposure and, most importantly, its publication. He refers throughout to excavated evidence and objects, which are often as not illustrated, albeit not necessarily close by because any given Pictish stone or Scottish dún is probably serving to illustrate about five points. But on the other hand, although he is often careful to say that we cannot know, as I emphasise, some of the writer of Arthur’s Britain was still left in him to generate these occasional flights of fancy which aren’t really justified, even if they may for all we can tell be correct sometimes… So some slight caution is necessary.

But there are such a lot of sites and objects! and read, often, in stimulating and interesting ways, and usually without going beyond the evidence. I used to work on this area and there was plenty I’d not heard of here despite Professor Alcock’s supposed loss of touch with the current field. And there are, as I’ve mentioned, many many (grayscale) illustrations, half-tone and drawings, and a good few maps. The paper is all gloss: it’s a very heavy book, and the marbled endpapers add a certain old-fashioned grandeur even though it’s hardback, not cloth. The contents table lists all the headings and subheadings, like a French thèse‘s would, so that it’s very easy to find where something should be discussed. There is also a site gazetteer at the back, so you can at a glance see what was published about and an idea of what was found at any of the sites mentioned in the book. Also, the bibliography is huge and not as outdated as you might fear from Alcock’s initial caution.

What this all means is that the book is more use, once you’ve read it, as a work of reference. You will go back to it to look things up but you probably won’t need Professor Alcock’s arguments about them: though they are all well-founded in some sense it won’t give an impression that you know the field. It’s hard to know what market would be the target for this book. Since the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland published it, the obvious one is `antiquaries’ and that’s probably fair; it is a summary of the knowledge of one of the field’s greatest scholars but it’s not exactly a crowning statement of his career. It is a very handy reference manual but, although effort has been put in to make it easy to use like that, that’s not what Alcock was writing. It’s not a course-book because it’s so thick and involved, although the actual writing, what is not unimportant, is easy to follow and pleasant to read. What it is is a thorough and complete guide to what one major scholar thought could and should be known about the Early Historic period in Northern Britain and I’m pleased to have it, and will use it a lot. But I don’t feel that I have the latest news for having it on my shelf.

Feudal Transformations VI: Chris Wickham suggests

On the way back home after meeting up with medievalists from the Internets in London the other day, as described already by one of those mysterious virtual persons, I came on an article of Chris Wickham’s I should have read years ago, tucked in the back of Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre’s Property and Power with a title that might have led me to ignore it, did I not by now know not to ignore Chris’s stuff.1 Actually, although most of the sources it uses are indeed twelfth-century, his task is to argue back from those to how the Lucchese society he knows so well got this way, this way being feudalised in its tiny minutiae, dues, renders, labour and hospitality obligations differing from household to household. And that of course means that what we’re looking at is the good ol’ feudal transformation, discussed here a good few times. So I thought it might be time to collect up my writings here on that subject and mark out how Chris differs from the others.

  1. In the first of these posts I was complaining that the very detailed take of Jean-Paul Poly & Eric Bournazel on the changes in European society over the tenth to twelfth centuries hid the fact that they were being falsely compressed by the synthesis of the data Poly & Bournazel presented into a single phenomenon close to the year 1000 when actually what was being discussed was a almost-infinitely variable series of local experiences in which power and the organisation of society moved through recognisable, but not identical stages, at their own speed.2
  2. Then I took a much more theoretical vision of “el procés de feudalització” as offered by Josep María Salrach i Marès,3 and suggested that it was too schematised to work in most places but did give us a much clearer idea of what we are actually discussing than Poly & Bournazel’s immersion in Romance culture.
  3. Then I paid attention to Victor Farias trying to explain how the government of the counts in Catalonia could still meaningfully be differentiated from the landlordship of a lesser noble until the point of actual collapse, thus giving a working definition of the ‘public’ power that is supposed to have collapsed in this whole transformation thing.4 As I said there, I think a lot of this is warmed-over theory from Pierre Bonnassie, but it is a valid distinction and the question is merely whether it’s really a significant factor in the counts’ power. Me, I think not so much as control of castles, but it’s got to be in there somewhere.
  4. But then I found Josep María Salrach again explaining how even control over castles had changed,5 and that I found really quite subtle and interesting.
  5. And then Gaspar Feliu kindly sent me the fundamental article by Manuel Riu which suggests that a lot of feudal lords were probably heads of really quite ancient chiefdoms, in long-term dynastic succession, who adopted the new trappings of power but whose real importance came not from the new system, but from their heredity.6 In fact, then the system got its power from the endorsement of people like these, the already powerful. This, I think is not a whole explanation, but there must be cases where it is the best explanation, and if we try and stop explaining everything the same way we probably have a chance of getting somewhere

Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, you wind up with historiography that unpacks like this:

and really, that doesn’t actually help us understand. In the lecture at Kings where I discussed this, I used the phrase ‘Occam’s Hairbrush’ to describe a logical tool that allows you to separate needlessly tangled entities; you really need it here.

So, where does Chris’s article fit into this tangle? Quite neatly, in fact. I don’t think he’s read Riu’s article, though I wouldn’t want to put money on this; I also don’t believe he much rates Feliu, despite their shared pessimism about aristocrats and peasants, though I know he’s worked with Salrach.7 None of this Catalan stuff necessarily percolates through to his Italian work, anyway, but what he’s saying is quite a lot like what Riu says. He looks at two little areas in the twelfth-century documents from Lucca where lordships sprang up that acquired these sort of menial dues and obligations, and shows that actually some of the lordships went back to before these dues were commonplace. What he is dealing with here is the angry insistence of Dominique Barthélemy that much of what is supposedly brought in by the so-called Transformation is not new at all, but found in the Carolingian era if not before. Barthélemy says it’s merely that the sources are recording things, that have always been there, differently.8 I would argue that if the documents change it’s because of a demand for a new sort of record, and that suggests a change in society. Pierre Bonnassie instead counter-attacked by showing that when new coins came into circulation, for example, the documents picked up on that almost straight away and we should expect them to be current in other respects too.9 (This was a really clever article and it is undeservedly obscure.)

