Monthly Archives: September 2008

Things are happening elsewhere

Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, CM.LK.4570-R, Leake Collection, reverse

Reverse of a large bronze coin of Perinthus, Thrace, struck in the name of the Emperor Caracalla, 211X17 A. D., Leake Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, CM.LK.4570-R

I’m sorry to have left you so long with no update. There is an exhibition imminently starting at work that is meaning less slack time than usual (and also the digitization of shiny artworks, see above), and I’ve been busy at home too in various ways. I also don’t have much new content, though there are three posts written up I’ll let sneak out in the next few days if time permits. This is a pity, because Archaeologyknits, the editor of the latest Carnivalesque did me the great favour of linking two of my posts, so I thought I should ensure that any new visitors at least know this thing is still switched on.

I have not however been absent from the wider blogosphere, in fact I seem to be involved in arguments and conversations every which way at the moment, so if you’re really hungry for my peculiar style and patchwork knowledge, you can follow some of them up. Or, you could do it instead because they are interesting. Several of these seem to involve archaeology: the inimitable Gesta, one of the few of us who can do both that and texts, is back to teaching the answers that lie in the soil after some time spent away from the discipline, and has been freshly struck by how teaching differs between the two subjects, in her (and my experience) at least. So I’ve been weighing in there but it’s a subject which more could easily join. Then, Henrik Karl seems to have been suddenly very Internet-present lately (possibly because of his current liberty from the drudgery of toil—could you do this job, Henrik?), and has been lamenting the fact that Danish history is effectively deemed to start in 1100 by historians because they don’t talk to archaeologists and the archaeologists don’t read the history and so on. This is a wider problem, about which I’ve written before, but at his own blog he is dealing in bigger matters, some much more fundamental stuff about the way archaeologists interpret burial, and this conversation too is turning into a broader reflection on the discipline.

More insular, or as has been commented, peninsular, is a conversation between myself, the notorious Notorious Ph. D. (why haven’t I been reading that blog before?) and Clio’s Disciple over at the last-named’s place about why Spain is so often seen as an exception from the wider courses of medieval history, and how far this is justified. Many a true thing about history and historians is being said there, if you study Spain or if you study Cispyrenean Europe (look it up, I had to) you may find it of interest.

On the other hand, if you’re in either London or Cambridge this term, or could be, you needn’t confine yourself to virtual discussion. Squeaking into my INBOX with mere days to spare, the schedule for this term’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is now published, and though overall the details are as holey as one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite sweaters, there are some very interesting looking things there. (The web version has as yet only the one date, so the full programme is hidden as a PDF at the end of this link.) This of course by now we expect, but completely unexpected is a parallel affair in Cambridge, the new Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar, the brainchild of Dr Alice Rio. Alice is greatly to be fêted for this; I have myself messed with the idea of an interdisciplinary seminar in Cambridge in years past and found the faculties’s incredible inertia just unsurmountable, so she truly has done a difficult thing here, and furthermore got sponsorship and an incredible list of speakers together. The poster is concealed as a PDF under the small PNG version above. (Edit: the seminar web-page was apparently up even though I couldn’t find it, and is in fact here.) It should be noted, by the way, that this appears to be part of the Chris Wickham UK Tour; as well as appearing in both schedules, he’s also giving the 2008 Creighton Lecture at Kings College London on 17 November, and as his title is “The culture of the public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution'” I think I rather have to be there.

So: ways to have academic fun in the absence of my blog, some of which I shall be doing myself until I get some virtual hands free: enjoy…

Vikings in the Atlantic: confusion and Christianity

A friend of mine who rejoices in that most ambiguous of titles, ‘independent scholar’, was telling me in a pub the other day that he was trifling with some research on the possibility of Irish settlement in Iceland before the Vikings got there, which still seems to be somewhat under-explored, such research as there is being a little on the, er, free-standing side of things. So I was interested and encouraging, and then came home, later on looked at blogs and discovered that all the archaeology in the world is suddenly coming to light on this very question! I exaggerate, but, have a look at this, which is about Greenland.

