Monthly Archives: August 2008

Linking al-Andalus: approaches separated by a millennium

I started working on Catalonia mainly because it was a frontier zone, and though I identify as a Carolingianist if I can get away with it, it has to be said that the reason I knew anything about the area at all was because of having done a paper on Muslim Spain as an undergraduate. I don’t read Arabic (a salutation here to the friend and Arabist who occasionally helps me with it) but it is, all the same, important to have some kind of idea what the other side of the frontier was like, especially given that what first interested me in the area was the space in between the two sides, which could therefore be some of either. So I read stuff about al-Andalus, which you probably know is the Arabic name for Muslim Spain, when it passes my way.

the first Cordoban Caliph

Cover of Maribel Fierro's 'Abd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph

So recently I’ve just finished Maribel Fierro’s cAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph (Oxford 2005), which is a slim little biography in a series called Makers of the Muslim World. It does the man reasonable credit, as far as I’m any judge. The narrative sections are a little awkward, but not at all bad when you consider the author was writing in at least her second language. Only twice, both in the same chapter, is the grammar or syntax anything less than fine, and there I think bad editing had lost words. The thematic chapters are stronger, though, quite subtle settings-out of the propaganda war with the rival Fatimid caliphs in what is now Tunisia that provided the context for cAbd al-Rahman’s adoption of the caliphal title in 929, of the differing currents of religious opinion, and of how the ruler operated so as to maintain his position and reputation (his rule, from 912-961, was one of the longest of any medieval Islamic ruler). This means that the cultural sphere is treated rather better than the political one, but for that there are better books (which Fierro’s bibliography directs you to).

I spent most of the first half of the volume twitching every time I came across the phrase “the sources tell us…” though. The sources for the Umayyad court are as or more problematic as those for the Carolingian court, in that they were mostly generated by or for that court, and therefore give us very little sense of what the opposition thought they were doing; also, in the Andalusi case, the key ones largely exist only in much later manuscripts or extracts, less faithful than is sometimes claimed, by other authors. The former problem, Fierro does address in an appendix, though not so as to solve it (no-one else has, after all) ; the latter one she doesn’t really touch. In the end, one has to reach the appendix before we know that she knows the problems and has made her decision about what can be used, but the keen critic might wish that she explained the basis for this decision in a few more places in the text. That, and a rather butterfly touch in arrangement which repeatedly sidetracks the reader somewhere unhelpful before resuming a theme, are the only criticisms I’d really raise against a neat little book that does a reasonable job of explaining why cAbd al-Rahman III al-Nasir and the title he took mattered in his world.

The ruins of Abd al-Rahmans palace city at Madinat al-Zahra

The ruins of 'Abd al-Rahman's palace city at Madinat al-Zahra'

Actually, the two things I was most interested to learn (though, you know, I did know some of it) were not so much to do with his actions. Firstly, something I had read before but I’d forgotten, his mother was a Basque princess, so this leader of the Arabic world was blond and fair-skinned. The only reason that this mattered to anyone was that the Fatimids could claim descent from Arabian caliphs on both sides of their family; the Christian mother was no greater a stigma than a fully-Islamic woman from Egypt would have been. Skin colour just wasn’t the issue. It’s always timely to be reminded that some parts of the medieval world really didn’t bother with ethnicity-by-birth the way we have been trained to avoid.

The other thing was nothing to do with him at all, but with his son al-Hakam, who eventually succeeded him as caliph, but in his considerable adult life as heir apparent mainly busied himself with books. He was a great patron of learning, much treated therefore in poetry and history especially by Ahmad and Isa’ al-Razi, father and son chroniclers. His library was immense, and so since we know that a copy of Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans was brought to al-Andalus and translated by his order into Arabic so that he could read it, it has been suggested that the surviving Arabic text that we have of Orosius, which adds a short chronicle about Visigothic Spain, was al-Hakam’s own work. (Fierro mentions the possibility, which is why it comes up now). It sounds bizarre, but he did collect the sort of texts that might have enabled him to do it. And one of them was Catalan. (This is the point at which Simon MacLean, with whom I’ve been discussing this text by e-mail, can stop reading, because he saw this musing already…)

In 940, you see, Bishop Godmar II of Girona was part of an embassy sent by his master Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona to negotiate peace with the caliph now that a rebellion in Saragossa was over that had permitted Sunyer to start taking tribute from a couple of Andalusi cities. That stopped, though as I’ve mentioned this didn’t stop them taking over Tarragona as soon as cAbd al-Rahman III took the pressure off. But in 940 it was important to win favour, and so among the gifts that were taken south Godmar added a work of his own, a Book of Histories of the Kings of the Franks. Unfortunately a very garbled list of kings given by the Iraqi traveller and historian al-Mas cUdi, who died in 957 and so must have seen a copy very close to al-Hakam’s own, is all that remains of it. (The article on him in Wikipedia says he saw it in Egypt, but also thinks Godmar was an Andalusi, so I doubt its fact-checking.) This is immensely frustrating, because I (and probably others) would absolutely love to know how a Catalan bishop in the days of early seigneurial takeover saw his notional royal masters. Alas, it is lost.

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

Just take one more moment to tease out the implications, though. Godmar presumably thought that such a present wouldn’t be considered a snub, but would instead be greeted with interest. Al-Hakam’s reputation must therefore have been known in Catalonia; was Godmar in touch with scholars in Córdoba? Whom did he meet when he went there? Did this amateur historian meet the professionals like the Razis? Could they converse? Was his Arabic or their Latin good enough? Did he see the embassy more as a chance to meet scholars, or was he trying to show that he was good enough to walk into a court he knew was full of them? And bear in mind too, that al-Hakam wasn’t caliph yet, his father would rule for twenty more years. So if someone brings a present that al-Hakam will love (and apparently allow to be copied), does that mean that the son has his father’s especial ear, or that cAbd al-Rahman himself was an antiquarian of sorts, or that Godmar was just touchingly naïf? So many little possibilities hang off this book that, like Fierro’s, tried to translate one culture for the enlightenment of its neighbours…

Bishops and metropolitans in Catalonia (also, the Carolingian conquest thereof)

You, the keen reader, by now know that I argue that Catalonia in the ninth and tenth centuries can justly be called Carolingian. It occurs to me to wonder how much you could possibly know of how that comes about. It’s essential background for being perplexed about what I’m currently perplexed about, and not for the first time. Let me set it up.

The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins

The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins, from Wikitravel, copyright renounced

Spain, as I guess is not news to you, was conquered by the armies of Islam in 711, or at least, the conquest began with the defeat of the Visigothic king Roderick that year by the Berber leader Tariq, whose rock (jabal) Gibraltar (Jabal al-Tariq) is. The North-East took longer to fall: already in rebellion against Roderick, it set up its own king, Achila and he resisted till 714, when he is supposed, I don’t know on what evidence, to have reached terms with the Muslims, leaving his son Witiza II to hold on till 718 beyond the Pyrenees. Both these kings are known to us only from their coinage, so don’t say numismatists never tell you anything. But anyway. Tarragona, the erstwhile capital of the region, held out when it was attacked and was therefore bloodily sacked in 712, other cities thereafter reaching terms; Tarragona remained a ruin for the next four centuries, proving that the others were long-term correct to surrender.