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

The Tuscan hilltown of Monteriggioni; photo by Michael Ferris

Here, instead, Chris reaches a middle ground. The documents are indeed changing, but to write down these things regularises what was not necessarily regular before. A lord of Carolingian Lombardy probably could, if necessary or desirable, demand most or all of what these Lucchese patricians can; he may well have been able, absent any real restraint, to demand more. Once a compromise is reached between subject and lord here, both sides are limited, because even with a posse of armoured bovver boys you can’t hold down all your peasants all the time, and you’d get lousy service if you tried it; passive resistance to coercion can really drop your revenue.10 It’s in everybody’s interest that there be a compromise which is acceptable enough that it will continue without too much effort. So it is reached, household per household, and it is written down.

The questions that then hang off this are ones about how greater literacy affects society, and that is a big question all by itself.11 It’s not as if Carolingian Lombardy was alien to written surveys, sworn inquests recorded on parchment and so on.12 If Carolingian aristocrats here weren’t making such regular demands, and that of course is an argument from silence, there must have been something else going on that distracted them, or prevented them. Chris says it is the militarisation of local lordship that gets these things fixed; people before this didn’t need this kind of detail. But there must always have been local administrators, we see them at Perrecy apart from anything else, and they must have needed such records. So I’m not sure yet. But I am sure that he shows quite nicely how a lord in place, given new options about how to exercise his power, might then turn himself into something we then see and recognise as a feudal baron or whatever your local language of power calls him, on the basis not of oppressive force, but of status, repute, ability to protect his familia and pre-existent dominance of a less documented kind.

I think this is what is going on, I think it’s a question of changing modes of power, mainly brought about by increasing wealth giving increasing initiative and scope for variation on social conduct and the use of resources. But the question then becomes, why are there new options, are they really new, where have these `modes’ come from and why are they taken up now, and of course, how much does anything change for the poor pheasants? If il Patrone is the same all along, and you gotta have respec’ for il Patrone even if he wants all your sheep to throw a banquet for his daughter’s wedding, because we know what happens to people who don’ show no respec’, does it really matter to you if he makes you sign something saying how many sheep he’s allowed to take? I think it does, because it makes it negotiable or enforceable, but maybe the verbal settlements were too. So much more to work out still…


1. Chris Wickham, “Property ownership and signorial power in twelfth-century Tuscany” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and power in the early middle ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 221-244.

2. Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200, transl. Caroline Higgitt (New York 1983).

3. Josep María Salrach, “Introducció: canvi social, poder i identitat” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998; repr. 2001), pp. 15-67.

4. V. Farias, “Alous i dominis”, ibid. pp. 102-105, 107-111 & 113-116. He is improving here on Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle: Croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.

5. Josep María Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).

6. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorns dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208.

7. Salrach translated one of Chris’s articles into Catalan, alongside one of Bonnassie’s and one of his own and some others, in a dossier on slavery in L’Avenç no. 131 (Barcelona 1989).

8. He says this most forcefully in “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, but perhaps most accessibly in “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205.

9. Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe: cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

10. For more on this, see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance (New Haven 1985), but I owe the phrase ‘armoured bovver boys’ to a lecture by Amanda Brett in my second undergraduate year at Cambridge. It may be the only thing I remember from her lectures, but that puts her ahead of several other lecturers and no mistake.

11. Classically treated in Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979) or Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organisation of Society (Cambridge 1989), and some critique in Rosamond McKitterick, “Introduction” in eadem, The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 1-10.

12. On which see Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900″ in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 105-124; rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 229-256.

AFK some more

Gairloch Beach

I know I only just had a hiatus, I know, but I’ve been invited for a long weekend in Scotland which will be the first intentional holiday I’ve been able to take for a while. I might do some antiquarianism, but I’m putting down history for at least a couple of days, and most of all I will be out of reach of Internet until Monday afternoon. I have shedloads of stuff half-written and queued up so you shall not lack for my wittering thereafter. And I shall try and get some pictures of interesting things for them as like that sort of thing. Meanwhile, have fun all of you…

Leeds report 4 and final

So, by this time slightly broken from lack of decent sleep, I headed into the fourth and final days of this year’s Leeds by filling myself with fried food and heading for “Texts and Communities in Early Medieval Europe”, on the grounds of a friend presenting. The other two presenting were St Andrews grad. students, one speaking on the Vita Columbani and the other on the communities of St Filibert; the latter paper, by Christian Harding, revealed some interesting faction in the longtime-fugitive monks apparent in the hagiographic texts and was nicely argued. The final paper was James Palmer complaining that computistical texts are actually really complicated and that no-one, particularly Arno Borst, has really come up with an explanation of what they’re for that satisfies all or even most manuscript cases. He did say it was mainly a rant but he managed to make it interesting despite his lack of conclusions as yet.

The cloister of St-Philibert de Tournus

The cloister of St-Philibert de Tournus

Then much-needed coffee and collecting books that had been put aside so as not to weaken displays, and then the second session of the day and last session of the whole thing, “Rethinking Early Medieval Narratives”. In this Adrian Smith told us that Gregory of Tours sets up King Theuderic of the Franks as the bad guy in his Ten Books of Histories (or at least the one of them where he appears) for what must have been mainly rhetorical purposes as he makes him a good guy and his enemies the evil ones in his Glory of the Fathers; this was an interesting observation, if as yet unexplained. Marios Costambeys became the latest of many a scholar to get his hands dirty in the manuscript transmission of the Liber Pontificalis, the papal biography collection which sources so much of Roman history in the Early Middle Ages; and Steven Robbie argued energetically for a closer dating of Widukind of Corvey’s Deeds of the Saxons by suggesting that Widukind’s depiction of the coronation of Otto I must be based on actually having witnessed Otto II’s. This seemed, as I recall, to set up as many problems as it solved, because Otto II’s coronation is not mentioned in the text, so you then have to argue why there was time to redraft lots of the earlier text but not mention even briefly the patron monarch’s crowning glory (no pun originally intended). But such was the energy of the argument that it only became clear it didn’t work once we’d wrapped up.