A bronze triens of King Achila of the Visigoths

A bronze triens of King Achila of the Visigoths

But Catalonia was not Muslim for long. Muslim attacks through Aquitaine, as well as the Frankish desire to bring Aquitaine properly under rule and renew the regnum Francorum once held by the Merovingians, provoked Frankish aggression into the old Visigothic province of Septimania (the bit at the southern tip of l’Héxagone) and this in turn led the frontier princes of the Muslim state, whose allegiance to the centre was ever questionable, to look interestedly at Charlemagne when contemplating rebellion. In 778, famously, Charlemagne was induced to bring an army south into Spain by the promises of the walis of Saragossa and Barcelona to hand their cities over to him if he came to aid their latest secession. He did, but they didn’t, and on the way back across the Pyrenees Charlemagne’s army was hit by the Basques in an ambush, in revenge for his sacking of their capital Pamplona on the way in, and the seneschal Roland died with the vanguard trying to fend them off. In later years someone wrote a song about this that you may have heard mentioned.

Anyway, it is argued that this must have left some people in Catalonia in a difficult position vis-à-vis the Muslim rulers, at least if they’d joined Charlemagne’s army or, I don’t know, put out “Franci veniunt, Agareni ite domum” posters or something. Certainly there seems now to have started a significant wave of emigration from the area into ‘safe’ Septimania, and in 785 the cities of Urgell and Girona, we know not under what control, handed themselves over to Charlemagne. So at least say the Royal Frankish Annals, and as the campaigns go on they are joined by the works of Thegan, the Astronomer and Ermold the Black.1 This and the immigrants drew the Carolingians back into the area, and Louis the Pious, at this time King of Aquitaine, and his right-hand man Duke Guilhem of Toulouse, campaigned more or less annually thereafter to secure it, refortifying large swathes of frontier on old Iberian sites or empty Visigothic cities, and in 801 managing to take Barcelona. They held Tarragona briefly, but found it worthless, and couldn’t get either Tortosa or Huesca beyond it despite numerous attempts, so the old province of the Tarraconensis remained partly-Muslim. What is now old Catalonia, Catalunya Vella, is more or less what the Franks took. This is also why Catalan is a different language from Castilian Spanish, much more like French, Provençal or indeed Latin.

Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals, photo from the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana

Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals, photo from the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana

The importance of this for what I’m writing about is that Tarragona, empty and Muslim-held, had been the area’s metropolitan see. Without it, the Catalan bishoprics (two of which were suppressed anyway and their territories divided) were placed under Frankish Narbonne. Now, thanks to the patient work of a man called Don Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals for many years, Catalonia is not thought to have had much of a national identity this early.2 The area was split between many counts, until the tenth century was repeatedly sunk into civil war between them, did not (and does not) have a single language and was sprinkled with immigrants from both sides of the border. Don Ramon had to work against a justly patriotic school which wanted to assert Catalan identity in the swamping Spanishness (Catalunya no es Espanya!) of the kind of unifying historiography seen, for example, in the statues in my post on Madrid, and he had to do it largely during a period when Franco was trying to put all that back again, but he did more or less succeed, and these days it is usually felt to be the 985 sack of Barcelona that shocked Catalonia into realising that it was on its own and furthermore therefore of its own.3 But when you read about the Church, specifically, this work seems to be forgotten in the wake of three stories that won’t die about attempts to renew the metropolitanate of Tarragona and break away from the Frankish Church.

There is no question that the lordship of Narbonne over the bishops across the mountains from it weighed more heavily than royal rule did, but I’ve still never bought this secession idea. Furthermore, Don Ramon only bought it for one of the three, but nonetheless the trio is repeated again and again in stock histories by contributors who should know better.4 I actually have a paper under work about this, have had for years, and I hope still to get it out some day so I won’t go into too much detail, but, some idea. The three episodes are these. In 886, when Bishop Ingobert of Urgell fell ill, the chapter seem to have uncanonically appointed a replacement called Esclúa. Ingobert got better but Esclúa didn’t retire; instead he collaborated in the appointment of a new bishop of Girona, Ermemir, despite Archbishop Theodard of Narbonne having chosen one Servedéu, and in the appointment of Bishop Adulf to an entirely new see at Pallars. A Narbonne source also says that Esclúa claimed he could do this because he’d named himself Archbishop of Tarragona and several other bishops had gone along with it. Because, however, he had the backing only of the less powerful of the March’s two main counts, Archbishop Theodard was able to enlist the support of the other. He and the count, none other than Guifré the Hairy, went and got King Odo, whom Guifré had not recognised until now, to withdraw his support and empower them to reimpose order. Esclúa and Ermemir, says the Narbonne source, were degraded in council in 890. Well, this has been disproved for thirty years. The Narbonne source, indeed, and the fake papal Bull it includes, have been declaimed as forged since 1933, and Esclúa went on appearing as bishop until his death in 924, even though Ingobert was apparently restored; there also seems to have been some power-sharing at Girona, though Ermemir disappeared much quicker. So that’s rubbish and the episode looks like local factionalising, not secession.5

The monastery church of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The monastery church of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Between about 941 and 966, the counts of Barcelona were again briefly in charge of Tarragona. (I’ve been told by a reviewer that no historian takes this claim of the Arabic sources seriously, but well, actually many do, it comes from Ibn Hayyan who originally worked from administrative records at Córdoba, and it seems a very unlikely thing for any subsequent editor to insert, because it was soon reversed and does no-one any particular credit.6) Around the beginning of that time, anyway, we are told by a very strange letter in the name of Abbot Cesari of Montserrat that he went to Santiago de Compostela and there got himself ordained by the bishops there as Archbishop of Tarragona. (No-one who has written about this has realised the old see was actually Christian again at the time, as far as I can tell. What the time was is tricky: Cesari, if it genuinely was he, gives a date that should be 940 A. D., but the list of officiating bishops he mentions fits only to 956, if then, and that’s roughly when the title starts appearing in the copies of the Montserrat documents too.) The letter says that when he returned home, none of the Catalan bishops would obey him, so he retired back to the monastery, where we do indeed have records of charters that called him Archbishop. This one’s hard to refute, but what is clear is that wherever he got his title, no-one took it seriously, perhaps because of treaties forcing the return of his see to the Muslims in the 960s.7

The three papal papyri of Pope John XIII to Vic

The three papal papyri of Pope John XIII to Vic

In 970, Count Borrell II of Barcelona took his pet Bishop of Osona, a guy called Ató, and their star pupil Gerbert of Rheims, later to become Pope Sylvester II and even later to be infamously remembered as an Arab-trained magician, to Rome to beseech Pope John XIII. They came home with five papal Bulls (three on papyrus, two on parchment, apparently…) saying firstly that Ató was now Archbishop, Tarragona’s rights being shifted to the see, and secondly that he should take over the administration of the see of Girona where, the pope was horrified to hear, a neophyte had been elected, which was totally illegal. Actually, Ató was murdered inside the year, we never see him act as Archbishop and though his see recorded him as such, Girona when it noted his death called him only Bishop; his successor Fruià went to Rome but only as bishop even though the Bulls said the dignity would be renewed in his successors, and generally, whatever happened here didn’t work out and wasn’t agreed at the time even in Borrell’s own territory (he also ruled Girona). So even if they really did ask the pope, which I have doubted, it didn’t work for long.8