Statue of Otto II and his wife Theophanu being crowned by Christ, in St Pantaleon\'s Cologne

Statue of Otto II and his wife Theophanu being crowned by Christ, in St Pantaleon's Cologne

And then, well, it was over. I got my things together, left the bike briefly in charge of the estimable Gesta while handing in papers, and got myself down to the station, getting lost and missing my train by minutes but happily being allowed onto the next one with no difficulty. Home by just late enough not to need to go into work. Which leaves me wondering how to try and give an idea of the whole Leeds thing. You’ve got some idea already, I guess. It probably comes over as very intense the way I tell it, but I spent most of it either panicking, desperately short of sleep or drunk or all three, and I expect many people might play it differently. There are for example excursions on all the four days if you want to do some medieval tourism instead, and there are plenty of local possibilities. I don’t see the point of missing out on the networking and learning myself, but if you’re not from the UK I guess that seeing some of these things with expert guidance may have more appeal.

Basic things. The conference is split between two halls of residence, Bodington and Weetwood, about ten minutes’ walk apart. This means that a half-hour gap between sessions is just about enough to both caffeinate and travel between if you need to. At Weetwood the accommodation, food and drink is expensive and the coffee is drinkable; at Bodington the accommodation is cheap, the food lousy, and the beer acceptable but the coffee is not worth the name. Neither venue really makes tea possible and one of the best moments of getting home is a cup of tea in which boiling water actually formed part of the process. Eating conference food all through is not only unpleasant but unnecessary, though the breakfasts are good reinforcement if you don’t value your arterial clearances and the packed lunches are reliable and filling. For dinner, however, I recommend nipping down the road to Headingley and buying some stuff you can cook in a microwave; you’ll have one (you may even have hobs, but you can’t tell this till you arrive so bringing a pan may be pointless) and this will see you eating more cheaply and healthily. The buses into town are half-hourly, but regular; the conference shuttle buses between the campuses and accommodation are less regular, but numerous and usually adequate. The buses at either end of the process, from conference to station (like the campus shuttles, free) are horribly over-subscribed and not over-particular about timing, but I didn’t do much better on the bike, so hey.

I always stay in Bodington, partly because it’s cheaper and the accommodation, being student rooms in term, is adequate for a few days, indeed it’s better than two of the rooms I had as an undergraduate. The pictures below give you some idea. Also, Bodington, being the bigger and older of the two halls, has the computer lab (though as it won’t let Java applets run and has no SSH I effectively can’t check mail from there so I never use it), the big and cheaper bar, and the lawn on which people sprawl during sunny conferences. As I’ve said, this point where everyone relaxes together is one of the best bits for me, though there are plenty of people organising private or family parties—there is family accommodation, though it’s further away. Weetwood is probably a nicer place to chill, however, and because it has the high-tech presentation equipment tends to be where the trendy and literature studies types wind up socialising. Actually there isn’t an obvious causal link there but it does seem to work out that way. Perhaps it’s their beer choice that determines it? Anyway.

One end of this year\'s Bodington Hall room

One end of this year's Bodington Hall room


The other end of the same room

The other end of the same room

On the last night there is a dance. This would doubtless occasion ridicule from some quarters, though some people really can dance and they’re not all the ones you’d expect. Mainly I stay clear because by my lights, the music is terrible: eighties and nineties AOR and chart-pop, school disco fodder that I really can’t summon up a dancing urge to. As this in turn makes me feel like a wallflower when so many other people are able to enjoy themselves, I tend to spend it in the bar talking to people from Utrecht, Helsinki or Sheffield (or, this year, St Andrews, by the law of averages as much as anything). The point though is that lots of people do not, that even European medievalists can manage to let their hair down and have fun and if you think such-and-such an author doesn’t read like someone who would, you might be surprised. There is no harm in this except in the reinforcement of the idea in the DJ’s head that this music is what people want to hear. The football (soccer, that is) match that happens before is a different matter, mind. I gather Helmut Reimitz is a bit good…

Also, there are huge numbers of cheap books. Five or six second-hand sellers are far outnumbered by stalls from most of the big publishers with medieval interests. This year Cambridge University Press were conspic. by their a., and Brepols and Oxford University Press were inviting mockery with their prices, but I bought something from both so again, hey. There are many bargains to be had, and the offchance of being able to find the author if you so choose.

Mainly this is a forum where plans are made. You hear something that someone else is doing and perceive a link, an angle on your own stuff; you talk to them afterwards and you find, or I did, that next year the two of you are presenting a session. Next year it’s a strand, and there’s a book planned; you meet other people in the field and applaud some of their ideas, think others are useless (but probably don’t say so). You hear about texts and sites you didn’t know existed; you get new details on stuff you thought you knew; and sometimes, you nearly fall asleep being told stuff that doesn’t matter, but this can usually be avoided. You keep up with things and get the impetus to get ahead a short way in time for next year. You also see friends, but you’ll make more, even if only academic ones. (But sometimes more, you know: I’ve seen one marriage and a long-distance relationship disintegrate because the husband got together with one of the long-distance partners at the dance, but because I know them not the wife or the distant partner I only saw the happy side. No I am not naming names for this one, do you think I’m mad? But it happened at Leeds.)

I don’t know if Kalamazoo is like this, though I may yet have to go you know. But I know that other conferences in the UK aren’t. This is a congress that deserves its name, people are not conferring together but going about together. Its huge size allows this to happen, but also makes it very expensive: registration plus accommodation and food is in the realm of £150 sterling, and you have to factor in beer and books too as well as travel (though there are reductions and bursaries for students, unwaged, etc.) It is also hectic, high-pressure, crowded and usually very hot. But I guess I’m doing it again next year, because although I can see why someone would prefer not to and it’s not like I lack for medievalist chatter compared to many of my readers, Leeds has managed to make itself where things happen and it’s always nice to be part of a happening, isn’t it?