An early modern depiction of Pope John XIII, apparently thinking better of something

So we have three `archbishops’. None of them were universally accepted even in their own patron’s territories, one of them almost certainly never really claimed the dignity, and the Archbishop of Narbonne retains his rôle in the area throughout. It’s really not a nationalist breakaway movement by a whole Church. And all this has been known for many many years, so why do these venerable and otherwise sharp scholars persist in ignoring it? How important can this one myth be when they’ve been willing to discard so many others? Why do I keep reading these stories over and over again like Gospel? I understand nationalism, I do, even if I don’t feel it myself, but this is such a weird manifestation of it…


1. Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), transl. B. Scholz & B. Rogers in eidem, Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21; Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris), MGH SRG LXIV (Hannover 1995); Edmond Faral (ed./transl.), Ermold le Noir: poème sur Louis le Pieux et Épîtres au Roi Pépin (Paris 1932).

2. Most obviously Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els Primers Comtes Catalans, Biografies Catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958; repr. 1980).

3. On the effect of the 985, sack on the area, see Michel Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansūr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1987), pp. 121-218; cf. Paul Freedman, “The Symbolic Implications of the Events of 985-988″ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129.

4. To wit, in Antoni Pladevall, “La organización de la iglesia en Cataluña” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 53-58, transl. as “Church Organization in Carolingian Catalonia” ibid., pp. 444-448; and in Manuel Riu i Riu, “La Organizació eclesiástica” in J. M. Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, tomo VII: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II. Los Nucleos Pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. M. Riu i Riu (Madrid 1999).

5. Robert-Henri Bautier, “La prétendue dissidence de l’épiscopat catalan et le faux concile de « Portus » de 887-890″ in Bulletin philologique et historique (jusqu’à 1610) du Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques 1961 (Paris 1963), pp. 477-498, citing Étienne Griffe, Histoire religieuse des anciens pays de l’Aude. Tome I: des origines chrétiennes à la fin de l’époque carolingienne (Paris 1933), pp. 252-263; cf. J. Morera Sabater, “Un conato de secesión eclesiástica en la Marca Hispánica en el siglo IX” in Anales del Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses Vol. 15 (Girona 1962), pp. 293-315.

6. For example, Philippe Sénac, “Note sur les relations diplomatiques entre les comtes de Barcelone et le califat de Cordoue au Xe siècle” in idem, Histoire et Archéologie des Terres Catalanes au Moyen Âge (Perpignan 1995), pp. 87-101; Albert Benet i Clarà, “Castells, guàrdies i torres de defensa” in Udina, Symposium Internacional, I pp. 393-407, at pp. 386-388 ; and Dolores Bramon (ed.), De Quan Erem o No Musulmans: textos del 713 al 1000. Continuació de l’Obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), pp. 284-286, where the source references.

7. J. M. Martí Bonet, “Las pretensiones metropolitanas de Cesáreo, abad de Santa Cecilia de Montserrat” in Anthologica Annua (Rome 1974), pp. 157-182; cf. R. Martí, “Delà, Cesari i Ató, primers arquebisbes dels comptes-prínceps de Barcelona (951-953/981)” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 67 (Tarragona 1994), pp. 369-386 and indeed J. M. Martí Bonet, “Entre dues obediènces: Roma i Compostela”, ibid. pp. 387-397.

8. Martí, “Delà, Cesari i Ató”; I presented my views as “Archbishop Ató of Vic: ecclesiastical separatism in Carolingian Catalonia”, paper presented at EMERGE 2003 Conference, University of St Andrews, 13th September 2003, but my argument has got a lot more complicated since then.

Going away AGAIN

An Arius 3D scanner system

An Arius 3D scanner system

At rather short notice, I’ve been added to the program for EVA Vienna 2008, a cultural heritage technology conference in which a project team of which my department is part are participating. I’ve wound up being the one who has to present for us, which means firstly that I shall be AFK yet again (sorry) between August 26th and 28th, and secondly that I have to write a paper very fast. Since the deadline for inclusion in conference proceedings was in June (they do things differently in the sciences I tell you) I don’t know whether I get a publication out of this or not—it will not be my most path-breaking work if I do—but there seem to be lots of interesting tech-related papers on the program and it will be interesting to compare them with other digitally-related work I’ve been hearing about.

Never rains but it pours, etc. Expect reports.

One thing leads from another

Do you ever have this problem where what you’re reading for one reason turns out to be mostly relevant for another? This is where I am currently. I should primarily be working on the book – well, actually, I could take a minute or two away from that at the moment as my editor is reviewing the whole body text prior to advising me where best to cut – but the book on the stack I picked up to give some archaeological background in the vague section about hardly-visible frontier communities, which became when fully realised the Queen Mary paper that is somewhere in a print queue even now… where was I? Oh, yes—you see what I mean by the title—that book is now telling me more about peasant resistance to lordship, which has more to do with a future project about legitimate authority.

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Don't mess with that one, he's got a billhook...

Well, if not that I should be working on the extra reading needed for any of the three papers I’ve had accepted that need revisions. But you know that van Engen volume that’s generated me so many posts? I originally got that out of the library for an article about the making and use of charters that, you’ll have noticed, hasn’t featured in any of my numerous reactions to the book’s material. And the book I’m mainly reading for the one on land clearance and frontier resettlement has actually dropped me into a really good article by Josep María Salrach which is going to underpin my paper for the Haskins Society conference, which is instead about the sense in which Carolingian royal power operated and was respected in Catalonia in the later Carolingian period. This keeps happening. Every time I try and focus on something I find I’m working on something else by the time I finish the reading…

I could try and draw some serious point about how this is inevitable because the Middle Ages is a holistic category in which all phenomena interact, so Carolingian royal power does affect land clearance and vice versa… and I could even sustain it, because some of these peasants clearing land are later referred to in charters by which they sell it as “first men on the royal land”, supporting their tenure by reference to the king’s claim to waste lands, an authority which can’t reach them and is therefore untoppable, but which is strengthened by this reference in the minds of the audience as long as that claim is worth making.1 You see? But actually what’s happening is that I’m getting sidetracked and if these papers are ever coming out, I need to, if not read less, at least read the things I actually picked up the book for first and leave the others for future days…

Now actually this weekend has gone on various birthdays and weddings and last-minute changes of plan to see more friends and play more old board games and this is not a bad thing, but really it hasn’t solved this problem very much. It has however by the great kindness of a dear friend solved my long-ago-mentioned computer problems and much of today has gone on taking advantage of this to get the new machine set up. Well, I’m typing on it now and it has pretty much all my data on it, and this generally heralds an awful lot less wasted time on computers pretty soon. Whether that means I get more or less done and you get more or less to read though, will be revealed in due course.


1. For example in Federico Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 114 or 116, discussed Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, p. 87.

Whole lot of blogging out there

I try and keep this blog mostly on the actual Middle Ages and writing about it, and not get drawn into too much conversation between bloggers about blogs. The times that a particular British TV critic would go on about how much he hated TV about TV, in phrases I won’t use here but which could be paraphrased mostly using words starting with ‘self-‘, have influenced me greatly here. All the same, there are times when ya gotta. First of these is that Gabriele Campbell of the Lost Fort has nominated me for an award that I’m not sure what to do with or whence it comes. It seems to just be a meme but still, somewhere I’m sure someone is counting the times the little design they created appears somewhere and generally monitoring us like aliens monitoring us from ABOVE MAN I’M TELLING YOU!!1!eleventy-one! etc. Lemme make with the tinfoil hat already!

I’d be inclined to ignore this, but Gabriele’s nominated me for something before and I ignored it then too, and then, even while this was in draft, Another Damned Medievalist nominated me for the same award! Also, more pertinently, I’m temporarily short of content, so OK, I’ll bite. But I’m not going to tag ten others as the meme wants. I hate being tagged myself unless it really gives me something to play with. What I will do, which is subtly not the same thing, is try and explain why I think ten of the blogs I read are worth the reading.

  • It would be somewhat rude, of course, not to start with Gabriele, who is one of a number of historical fiction writers running a blog to test ideas and connect with her peers. These are blogs that by and large I avoid. The reason I don’t avoid Gabriele’s is partly because of the sense of humour, but mainly because when she writes about somewhere she’s usually been there and taken brilliant photoes. Honestly, there are more shots and explanations of European castles at The Lost Fort than on several castle tourist sites, and the photoes are far better.
  • Another fiction writer whom I make an exception for is Carla Nayland. A quantity of the blog is local photography and there’s a recipe every month, some of which look damn tasty but not medieval. However, she does her research: there’s as likely to be a post untangling matters of the Anglo-Saxon calendar or disambiguating two Pictish kings as there is either of those, and if you don’t know Insular early medieval history or its debates particularly well you will find a clever and easily-fathomable introduction to several at Carla’s blog. So if you had been ignoring it because of its averred fictionality, let me assure you that that’s misleading.
  • Now let’s talk the ones that I turn to hoping for a smile to be raised. You are all reading Jennifer Lynn Jordan’s Per Omnia Sæcula aren’t you? I can’t see why you wouldn’t be. Irreverent perhaps—well, no, definitely, in as much as paper cartoon puppets of Charlemagne can hardly be reverent—but erudite, passionate and you never know exactly what’s going to crop up.
  • Much more certain for what will turn up, in as much as there is a tag cloud in which the words “Angelina Jolie” and “boobs” turn up quite large (though the latter not as large as another tag, “not boobs”), is Carl Pyrdum’s Got Medieval; despite what I’ve just said Carl deploys considerable learning about the Middle Ages, often based on close readings of manuscripts that are carefully illustrated in his posts, in the great purpose of having fun, and also of using large numbers of amusing footnotes. Also, there are but few places out there where an author publically disclaims everything he’s written, and this is one.
  • Sticking with the reading for enjoyment, two very different approaches to an Anglo-Saxon academy come from Professor Michael Drout and she who trades as The Naked Philologist. From Drout’s Wormtalk and Slugspeak we get justifiably infrequent but always learned posts which take complicated things, be they Old English verse and its manuscripts or academic management, and make them comprehensible to the outsider in a sensitive way. I don’t feel involved in many of the things that Professor Drout does, but I’m always interested in reading them.
  • On the other hand, la Philologiste is more likely to come up with carefully-crafted cartoon icons and humourous retellings of hagiography than give lengthy state-of-the-field discourses (though there have been some of them as well). What can I say? At some level, the enthusiasm and the love of the subject matter are not dissimilar, and they mean I’m always glad to see her avatar in WordPress’s blog surfer (as well as faintly envious of an undergraduate already deep in manuscript work).
  • There is a little cluster of three, which there are many good reasons to read, but which I follow because what they write is likely to touch my own research, and there aren’t very many people who do this, and still fewer on the Internet. Best known to the readership because of being so well-established, I suspect, is Another Damned Medievalist whose Blogenspiel was one of the first medievalist blogs of which I was aware and gave me the consciousness that people were doing this and that it could be done in conjunction with a job. Second, because I know the writer in real life and because our interests overlap considerably, but also because the questions she asks of our material are very different from mine, is Magistra et Mater, whose likewise long-established blog I took rather longer to happen on. Third and newest, but providing me a series of interesting perspectives on how my material looks from later, if you see, is Clio’s Disciple, whom I may have frightened by mentioning here (though I imagine it’s good for no more than a couple of hits, all the same).
  • That seems to be nine. So let me last mention The Rebel Letter, which is not something I might be expected to like. I don’t think that the author and I would get on in person, we have very different backgrounds and interests and a great deal of the blog is personal life which I don’t really consider it this blog’s job to bring forward. However, she writes really well and often enough that is writing about, if not medieval texts (though sometimes) the academic life, its travails and costs and its occasional fierce joys, that I have no compunction not only in linking it but following it as if it were the most relevant thing in the world.

This omits a few obvious suspects: again, I assume everyone is already reading some, like The Unlocked Wordhoard and Geoffrey Chaucer (TM) Hath an Extreme Blog: Go England! It Ys Rad!, as it’s currently trading. Also, I think it’s vital to keep up with David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, but I only mentioned that a few posts ago and no-one seemed interested; more fools you then, that’s where the new source material’s going to be reported. But this’ll do for now.

* * *

Now then. You’ll perhaps have noticed that significantly absent from the blogroll is In the Medieval Middle, which is because I don’t read it. My occasional ventures there when Richard Scott Nokes cherry-picks a good bit have left me thinking I don’t really want to: at its worst I find it irrelevant, self-gratulatory and insubstantial, and at its best mainly poetic rather than useful, to me at least. In general terms, it just doesn’t have much to do with what I want to study, which is not to deny its worth for others working in a more literary and less historical vein. However, because I’ve been known to say so much in public fora, I thought it was worth making it clear that I am nothing at all to do with this. This, a new rival blog enjoying the title In the Medieval Muddle, is a far worse waste of effort, or at least it is so far. I wouldn’t deny the importance and potential use of their mission, but the combative tone, the inherently destructive critique with no positive readings to balance it, and the incessant sniping at particular people means that it reads like a very bitter and over-elaborate grudge match that I would have no part of even if it were offered. I shan’t even comment there, tempting though it has already been; I am on neither side. I’ll explain why.

I did my undergraduate and my Masters degrees at Cambridge, and then by a series of accidents ended up doing my Ph. D. at London. I will usually defend Oxbridge against stereotypical charges of élitism: it does want to be, and tries hard to be in ways that people ignore, an élite that anyone good enough can join, though given how slowly its recruitment base changes, I can understand the point of view that doesn’t want to be part of it. I do get upset by people who tell me they didn’t apply “because they don’t take people like me”, though. Rubbish: I knew some. They had more ambitious teachers, perhaps, parents with bigger aspirations, more support, but none of this means that Oxbridge wasn’t interested in recruiting the best brains it could get wherever they’d been trained. Of course, they also want to select people who’ll do well and not hate it, which is much more like gatekeeping though not necessarily sinister in motives. Actually, inside the system there is quite justifiable paranoia about what this perception of bias may do to their funding some day; it’s in their interest in many ways to change it, which means changing whatever reality lies behind it too, but it’s slow doing. (This is all fresh in my mind because of a recent article about it in the British Guardian newspaper, which you can find discussed here where you’ll realise you’ve just read my comment.)