Sleep, however, that’s a trick I really need to remaster…

Finishing things: a backward step

So a while ago I made that list of projects that were under work; and well, what with Leeds not so much advance has been made on them. I did finish the introduction to the first book, leaving only conclusion, cuts, bibliography and preliminaries and finally the index to do before final submission. And of course I got the Leeds paper done, and now there is no more that can be done with it till erstwhile supervisor has overlooked it, which as mail I’ve just got tells me he’s on holiday may be a short while at least. And that might be about it, sadly. But at least I haven’t added any more to the list, right? Right? Er…

I wandered into a meeting, you see, by mistake. It was a meeting with one friend, one important patron and a woman I didn’t know, I stopped to greet said patron, and it turned out that what was going on was that the important patron was handing on a series that she runs, to the friend, the third party being the company rep. And somehow before this meeting had dissolved I’d wound up making a pitch to give them a volume of translated charters. I was pushed, all right? I won’t give any more details at this point, because as yet it isn’t even a formal submission, but when it is, if they like it, that would be a third book to try and finish somehow! It could be a good one though, another thing I’d be pleased to have done. So I shall hope; but like Augustine, not yet

Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

Being slightly more together on the third day of Leeds, and almost avoiding buying any books, I had resolved to branch out at least slightly, if only because of having spent so much of last year in Texts and Identities (which wasn’t terribly lively this year). So first thing Wednesday morning found me in ‘Inside the VIP Suite: The Roles of a Ruler’s Favourite‘, three papers from quite different regions about those who secure the attention of the powerful to the exclusion of others. Hans Peter Pökel was enlightening about the rôles of eunuchs in the cAbbasid Caliphate, including the interesting sidelight that although usually regarded as less manly and effective than a full male, as ghazis (frontier troops) against the Byzantines they were considered unusually vicious and effective, this being because Byzantium was usually where they’d had their tackle removed. Stefan Bießenecker had a range of German examples, and John Dillon was mostly narrative about two relatively successful Neapolitan ministers who didn’t quite fit the definition, because of not excluding others from power so much. All in all it wasn’t terribly earth-shattering but did at least mean that I hadn’t spent the whole conference being strictly early medieval.

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

After that, though, I reverted to type and hid in Texts and Identities for what was apparently the sixth of a series of sessions on the mysterious chronicler or chroniclers we call Fredegar. In this Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz were extremely soft-spoken, to the extent that I having arrived late and being stuck on a window-ledge near the back, couldn’t really hear them. This was a pity as what I caught was quite interesting, as it should be given the speakers’ calibres, but really I couldn’t tell you what if anything I learnt. My notes however save me and suggest that Walter was trying to get at the way in which ‘Fredegar’ represents ethnicity and identity, in terms of gentes rather than regna which can contain several gentes but whose king always belongs to one gens not all of them, such as, well, the Franks, this being Fredegar; and that Dr Reimitz picked up that theme and showed how ‘Fredegar’ was building the Franks into the Roman tradition of Universal History much as Bede is supposed to for the Anglo-Saxons.1 Ian Wood‘s paper was much more audible and therefore interesting but didn’t really stick to its title, apparently having undergone some revision since an earlier presentation at a conference in Tübingen that was apparently being reprised in these sessions. He was talking about the earlier books of the Chronicle, which have a less clearly pro-Frankish agenda and make their points with anecdotes and fabulae whose sense is keenly contemporary and thus very difficult to reconstruct. After that much of this it was getting easy to see how the Friends of Fredegar had managed to put together so many sessions…

Graph demonstrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

Graph demontrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

I branched back out over lunch however, which involved a certain amount of dashing back and forth between campuses, but all the same I just made it into the lunchtime lecture which was on “Climate Change and the Historic Environment”. I’ve been known to blame the whole alleged feudal transformation on climate change in the past, and I felt I could use some actual data given how much polemic there is on the web about the ‘medieval warm period’. Actually, most of what Sebastian Payne (of English Heritage) was saying was well prehistoric. He talked about how we get ancient climate information at all, and then concentrated on disproving various media myths, firstly that it is currently usually hot for the Earth, secondly that storms and climatic disturbance are becoming more frequent, and there were some others I forget. Actually, he told us, things have been abnormally cold for the Earth for most of the last four thousand years, though individual years are all over the place within that broad limit, and actually we’ve been unusually quiet for huge storms and events this last thirty years. Also, as far as the medieval warm period was concerned, his graphs with that kind of definition did pretty much all agree that 700 onwards gets warmer, levels at about 900 and holds more or less till 1200 then tails off again and is quite bad by 1600. But most of his graphs were much longer-scale, pre-human, which did lead to the obvious point: if we’ve become a dominant species with a huge global infrastructure in this 4-millennium cold spell, any slight change in that could still be extremely worrying. We really don’t want a dinosaur-compatible climate! To this his rather dour answer was that we haven’t built sustainably in this kind of perspective, and that quite a lot won’t make it through any rough times of climate that are coming on; and his paper was ostensibly about preserving the historic environment in these times of change, but he spent most of it proving that we are very short-sighted as a species and that history might have a few things to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Interesting, anyway.

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

A run back across the road took me into the seventh Fredegar session, this one focusing on other people than the Franks as shown up in Fredegar’s Chronicle. Stefan Esders showed how Fredegar used the lives of King Dagobert of the Franks and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as mirrors of each other, a good beginning spoilt by pride and subsequent punishment; Andreas Fischer showed how he also balanced Byzantines and Persians against each other as equally legitimate empires and forecast their conversion. Both these presenters were sure that Fredegar had some Eastern source, possibly even Syrian, and Fischer wondered if he might even read Hebrew; this seemed to me much weirder than they thought. (Ian Wood had earlier on said, ‘we always say he, it could be she for all we know’. Perhaps it’s a seventh-century historical Héloïse telling us all these stories…) And lastly Ann Christys, for whom I’d actually turned up, showed how he (or she) uses the Arabs in Spain and Provence not only to cast Charles Martel as a holy warrior, but also to align the Duke of Aquitaine whom Charles Martel cast out as a treacherous ally of heretics. In this scheme, the defeat of the Arabs Charles managed is actually not what Fredegar is interested in in this story; they just give him a good way to badmouth Duke Eudo. So that was all fun, or at least I thought so. Amazingly rich text; if only we had all of it, hey?