All the same, Oxbridge does remain, for the moment, altogether too upper-middle-class, rich and isolated from social distress. This can only be changed by changing its population, which is rather Catch-22; in order to attract people from a broader social base, it needs more of them. And sometimes, it is not very attractive to these people. Sometimes, indeed, it is downright stupid and ridiculous and does itself no favours. One of the reasons I was glad to get out to London, once those accidents had occurred, was the far easier dialogue between ‘rival’ scholars that I met, for example, at the Institute of Historical Research. Quite a lot of them were ex-Oxbridge or on their way back, but they didn’t feud. And this struck me as pleasantly strange, because the first and only time I went to a graduate seminar during my Masters (poor, I know, but read on and also understand that I had a great deal on my plate that year outside the degree), I’d seen Oxbridge at its worst. I won’t name the names, but an eminent professor who was convening the seminar that day, was heartily disliked by another eminent professor. The latter turned up late and bustled in, interrupting proceedings, whereupon the following exchange genuinely took place:

Eminence 2: Hullo everybody, sorry I’m late, you weren’t starting without me were you?

Eminence 1: Now [Eminence 1], we wouldn’t dream of starting without you.

Eminence 2 cocks hand to ear: Did someone say something? No? Well anyway.

At this point I realised I was seeing two grown men who supposedly represented the intellectual peak of my intended profession unwittingly reenacting the Mary Whitehouse Experience. Eminence 2 is an authority on his subject whom no-one can ignore even now; and here he was playing playground “I can’t hear you” games. Yessir: welcome to adulthood. Oh no, that would be somewhere else. London was never like this; there were in fact feuds but they were conducted by means of the antagonists just avoiding each other and getting on in public, you know, like adults. Back in Cambridge, it was much too often History Today done live.

So, anonymous blogger at In The Medieval Muddle, you see this:

That’s you, that is. And alas, you are in stalwart, noble and respected company.

Love stories in charter evidence

People who ask me what I work on are occasionally moved to respond, when I tell them “Catalan charters”, by asking if there are any narratives from my area. And well, in the sense they mean, chronicles, saints’ lives, no, there aren’t.1 Extracting a macro-history for Catalonia once the various Frankish annals stop paying attention is a bit tricky and has thankfully been done very well by others cleverer and subtler than me.2 However, as I’m always trying to show, that doesn’t mean there are no narratives, because every transaction is a narrative. Not only that, it often contains another, describing what happened that caused this transaction to take place. Sometimes that’s as conventional as “Jesus died to save us and the Fathers tell us that alms may free the soul from death”. And sometimes, it’s a court case where it’s all clearly got a bit mad. But aside from murder, jealousy, envy and contention, can you get at the good side of humanity in these documents? Well, maybe sometimes.

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

You see, there once was a man, a mighty man who was named Sal·la. He was a vicar, which here means an officer who holds the place of the count at some castle or other, a fiscal representative. But Sal·la ranged over such a wide area that we don’t know where he was actually vicar of, and one of his documents calls him an ‘egregious prince’. You could find his lands on the western Girona border at Sacalm, or right out in the ‘extreme furthest limits of the marches’ at Òdena, and many points between; he gave land to peasants under an agreement that they would develop it for him, he built towers and he founded a monastery at Bages in honour of Saint Benedict of Nursia, Sant Benet to the Catalans, and well for us that he did or we’d have precious little record of him, were he never so mighty.3

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Now Sal·la had children, in fact he had at least four. A boy called Sunifred died in infancy, but the others whom we know about grew to adulthood, and they were called Unifred, Isarn and Filmera. (There’s also another Sal·la who’s clearly related to this bunch but they never call him a sibling and I feel sure they would have if that’s what he were.) Filmera became Abbess of Sant Pere de les Puelles in Barcelona, probably by agreement with Count Borrell II that Sant Benet would hand over the castle of Maians to him, because Sant Benet was subject only to the bishop of Rome, and Borrell didn’t like his defence network falling out of his hands like that. Unfortunately, Filmera was probably still abbess in 985, when Barcelona was sacked by the Muslims and all the nuns carried off as captives. In fact Sal·la’s kids by and large don’t seem to have lived long and prospered. Sal·la himself lived till probably 970, when he must have been old; we first see him purchasing in the late 920s. Unifred fell ill and died in 978, all the same, and Isarn didn’t live a great deal longer. Filmera may even have been the last living in her generation of the family. But let’s talk more about Unifred.

Unifred was an unusual man in one small respect, which is that he affected a surname, Amat. Then, as now, that simply means ‘Beloved’, from Latin amatus. Even more unusually, his son Guillem also adopted the surname, and he was the only one of the family who continued on to be important after Filmera’s unhappy deportation. Both were presumably beloved by Guillem’s mother, Riquilda, but she seems to have died not very long after he was born; she didn’t execute Unifred’s will in 978, and little Guillem only came of age (14, under Visigothic Law) in 982, when Riquilda’s brother Seniol, a priest, passed on to him a load of properties, presumably hers, that he had been holding in trust till that time. So he was ten when his dad died and his mum was already gone. Dismal, no?

What remains of the Castell dÒdena, founded by Sal·la and Unifred

What remains of the Castell d'Òdena, founded by Sal·la and Unifred

And not much better for Unifred, you might think, but there you’d be wrong. One of the people who did execute Unifred’s will, along with brother Isarn and some others, was a woman called Sesnanda. Exactly what she was to the family takes a little working out, because we only have land transactions to go on. She was clearly no farm girl, as she bought land from Unifred before he died and then called him “senior meo“, ‘my lord’. But even in comparatively equitable Catalonia a female landholder is a rarity in the documents, especially one with no apparent family, and after a while it becomes clear that the connection between them was a bit more than patronage. Many years later, in 996, she came to a court at Vic, and there she appealed one Bonfill Sendred for having appropriated lands of hers in Òdena. When the court asked this venerabilis femina how she claimed these lands, she explained that they had come to her from ‘her man the late Unifred by bounden testament, by a series of conditions [the formulaic phrase used for the sworn declaration of a testament] and by other scriptures’. And in case we were in any doubt, she went on to explain that Unifred had cleared these lands from the waste “with his father Sal·la”. But it’s quite a lot of land at issue: when it’s actually listed, it covers much more than just Òdena. She had done well out of Unifred, even if we don’t have the bequest from his will that might show this and explain things better.