The last session on Wednesday was the first one where I really regretted not being able to be in several places at once. Where I actually went was a really cool session about burial archaeology called ‘Tombs and Identities’, but to do that I had to pass up another digital session and one with at least one good paper about wills in. Also, I realised later, I’d missed perhaps the only paper that will ever be presented at the IMC about Catalan archaeological chronology in my period, and I must contact the presenter and apologise for not having spotted her and asking her for a copy of the paper. Catalan ceramics are not very helpful but they’re about all the dating evidence there is and having a short guide to them in English would be very useful to me. Poor observation Jarrett…

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

That said, the Tombs and Identities session was really good; I just should have been somewhere else. Highlight was certainly Philipp von Rummel, who was arguing that attempts to see Childeric’s grave as a German adopting Roman culture was old-fashioned, because Childeric probably thought he was a Roman, but the definition of ‘Roman’ had changed a lot in the previous hundred years. He was a Roman military officer, holding a Roman position of rule, and he’d probably been born in the Empire. He looks like a (contemporary) Roman in his portrait (and von Rummel had some interesting lower-class Roman parallels for the famous Merovingian long hair here) and there’s no reason to suppose he thought of himself as a barbarian at all, so it tells us more if we stop using those categories like Victorians. But the other papers, which talked about royal and high-status burial in Italy, were also interesting though I did wind up questioning the significance of the second one’s graphs. Why is it me, with no statistical training, no particular mathematical ability and a love for showy representation, why is it me who has to ask the questions about bad maths? Why aren’t these being caught by anyone else? And why don’t people realise that if their graph only shows percentages, we want to know what the total sample was, and that if their graph peaks in the seventh century, and so does the density of their sample, then we want a Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test or similar to see whether that’s actually surprising? Who’s doing this bloody maths, me or you, huh? Okay, it’s me. But it really shouldn’t be because I know nothing about this stuff. It’s very annoying. If it has numbers in that had to be calculated, historians will swallow it uncritically. Anyway, I’ve said this before, let’s move on.

By now I was tiring, and though my original plan had been to make it to a round table about databases and prosopography that I thought would be useful, actually I sat down at the desk in my room to kill a few minutes looking at books before I set out, and woke up about an hour later just about to miss the last plausible bus to make it, and executively decided to go into Headingley and get food instead. Later, as I recall, there was drinking, and then I made an attempt to get an early night which the well-meaning concern of a friend who had carried on drinking entirely scuppered. And then there came Thursday, but that would be another post, after I’ve told you about something stupid I did at Tuesday’s lunch…


1. The so-called Chronicle of Fredegar owes its name to a name attached to a late manuscript, and there’s no real indication that that annotator knew anything we don’t about the author, or rather since it is several quite different books, probably authors; nonetheless, as we have no other name and this name isn’t much used elsewhere, it has stuck. For this reason, when Roger Collins gave an an excellent paper about the text at the IHR some time ago, he told us very solemnly that he would “pronounce ‘Fredegar’ as ‘Fredegar’, with inverted commas that are silent, like the P in Psmith”. Only about half of the audience got this allusion, and snickered quietly, to which Roger then followed up, with similar deadpan solemnity, “A joke which fell completely flat when I told it in Vienna, for some reason” at which point the audience collapsed en bloc. If you get a chance to hear Roger Collins present a paper, do go, it’s worth it.

Digital cooperation and charters

So on Monday night at Leeds Allan McKinley was observing to me how perverse it was that we charter specialists all had our various pet archives that we know well, he Wissembourg and Worcester, I Vic and Sant Joan de les Abadesses, Wendy Davies Redon, Llandaff, León, Sahagún and heaven knows how many more– and whenever we talk to each other or present research, one of the others of us in the audience perks up and goes “oh, I’ve got something like that but I’ve always thought it was weird” or “oh no I get that all the time, I read it as a factor of such-and-such a phenomenon” and generally we learn a lot from comparison. Case in point, several of the court judgements Wendy was recently talking about exist in preservation only because the impossibly-high compensation was silently paid with a land grant and we later see the land transferred to a church. That doesn’t explain all of the court cases I’ve got preserved in my stuff which don’t apparently feature land but I bet it explains some of them. So, Allan asked, why aren’t we in proper touch asking each other these questions more? Why isn’t there a mailing list or something? And that seemed like a very good point.

King Alfons I of Aragón-Catalonia and his Prime Minister conferring in the Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona

King Alfons I of Aragón-Catalonia and his Prime Minister conferring in the Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona

Then on Tuesday morning, as I described, Georg Vogeler was observing, with feeling, how perverse it was that so much charter stuff was going on to the web, and he gave an extensive list that I’ll come to in a moment, and yet there was no intent to share all this data. Instead people are publishing in their own name as the industry demands, and the power of digitization is damped by all these people with their pet archives putting them out piecemeal using a unique standard that works only for them. Not only should this data be shared, he was arguing, because of the possibilities of being able to make comparisons like that all over Europe, but when people are doing encoding of charters they should do it to a standard, so that this data can easily be shared in future. And he had such a standard ready, which he and his collaborators are trying to get to a point where it can be submitted for ISO recognition. And they do have a mailing list, though I’m not sure how much German-language XML chatter I can handle—and that may be unfair because everything around the website of this initiative suggests that it’s being conducted in English. But anyway. I feel sure these two impulses can be brought together in some way, because they both seem to be dedicated to getting into this state where we can find out easily what otherwise it takes conference papers and years of networking or else reading thousands and thousands of charters to find out, that is, whether this phenomenon we’re looking at is an aberration or an explanation.

Because there really are thousands and thousand, this is one of the things that came clear out of Dr Vogeler’s presentation. I stop much too early for most of these corpora (I try and make my cut-off date 1030), but even before that there are seven thousand odd documents from Catalonia, 1700 from Cluny alone, rather more than that though much less informative from Lorsch, probably three or four thousand from Italy, and *ahem* maybe 1100 from England. (Sorry guys.) I wouldn’t even want to guess how many from France or Germany as wholes. And, in addition, a great many of these are online and it’s increasing. Heck, the Tablettes Albertini are online, after all, how hard can actual charters be? Here the Italians seem to be leading the way: the online Codice Diplomatico dei Lombardia Medievale (secoli VIII-XII) covers a fairly small area of Italy but is already up to more than 5,000 documents. Central Europe is reasonably covered already by Monasterium.net: it’s a scattering, but it’s there, and searching for pre-1000 stuff I discover that they have Passau, Kremsmunster and Salzburg in already, and these are not negligible corpora. France seems to be rather behind, with a site with great intentions at Chartae Galliae, but as yet it doesn’t seem to matter what search you put in, you get the same eight twelfth-century results back. And the really important ARTEM project are still keeping their data for sale only. On the other hand, a rather more old-fashioned digitization process of scanning and converting to PDF images is long underway and the results are often gathered at Ménestrel. Of course, you can’t search that, but one might be able to remotely OCR it; not mark it up into XML, though. At least it’s not locked in a library in a different country.

The chained library of Wenchoster Cathedral (so the site claims)

The chained library of Wenchoster Cathedral (so the site claims)

But yes, there is a lot, and of what I haven’t mentioned here there is rather more gathered by Dr Vogeler & friends at his home base in München. And he was urging anyone listening (though I rather suspect I was the only diplomatist present, I was certainly the only one who identified themselves) to consider, when they edit their charters for digital purposes, to use their Charters Encoding Initiative scheme, so that one day it can all be combined in this glorious superdatabase for all to use. Well, what would that mean? I don’t like XML, instinctively: it is flabby, ugly to parse and does a wide range of jobs badly but because of the range is irreplaceable (much like Microsoft Access versus most other commercial database packages, does a lot of things inadequately that no other single program does together). And none of the professionals I know like it, and wail every time someone else adopts it because it’s one more obstacle to replacing it with something better that has yet to be constructed. Instead we have several things which might be better but which no-one will sacrifice accessibility for until lots of other people are using them. It’s like the whole Windows thing in miniature but without the crushing commercial imperative behind it—in fact, Microsoft’s own implementation of XML is so peculiar that it is actually preventing people adopting it because the accessibility advantage would be lost for its users. So XML is what we have to work with, and whoever replaces it will have to do so using something that can read XML and convert it because by the time it’s accepted, there will be so much data marked up in XML that the conversion work otherwise would be entirely preventative.

ANYWAY. Take this back to the charters, Jarrett. How difficult is it to encode a charter as they want it? They have some digital examples up to guide future scholars, though even these are loaded with comments about needed improvements. So I had at it with one of the odder bits of my corpus, that abbreviated trial from Sant Pere de Casserres I discussed a while ago. Almost immediately there are issues of interpretation, which is why I chose a court case, they’re hard enough to break down using my own schema. The person who claims the land, but in the end doesn’t get it: he is not a recipient, and he isn’t really a petitioner either, you know? Does it really do any good to lump him with people who are requesting the king make precepts for their pet monasteries? Even once you’ve decided, though, it only marks such people up with rôles in the abstract, not the actual text; so the witnesses and scribe and neighbours aren’t qualified as such in this scheme. That would be much more work of course, but without it there’s essentially no point in marking this stuff up at all except for generating summaries for editions. At this point I more or less gave up with it; there is loads to do here, and I suppose the correct thing to do therefore is join in the work, but for the moment, they don’t have a standard to attract people to, and if we’re to share data it may need to be some other way. Is a mailing list so terribly outdated now, I wonder? Would a bulletin board be better? Another blog? I shall have to think, but I’m open to ideas…

P. S. That Diocese of Wenchoster site is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, in a very subtle way; what a lot of effort to put in to such an unclear goal… I think I shall have to calm down with the latest issue of the Framley Examiner

Leeds report 2: Tuesday 8th

All hail WordPress, because whatever bug was causing my Firefox to die at the `write post’ window appears to have been vanquished. I also discover that I forgot to mention, in the last report, renewing my acquaintance with Gesta, whom I knew from a long time ago but whose real-life name I’d managed to forget knowing in that time—given when it was I bet I didn’t hear it properly the first time and was too bashful to ask again. Anyway, I worked it out, and she has her own Leeds report up already, much shorter and probably far more interesting than mine, so go have a look.

So anyway, Leeds, Tuesday 8th July, yours truly wakes with a thick head but makes it to breakfast anyway, what does he do next? Well, with a bitter headache that was apparently turning his face white and making him look as if he wanted to kill someone, he chairs the third and last of the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions. This one didn’t gel as well as the other two, which is not to say that the papers were any less good: Matthew Hammond, talking about ceremonial acts in early Scottish charters, got many questions from an audience he’d clearly partly drawn, and Morn Capper and Elina Screen also had some interest, Morn especially in fact as I heard people talking about her paper separately from the session discussion through the rest of the day; she was talking about how Mercian royal titles in charters seem only to vary when other people, who are producing the charters, aren’t sure about their new expanded status. Elina by contrast was talking about the political self-conceptualisation of the Italian rule of Emperor Lothar I, and so it was hard to find questions that included all three. I got one that Wendy Davies said she was meaning to ask herself, but thereafter it was kind of three separate crowds rather than a discussion. Still good, though, especially as the other sessions had been much more pure diplomatic and this was more like what historians want to use charters for only done properly.

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Coffee helped with the head and I had a choice next session. I opted to stay in the same building, which also let me visit and wince at prices on the Brepols stall, and I then went to “New Work in Digital Medieval Studies“. This turned out to have been the right decision. In it, Arianna Ciula spoke of using computerised recognition to do palaeographic analysis, which seemed a tool that was so far very useful for a known corpus but which still had some work to be done before anyone could easily deploy it either to recognise scribes, rather than periodize script which was her interest, or use it on a new corpus without almost as long `teaching’ it conventions. All the same it was very interesting. Then Georg Vogeler spoke impassionedly about an attempt to get as many charters as possible onto the web—he was aiming for all of them, pointing out that the rate of increase over the last five years made this apparently realisable in the mid-range future—so as to compare usefully across many corpora, and complained about how little cooperation there was between diplomatists of different areas. Since my collaborators and I had been saying something very similar the previous day, this struck a big chord, and I talked with him afterwards about doing something about it. I’ll blog more about that in the next post; a lot more could very easily be done than is but it’s easy to change that. And finally Dorothy Carr Porter talked about using a 3D scanner to read old papyrus rolls without unrolling them and generally had us impressed at her budget and hardware and wondering what we could use it for. Here again, I know that the technology lacks as yet: papyrus is easier to see `through’ than parchment, codices less so than rolls, and though one would love to be able to read palimpsested text by scanning the tech isn’t yet there; I nearly got to work with the tech that isn’t yet there so I know something about this. It is on the way though, and in the meantime there’s still lots to be done with this, especially if we combined the papers: hi-tech scanning, webifying it then analysing scripts on the web images, for example, would make it nearly possible to automate scribal analysis on pretty much any text being digitised anywhere if people all cooperated… But as was mentioned by several people, “the deans don’t like that idea”. It seems a real pity that that attitude is apparently so frequent, and this sort of thing is really what the sadly moribund Arts and Humanities Data Service ought to have been doing, as I’ve said before.