The court found for her, of course—we have the document, after all. But it seems clear that Unifred had pretty much showered her with wealth at his death, leaving poor lil’ Guillem to mostly inherit his mother’s lands instead. So Sesnanda was apparently dearer to Unifred than just a vassal, and you’ll notice that by 996 she doesn’t remember him as ‘my lord’ any more but ‘my man’, “viro meo“. So now we have only imagination to fill the gaps. A daughter of some vassal of Sal·la’s, orphaned early and rapidly catching Unifred’s eye and protection? Was Riquilda already dead? Maybe this was soon after she’d died, and Unifred found himself lonely and glad of a pretty pair of considerate eyes. (Or, of course, maybe Riquilda wasn’t dead, and Unifred was fed to the teeth with her and fancied a bit on the side; but that’s a little cynical, isn’t it?) And then, a few years later, Sesnanda’s on her own again, but Unifred’s done his best to make her a rich woman able to make her own choices, and by 996 she’s at least middle-aged and respected, ‘venerable’ and what we might call a common-law partnership is something she can call on in court and the judges recognise her claim. Now, we have to fill in a lot of gaps, but nonetheless, between these property movements, there is a love story. Unifred much-beloved, indeed; a bitter-sweet thing to smile at in a rather tragic collapse of a grand family.

If you have enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming) by the same author, where this and many other stories are told, and whose body text the author finished on Wednesday! Available in time for Easter 20092010 I really really hope!


1. This curiosity addressed in Thomas N. Bisson, “Unheroed Pasts: history and commemoration in South Frankland before the Albigensian Crusade” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge 1990), pp. 281-308.

2. Mainly by Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, as in Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies Catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980) and Josep María Salrach, as in El Procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres de l’Abast 136 & 137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols; if you wanted English, you’d be stuck with Roger Collins, Early Medieval Spain: unity and diversity, 400-1000, 2nd edn. (Basingstoke 1995), pp. 250-63, or Michel Zimmermann, ‘Western Francia: the southern principalities’ in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume III: c. 900-c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 420-56 at pp. 441-49. Better than either, but hard to obtain, is Josep María Salrach i Marès, ‘Carlomagno y Cataluña en el marco de la Europa carolingia’ in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 19-27, transl. as ‘Charlemagne and Catalonia in the context of Carolingian Europe’ ibid. pp. 427-31.

3. Now trust me, I could document all of what follows except where I explicitly say it has to be imagined, but the footnotes would be pages worth. Instead, if you really care, you can either wait till the book comes out, or you can lay hold of Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, where this stuff is set out at pp. 228-236. Some other attention is paid to Sal·la and his kids by Adam Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 44-74 at pp. 60-62.

Informal call for papers for Leeds 2009

Galvanised by the latest International Medieval Congress newsletter (N. B. that link will only show you what I got after the 15th August, I’m afraid), I have realised with sinking heart that it’s time to start plotting for Leeds 2009 already, and 2008 hardly digested yet! Though with it done, we can relax again, on this score at least, till, I don’t know, early July? :-)

‘St Francis Releases the Heretic’, fresco from the Church of San Francesco in Assisi. Photo ©  S. Diller www.assisi.de  2008

I had hoped to scale down slightly for the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic strand in 2009, after finding organising and running three sessions a bit much even though they were mostly problem-free. But a meeting between myself and Allan McKinley on the Wednesday of this year’s Leeds revealed that our plans were more ambitious than that. We’re looking at probably four sessions this time, one focusing on matters digital and electronic as they pertain to charter studies, one on Northern diplomatic, Scandinavia and Scotland and so on, where charters start late, and two more along our usual lines as described elsewhere. I’ve already got enough speakers for two and a bit, but who actually comes up with titles and abstracts in time for the proposal deadline, which is the end of September, is a different matter.

So I’ve been sending mail out to people, and will send more out to likely individuals in the next few days, asking if they’d like to contribute. But it seems only fair, and perhaps wise, to stick the request here too. Would you like to do the Leeds experience next year? (They have some travel bursaries if we get in quick enough.) Do you have something to say about early medieval society and/or its charters, that involves treating them as authored and biased accounts of matters, like, you know, any other text? If so, either comment here or drop me an e-mail via the address on my departmental web-page, and I’ll be in touch. After all: you’ll only wind up reading about it and thinking, “bah, I could have been in that blog post” if you don’t, right? Sure you will…

Metablog IV: writing on demand

This is a bit more personal than I usually post here, and slightly edited down from the version that went in the forum where I originally posted it (nowhere you can get to with your newfangled hyper-text transfer protocol, you darn kids), but it seems germane and relevant and to the point and so on. So, reproduced without further comment:

By now I can pretty much write on demand.

Maybe I somewhere learnt this from my father, who was a journalist. Maybe the whole thesis-writing thing, in gaps snatched between love, childcare, housework and arguments, to say nothing of employment, forced me to be able to just type when my obsessive-compulsive routines finally wash me up at the keyboard. On Friday afternoon I basically typed solidly for two and a half hours, be it on blog posts, the monograph I’m writing for work (very short, first draft text now done, 4,300 words) or e-mail (also for work, I’d have you know). It was good; the brain was just pouring it out and the afternoon flew by. Today, despite being groggy after one of the worst night’s sleep I can remember, in that I did actually sleep but woke with a headache, faint nausea, a crick in my neck and painfully cramped shoulders, despite only being awake because of coffee and feeling faintly feverish with how tired I am, I am also writing, which is how come the monograph is finished. I was trying to explain the trick to a friend yesterday; it’s something about making sure you know what the question is when you hover fingers over keyboard, and then telling your imagined audience the answer. But I didn’t use to be able to do it half so much; now, it doesn’t really matter how blasted I am, once I can get past the initial gag-reflex-like reluctance to actually think, the words come, and as far as I can tell, they aren’t noticeably worse when I can hardly stay awake than when I’m firing on all cylinders. My style gets a bit more extended and allusive if it can, but often what I’m writing has no room for this.

(Mind you, as an undergraduate I wrote my best single exam paper in a similar state, yawning throughout, and wasn’t able to describe to someone who asked what questions I’d done only minutes after leaving the exam hall… It never seemed like a strategy I should bank on, but it does seem grimly familiar.)

I think it’s the blog has done this, if anything; I think being regularly set, albeit by myself, writing assignments to say something short about something that will hopefully interest a readership, has made me better adapted to simply setting out knowledge in short order. If so, though it’s got me two invitations to participate in academic things (one e-journal, one conference), that would probably be the biggest benefit I’ll get from it, and not an insignificant one.

Do the job or don’t: another rant against post-modernist historiography

Several things combine to produce this latest vituperation, but the immediate cause has been another article in that van Engen volume that has generated me so many posts, some laudatory and some quite the reverse. The last one was a plaudit, so it’s time for the opposite. From p. 273 to p. 299 of that volume you will find Karl F. Morrison’s “On the Statue”, an article which is one of the things I’d been recommended to the volume for. There is a half-tone plate, of the statue of King Alfred at Alfred University in New York State, there is an appendix and some considerable apparatus of endnotes. The article is nothing to do with statues at all, though it uses dispute at Alfred University over their mascot as a jumping-off point. It is instead, as are most of the articles in the volume by design, about the state of medieval studies in the USA at time of the conference that sourced the volume, in 1991. In brief, Morrison observes that teachers and researchers in medieval disciplines at the 1991 conference were from a narrower range of countries, but a wider one of American universities, than at similar conferences in the 50s and 60s; that medieval studies is not a natural unit and is prone to being dissected between other faculties; and mainly, that people have done history in the past because of something they cared about in their own times which they found echoed in the subject material, and that rationalism and revisionism have made it much harder to entertain such feelings of relation to the subject, if not among teachers, among pupils. None of these are exactly encouraging, but all could be argued and are food for thought. So, what’s my problem?