Galla Placidia as depicted on a gold solidus of Valentinian

Galla Placidia as depicted on a gold solidus of Valentinian

After lunch I perhaps made a mistake, because rather than as I might have done going to see my boss orchestrate numismatists or some stuff about Carolingian-era Eastern Europe I opted instead to go and see friends, and this kind of failed because one of them had broken a foot and thus wasn’t present. However, I did get a fabulous paper by Ralph Mathisen asking whether the Roman emperors really meant it when they apparently outlawed marriage between Romans and barbarians in the fourth century (his answer: only for a certain class of militarily-occupied barbarian or their womenfolk; a related paper on barbarians and citizenship is here), and Jamie Wood unquestionably knows a lot about Isidore of Seville.

The Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard

Finally, I did after tea cave into the numismatic urge, mainly because someone had persuaded the British Museum to finally tell us what was in the Harrogate hoard, now to be known as the Vale of York hoard because of not really coming from that near Harrogate. The answer turns out to be 617 coins, about half of them being Athelstan Two-Line type, but some of the rest being previously unknown Viking types that reverse a small part of the chronology of the mint of Viking York. Small fry to you maybe but coinage chronology is the best early medieval dating evidence there is, it’s important that we keep trying to get it righter. We got one paper about the other artefacts in the hoard (because the cup it was all in is a fairly impressive silver thing in and of itself) and one about the coinage from Barry Ager and Gareth Williams respectively, and Megan Gooch set the scene first of all.

After that I got back to the other half of the site quickly as I could, then raced back again (as far as the conference buses made that possible) and just squeezed into Patrick Geary‘s Medieval Academy lecture, which was quite impressive, not least for the number of languages he had on screen (including Icelandic and Arabic—I can’t quite believe any non-natives speak both, and if they do, I doubt he’s one), but which also illustrated quite nicely Magistra’s point about the difference between `interesting’ and `important’: it was quite interesting to see that the reform movement around the eleventh-century Papacy did use a lot of language suggestive of an attitude that wanted to exclude the ignorant from Latin learning in case they messed it up, but since it was rather harder to find them actually stating this or forming policy round it in a conscious way, it wasn’t yet important. Once, as might not be too hard, it could be shown that these attitudes conform with what they actually did say out loud, it might be an interesting psychological twist, but really, Henry IV and Gregory VII already has enough such twists to make a spring out of. We’ll see if he does anything with this I guess.

There were a few receptions on that evening, though we badly missed our friends from Utrecht, sadly not very evident this year and certainly not offering vast amounts of cheese and Jenever, but given how ropey I’d felt for much of the day I made a sincere but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get an early night, and rose something like better shape for the Wednesday.

Blogroll policy, and some more archaeological experiments

I appear, over the nearly-two years this blog has been running, to have developed a blogroll policy. Given that, it seemed like a good idea to explain it, especially as I’ve just pruned it and I suppose the prunees might be wondering why. Basically it comes to the two things this blog is, at its core, intended to be, which is (a) academic and (b) advertising. Then there is also the idea that what I link to reflects my judgement in some way, so that in combination, I want the blogroll to show that I know that there are other medievalist bloggers out there trying to communicate their field to the general public. What this all means is that I want what I link to to be current, academically-inclined and more-or-less medieval. In practical terms, I seem to have wound up defining these criteria as “updated within the last quarter”, “having academic content on the front page” and “medieval, well, all right, ancient is also cool and archaeology is relevant almost without period”. Now I think that everyone I have linked to here satisfies those criteria, even if in a few cases I have linked to their categories so as to filter out non-relevant material. On the other hand, I’ve just removed The Punch Die, not because its focus is ancient and numismatic but simply because it hasn’t been updated in a quarter, and one highly erudite medieval blog currently featured on the blogroll was for a while removed because its entire front page was then squeeing about dogs, and I didn’t think that anyone following that link would think I was trying to tell them anything very useful about the medieval blogosphere. And I by and large don’t link to Livejournals, because they function rather differently as social networking and even where their content is largely medieval it’s often drowned by life, love and the pursuit of drunkehappiness. (I don’t link to the Medieval Studies community LJ for a different reason, which is that it’s locked to LJ users only; open it up to OpenID so I can comment some of the places I’ve been mentioned, and I’ll reconsider. Huh.)

This is not, please understand, a quality judgement! All of these exceptions have stuff in I like to read and think is well-written. I was glad when Highly Eccentric hived off her academic thought to The Naked Philologist, but precisely because I was already reading and enjoying Atol is Þin Unseon and was forever in a quandary about whether to link it. I’d love to link to several blogs that spark up about once a year, I’ll mention Westmynstre Blues and Recent Finds in particular, but it makes it look as if I’m not paying attention to my own site. And even the squeeing about dogs was well-written, though I freely admit that dogs are not a great interest of mine. So please, if you find yourself excluded, don’t think of it as snobbery, but mission focus. Or, of course, should your case be appropriate, bloody well update :-)

Now for those of you not following my blogroll, and why the heck should you after all, you may just be missing out. In particular David Beard is doing sterling work keeping us abreast of what I’d call Recent Finds had that name not gone, with his posts to Archaeology in Europe, and it’s about one of those I want to write for the rest of this post.