Two things. Firstly, this is a lot of pages to say not very much. I take quite verbose notes, and usually average two lines per page of source text; here I ran at half this, and didn’t really understand a lot of the points until I’d forced myself to extract the note sentence from it. That could just be style, and something of which I’m probably guilty myself, but paragraphs like this don’t help:

We are enigmatologists by training, equipped through such disciplines as iconography, exegesis, and etymology to retrieve the unsaid in the said, to complete the depicted gesture. Because the formal codes at issue were so regularly directed at spiritual—which is to say, moral—sentiment, we are enigmatologists of emotion and desire as well as intellect. Since play is close to the heart of poetics, we must also recognise the foreignness of imaginations that, not only sensed, but also laughed differently from ours. (p. 293)

It is a struggle to articulate why this paragraph makes me so annoyed. I would not like to exclude from our discipline the possibility of metaphor or artistic self-expression. And yet, does this help? There are genuine points here: that our sources contain more information than they actually proffer to us, that this extra information is in the nature of the state of mind and conviction of the producing intellect, and that that intellect’s convictions and perceptions had a difference from our own that has to be accounted for. But to stop these points sounding obvious, we have the made-up word `enigmatologist’, more expressive because less definite and therefore allowing an audience to nod with fellow feeling but without a certainty that the speaker means what they think he does.

And, most annoying of all, we have the po-mo syllogism. This is becoming a bête noir of mine. It goes: [because|since] [unjustifiable and unevidenced assertion of some perception of the human condition], therefore [impressively-rephrased truism]. Or, the parts can be reversed. This is no trouble because unlike a real syllogism they have nothing to do with each other, least of all causation. It is a device to sound erudite and as if you have pierced through to a truth of humanity, when in fact you are drawing patterns in air.

Professor Morrison’s two examples both beg many questions. What formal codes? None have been mentioned, still less evidenced. Do we really accept formal codes of behaviour in the production of medieval sources? I thought this was debated. How prescient of Professor Morrison to close down that debate even before Philippe Buc had published! Then, is play close to the heart of poetics? Is that really what Sassoon was up to in the trenches, playing to take his mind off things? And what have poetics got to do with the medieval author anyway? Some of them were poets, but not all; if poetics are play, should prosody be work? Well it doesn’t matter, because even if it were true it doesn’t clearly relate to the following assertion. It is obscurantist showing-off.

Although, there is far far worse than this out there. The really real po-mo stuff can contain strings of three or four of these alleged deductions claiming to follow on from one another and really merely restating undefined terms until the speaker is impossible to critique on any point but meaninglessness. Let me give you a fleshed-out example that I have made up without recourse to generator programs or any actual subject matter:

Because consciousness is electric, we are beings of magnetism. That magnetism causes us to interact with the earth and its inhabitants as though drawn towards it by its metallic core, a core which we also seek in texts. A text with no core we pierce through rapidly; but a text that is only core, we discard, keeping, indeed, doctors away with the apple so flung. The true location of meaning thus lies between the skin and the flesh, which is to say that texts are dermal not epidermal. In a very real sense, then, we need to get beneath the skin of our authors.

Try as I might I couldn’t actually manage to make that as free of causation as it really need to be to make the point; I will never be able to play with the real critics till I can finally create a paragraph like this in which no subclause links to any other. I am however quite pleased with the general effect of flow without any genuine meaning or logic. And you know you’ve seen examples like that yourself… Well, I think that’s critique enough. My point is that, as I’ve said before, making yourself hard to understand is not the game we’re supposed to be in.

But, Professor Morrison wants us to realise, it is hard to understand the Middle Ages. Speaking of Henry Brooks Adams, he says, “… he concluded, he could teach [his pupils] nothing. All but the fewest of the few passively received instruction. Method would not reduce the complexity of his antiquarian subject to order, or make it actual for them.” (P. 281.) And he goes on to suggest not only that this is common experience for medievalists and that we never really teach people anything, but that we can hardly expect to anyway when “‘history does not exist,’ any more than does truth”. And he then says, “Consequently, there can be no question of conveying historical understanding, except as a branch of literary criticism, including subspecialties of criticism devoted to phenomena and theories of reception.” (P. 282.)

I cry foul on this. I have done so before, in comments at Old English in NYC and at the Unlocked Wordhoard, although at the latter Professor Nokes has on both occasions removed or never approved my comments. Given the great service he does me by pointing traffic this way I don’t for a second wish to suggest that he shouldn’t see fit to prevent a fight breaking out in his comments which might then become his problem to calm down. So I’m doing the rant here. (Edit: a comment below from Professor Nokes suggests that the problem here was technical, or at least, not his doing, so may he be exonerated and also consider himself luckily protected by beneficent gremlins…)

A glossed Italian Gospel of Mark, 1140X60 (Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Books Collection, MS Lewis E. 042)

A glossed Italian Gospel of Mark, 1140X60 (Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Books Collection, MS Lewis E. 042)

Texts… wait for it… are tricky. Yes. The author does not always mean what he or she wrote, and their information was not necessarily good even if sincere. Then, we read the things and interpret them according to our own preconceptions and beliefs, and the result must inevitably be distortion. Yes, okay. In fact, because all of our reality is experienced, we cannot ultimately be sure that anything is true, in the sense that another being whom we perceive will also consider what we think `true’ `true’ for them as well. This is heading for the brains-in-vats discussion, but let it, OK, we can be solipsist for a short while. Why not?

Well, because if your entire audience are made up, what’s the point in telling them so, eh? If you’re lecturing at all, if you’re in the business of education and knowledge, your starting assumption really has to be that there is such a thing and that it can be passed from one person to another! Otherwise, how can you take the money for saying that what you do is impossible and that therefore you don’t? How is this not biting the hand that feeds you and coincidentally despising your students’ ability to understand you, especially if you’ve gone so far to make yourself hard to understand? And if you really are constructing your own reality, why can’t you construct more interested students, hey? Maybe it’s not the students who are the problem…

Similarly, yes, texts are constructed, unreliable, difficult, partial and inadequate. Every scholar who works with them must admit this. But if you suggest that this negates any possibility of extracting knowledge from them about the past, and then continue to argue that you should be paid for trying, then you are a hypocrite. If you seriously don’t think a text can tell you about the past in which it was written and how that past constructed or remembered the past before that, then why study history at all? There are others out there who still want to, you know?