L\'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

You may just have heard of Dr Peter Reynolds, who died in 2001 but had until then been in charge of the thirty-year research project at Butser Ancient Farm, which is a site founded to farm and build as the Pre-Roman Celts and Romans did, with authentic crops and methods, by way of finding out how that worked, how much the original farmers knew about what they were doing, and of course try and rediscover some of what they knew that we don’t.1 What you may not know is that he was also part of a project doing similar reconstructive work for the medieval period in Catalonia, which is of course how I know about it though even then only by the sketchiest of chances.2 And I was reminded of this by a recent post by David Beard, you see, and thus find out (because his link leads to the whole paper, which is in English) that this work has carried on since 2001, in one of the most interesting sites in Catalonia, l’Esquerda.3

L’Esquerda’s principally notable for being a Carolingian refortification of a Celtic oppidum that time basically forgot as the frontier moved outwards. Most of the existing building is twelfth-century but a burial sequence goes back to the Carolingian era, and there seems to be a reference in Astronomer’s Life of Louis the Pious to orders that would have seen it rebuilt.4 That’s by the by, however, as what they’ve been doing that’s described here is, Reynolds-style, constructing a replica of a granary that was found on the site some time ago. This has told them a lot about the storage capacity and techniques of the building, but the real meat of the project, and the bit that got Reynolds involved, was an attempt to recreate the agronomic range of the medieval site using the seed remains in the granary as a guide. This is essentially what the paper that David has linked to is about, and it’s all good stuff and tells us lots about what grew and what didn’t, and in particular suggests that the miserable cereal yields we are often told to think of medieval agriculture as producing are in fact so miserable as to be difficult to replicate without deliberately screwing it up, which medieval folk presumably weren’t doing, so we should probably call those sources into question (as has indeed been done).5

Chenopodium album, or Fat Hen

But I’m more pleased about the work it reminded me of, which was in a way more interesting although based on a very old-fashioned idea of the relationships between lord and peasant in medieval times. It is pretty clear from various sources that where in Catalonia wheat could be grown, it was. It was Reynolds’s contention that the lords would have taken most of this as tax, and certainly that wheaten bread or porridge couldn’t have been the peasant diet very much of the year. The same also applied to the second, spring, harvest of barley or millet, much of which would have gone for fodder. What did the peasants eat once all this was gone? And Reynolds’s article that I remembered was about this ‘third harvest’, the unlikely crops we no longer think about except at really fancy bakeries like spelt or the above-pictured vegetable and grain-source, Fat Hen or white goosefoot, which as well as having edible cabbage-like leaves also has seeds out of which a passable bread flour can be ground.6 He pointed out that this stuff and other food sources like it grow wild, in the places between cultivation, and that though we might not consider it as food, a starving peasant who knew his plants, as most of them would have done surely, certainly would. The upshot is that the state of the medieval peasant, even in hard times, may not have been as hard as we sometimes think, his diet more varied and seasonal, and less of his ill-being down to lordly exaction than it might be because there were some things lords didn’t exact. The ideology of the paper was a little questionable, to say the least, but the food science was fascinating. So yes: I recommend knowing what peasants ate and here is some good evidence. I don’t know if they have a medieval bakery at the l’Esquerda visitor centre (needs Flash, this one, but a good site) selling you Fat Hen bread but if they did (and I hope to go some time in the coming year) I would totally buy and eat some in Dr Reynolds’s honour.


1. Peter J. Reynolds, Iron Age Farm: the Butser Experiment (London 1979) (non vidi).

2. I found idem & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351 with Catalan résumé p. 339, French résumé pp. 351-352, & Provencal résumé & English abstract p. 352. This volume is not easy to find: in fact, if you do, I’ll buy it from you! I’ve been to Vic to look (among other things). But it wasn’t Reynolds’s paper I’d inter-library-loaned it from Madrid for…

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/j418g4qt35038806/fulltext.html, last modified 19 June 2008 as of 15 July 2008.

4. There’s a wealth of Catalan work about l’Esquerda, mostly from the team of Imma Ollich who has been leading the excavations there for a good many years now. I think the most thorough thing is Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer & Montserrat Rocafiguera i Espona, L’Esquerda: 2500 anys d’història, 25 anys de recerca (Roda de Ter 2001), which i’m still trying to get hold of, but there’s loads more, and Prof. Ollich is available in English on the subject too, in the translation of her “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia, pp. 84-88 as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town”, ibid. pp. 461-463. Now, honestly, I’ll not often say this, but you should buy that volume. It’s an exhibition catalogue, and so it’s full of gorgeous illustrations: all the articles, which cover a good swathe of Carolingian Europe and England even if it focuses on Catalonia, are translated into English from the original Spanish and feature genuine notables (Pierre Riché is the first to spring to mind but that gives you the idea). Plus which, my copy, which I got from Oxbow Books where it is still on sale, albeit at rather more than I paid for it, came in shrink-wrap with a ticket for the exhibition in, which I rather liked even if I don’t have the time machine that would let me make use of it. It’s genuinely worth having for any early medievalist. Anyway. If, instead, you would prefer current English-language scholarship on l’Esquerda, may I ask you to wait a short while and then avail yourself of J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’” in A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), or indeed J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), both of which have something to say about the area, among lots more.

The refortification reference is Astronomer, Vita Hludowici Imperatoris, ed. E. Tremp in idem (ed.), Thegan: Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris. Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Vita Hludowici Imperatoris. Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) LXIV (Hannover 1995), online at http://www.dmgh.de/dmghband.html?bsbbandname=00000712, last modified 8 November 2004 as of 10 November 2007, pp. 278-558 with introduction pp. 53-153, cap. 8: “… ciuitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram, et reliqua oppida olim deserta, munivit…. Now, it’s an oppidum desertum once again… Apart from the archaeologists and tourists!

5. Often hard to know what to cite on this: I would work from Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994) which is solid but thorough and gives you some references that weren’t in the first edition. Much more readable is Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard Clarke (London 1974), but very of its time and quite possibly where Reynolds got his ideological stances mentioned below. Pp. 25-27 of Duby’s book give the minimum figures and their sources, but as Pounds and many others have observed, it seems very unlikely that medieval agriculture could have fed so many on so little surplus. Reynolds’s most focused work on this was “Medieval cereal yields in Catalonia and England. An empirical challenge” in Acta Medievalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 495–509.

6. Reynolds & Shaw, “The Third Harvest”, an unpaginated text of which is online here, last modified 20 February 2008 as of 15 July 2008.