Archaeological diggers at work in Wales

Archaeological diggers at work in Wales

Because texts are not the only source, and no medievalist has any business claiming they are. If you wilfully ignore archaeology, climate studies, historical geography, palaeobotany and palaeozoology, demographics, linguistics, social anthropology, art and architectural history and the other so-called handmaid disciplines, and then say that you think texts are no use as evidence because all writing is constructed, either become an archaeologist or step the hell down. Otherwise, accept the starting position: we’re here to tell people about the past, what involves finding out about it. Oh yes, and `passively receiving instruction’ will do fine for most of them actually. That’s only a problem if you think your job is to create historians, or more critics. I think our job is to give people knowledge. And if you honestly don’t believe it’s possible, how can you hold a teaching post in good conscience? I don’t get it, I don’t want to, and I’m fed up with reading it.

The most annoying thing about it is that I’ve read work of Professor Morrison‘s that has been inspiring, insightful and educational. Likewise, his important, if challenged, contribution to numismatics shows that he knows perfectly well about other sorts of source. He’s a clever and sensitive historian. This kind of rubbish should come from someone else. Oh well. Here endeth the rant, hopefully for some time.

The Wester Ross antiquarian

I did say that my recent holiday was going to be non-academic. But very shortly before going I discovered that there had once been a Pictish symbol stone found at a burial site where I was headed, among others nearby, and therefore apparently-Pictish burials. Also, the town website speaks of a vitrified fort, just as recently described. Well, these things merited investigation. Apart from anything else, this is almost as far west as Pictish culture is deemed to have spread, and without the word of Adomnán some people might doubt that you could really have been looking at Picts this close to Skye, because we’re also an easy boat ride from Iona and Kintyre. As it is, he tells (I.27) of the conversion of an aged noble on Skye to whom Columba could only speak through an interpreter.1 So this is fringe Pictish stuff potentially of great importance. Of course, since material culture is portable and language partly a chosen thing, there’s a debate to be had about what it takes to actually qualify as Pictish in such a context, but close confrontation with the material remains never hurts all the same. The fact that they were on a simply gorgeous beach in warm high summer, well, this is just the kind of cross the determined antiquarian has to bear…

A certain historian, er, \'field-walking\'

A certain historian, er, 'field-walking'

But it’s not so easy once you start looking. The town museum, which holds the symbol stone, was closed when we got to it, which also meant that we dithered around not being sure where the fort was supposed to be either. I mean, while standing in it, this looked a lot like a fort’s ramparts:

But almost any outcrop along this coast could look like that. We eventually spoke to a locally-based archaeologist, and he gave us to understand that it was certainly somewhere around there, and that it certainly wasn’t vitrified, but might perhaps have been an Irish-style dún, where the builders had added to already natural ramparts so as to guard the harbour and rivermouth. But, on the other hand, it was such an obvious place for a fort. Does that mean it’s more likely that there was one? or that it’s more likely we’ve imagined one? It’s never been dug, so there’s no way of knowing. And the burials were found in clearing ground for building, which means that they’re now of course built over; so we’re probably looking at them here. Of course we had to spend some time on the beach getting our bearings… If I understand my informants right, then, the tiny headland protruding to the left in this picture is where the fort is supposed to be. You may well go “hmmm” at this assertion, I’m still not sure of it myself.

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Even the Pictish stone, sad to say, is not very impressive. As said I couldn’t get at it for real, but the following picture gives you the lowdown. A salmon and an eagle, and what they mean is anyone’s guess, an argument for which you can read better things than I could write here. Still, there they are; Picts at Gairloch. Of course the place-name is Gaelic; but St Columba needed an interpreter for the man he converted in Skye, so I imagine it was Pictish spoken here too, when the stone was laid down over whomever it covered. The stone was associated with burials but they weren’t recorded; the article I borrowed this image from was however published after another grave was found, of a middle-aged woman apparently in good fitness and medium height. Rest easy in Pictish madam, beneath the houses where even Gaelic is now a rarity.

More certain archaeology does however exist in the area. Out at a place called Sand, on the way to where I was actually staying, there is a marked-out archaeology trail. What is not so clear about this is whether anyone who actually qualifies as an archaeologist of the relevant period has so qualified it. There has been some digging here, but it’s not clear that it was actually on this site, and anyway what it produced was Neolithic remains. There are, down the river valley it’s set round, a variety of ancient ruins and turf and stone walls used to divide the hillsides up into ‘rigs’, which are a Scottish sort of strip farming with some resemblance to terracing except without the laborious levelling of the ground and the concomitant effects on soil fertility and moisture. How old that is, is anyone’s guess. There is some hint offered by the form of the buildings. Some were clearly roundhouses. I think we also found another one that wasn’t on the map, as a two-metre thick stone wall is hard to miss, though with the bracken as thick as it was on parts of the trail, it was actually possible to miss not only well-preserved ruins but also, very nearly, the route back to the road.

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

No shoes were however lost in the occasional marshy patches and I still got back in time for a beer before the departing bus. All the same: this trail needed some clearing, and it would benefit from someone who knows what they’re talking about giving it a once-over and maybe some proper signage. There were rectilinear buildings too; one overwrote a roundhouse, making it fairly clear which we could expect to be earlier, but as some of the rectilinear buildings were in use in the eighteenth century, seeing in this a replacement of old-style Scottish/Pictish buildings with new tenth-century ones such as we certainly are seeing at Pitcarmick (now there’s a Pictish place-name) is a bit of a leap. The roundhouses, though, they probably were medieval and quite possibly early medieval and I have little qualm about saying that, even if it’s not identifiable, I was walking amid medieval ruins in places here.

One last piece of praise. Out in this part of the world, if you have no car, you must rely on those who do. Public transport, in the form of a minibus, just about reaches Gairloch. Beyond that, you’re hitching. Sometimes, of course, this does not work out; but sometimes, it really does. We did this trail on my last day there, on the way into town to meet the bus. After walking for a quarter of an hour we were kindly picked up by two travellers. My companion, who speaks good Spanish, tried it immediately after noticing that a book on the back seat was in Spanish, and it transpired that we had in the car her, interested in her area and Spanish-speaking; me, historian of medieval Catalonia, poor grasp of Castilian and little better in Catalan, some knowledge of early historic Scotland and its material remains; and, two tourists from Barcelona who told us they’d been hoping to see some of the archaeology but hadn’t found any. This could not have worked out better. They kindly not only lifted us up to the trail, but stomped round it with us with my companion interpreting my guidebook-based guesswork, enthusing, not minding when we got lost, and then dropping us in Gairloch for that beer, all in kindest of spirits and friendliest of miens, with, furthermore, Elvis on the stereo. So this entry is for José Manuel and Teresa; you are stars, and I hope your holiday continued perfectly. Mine was pretty much perfect, after all, so it seems only fair.

view down the valley

Sand Archaeological Trail: view down the valley

Edit: minor details emended and better images used in places.


1. Note, however, that he doesn’t actually say that the man was a Pict; this is just implied by his unintelligibility. I also think that the text implies that while Columba can’t speak directly to the old man, the young men who greet his arrival are apparently intelligible. So I think this is actually evidence for Gaelic acculturation in progress. I gather there is detailed work on this, though I haven’t yet read it, in David N. Dumville, “Primarius Cohortis in Adomnán’s Life of Columba” in Scottish Gaelic Studies Vol. 13 (Glasgow 1978), pp. 130-131.