There is a debate (isn’t there in all of my entries?) about Norse Greenland. In the first place, it has become deeply involved in arguments over climate change and the so-called medieval warm period, because it seems that the Vikings were able to get much more out of southern Greenland’s green land than can nowadays be got. There is also however a debate over what happened to the Norse settlement, and this debate has one way or another to take into account the Inuit tribes who were at this time apparently spreading from Northern into Southern Greenland. The timing of this spread is in dispute, the evidence is scanty, but it’s obviously crucial; were the Norse, who were certainly in occasional contact with the Inuit, actually driven out by them? or were they just unable to cope with a failing climate, uncognisant of an environment which turned out not to be as much like home ecologically as their farming methods had assumed, and/or unwilling to adopt Inuit techniques like seal-hunting from kayaks that ensured survival in these tough conditions for the Northern people?1

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

In this argument there has developed a good-guys bad-guys division between two Inuit or pre-Inuit cultures, the Dorset culture, who seem to have not made it very far into Greenland and to have disappeared from the record soon after 1000, and their apparent successors or supplanters the Thule Inuit, who did better, came south and formed the basis of the Inuit population that remains in Greenland to this day. When the Vikings first arrived, their contacts must have been with the Dorset people, and therefore in the far north, occasional, and presumably not very significant for the settlements in the south. If someone did drive the Norse out of Greenland, it would have to have been the Thule people. Debates about when exactly the Dorset culture faded from the record are still lively, but there’s no way it’s fourteenth-century late. So.

The new research I linked to above, however, goes in the other direction. At Kimmirut in Baffin Island a site has been dug which has produced woven yarn and tally-sticks, neither of which are paralleled from any other Dorset site and which therefore suggest contact with outsiders. The reporting archaeologist has some ideas about where some of this stuff is coming from, because:

Other artifacts from the area, such as a small wooden carving of a mask, missing its nose, also suggest face-to-face contacts with Europeans.

That’s because, although the mask is carved in a Dorset Inuit manner, it shows a long and possibly bearded face with straight and heavy eyebrows, wearing what may be Viking headgear.

Nonetheless, the problem lies in the dating, because the yarn apparently dates to some hundreds of years before the Viking settlements in Greenland were a going concern. (The article doesn’t say how they dated it, but even C14 doesn’t miss by whole centuries.) As the article says:

So, as Sutherland said, if you believe that spinning was not an indigenous technique that was used in Arctic North America, then you have to consider the possibility that as “remote as it may seem,” these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Vikings’ arrival in Greenland.

They quite carefully refuse to pronounce on whether or not the yarn must be of European-style manufacture, but it’s interesting all the same. If Irish on Iceland, Irish on Greenland? And if on Greenland, Baffin? Brendan come home, all is forgiven…

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Meanwhile, on another lump of rock where there certainly was Norse settlement, it’s turned out not to be quite what was expected. When the Vikings took over in Orkney, they are usually supposed to have been raw and pagan still, fresh from Norway or wherever, and generally taking no prisoners. A really good place to fortify yourself in such an endeavour is this Orcadian stack, Brough of Deerness, on which we have for some time known there was some settlement. That settlement includes a church, which again we knew had a precursor, but now the precursor has been dug, and it turned up a coin of King Edgar of England (959-75). That might pretty much make it contemporary with the Viking take-over, though of course Vikings didn’t always take their coins in for reminting when it was ordered and it’s possible that coin had been in circulation a good long time by the time it was deposited. All the same, it may suggest that one thing the new warlords did was set up a chapel, or at least, keep one going. As the excavating officer, Dr James Barrett of Cambridge, says: “It shows us that, even in the most Scandinavianised regions of Viking Age Britain, power was maintained by eventually accepting the local religion, in this case Christianity.” So remodel your Viking chieftain image accordingly…

(Hat tip for both of these to David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, which also ran this article at the same time about the much-better-known Norse settlement at l’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland and its visitor centre.)


1. I actually got my picture of this from Jared Diamond’s Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005), which is not exactly medieval history and definitely has a case to make. I should probably do some more reading round this if they’re going to keep finding stuff…

When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

If we’re looking at feudalism, and I’m afraid we still are, I think I’ve said by now that the meaning of that term that I find most plausible out of the several possible ones is that one that sticks to the etymology, and deals with the relations of lords and their followers who do service for a temporary grant of land under terms: feudo-vassalic relations, as some call it to disambiguate it from the other senses of ‘feudalism’.1 Because we’re working, ultimately, from the Latin feodum, or sometimes feudum, which becomes in English ‘fee’ and, via French, ‘fief’. And in the Oxford English Dictionary, firstly those two entries crosslink in the online version, but secondly the definition is:

fief

/feef/

noun 1 historical an estate of land held on condition of feudal service. 2 a person’s sphere of operation or control.

– DERIVATIVES fiefdom noun.

– ORIGIN Old French, variant of feu “fee”.

A bit circular, but clear enough. But is that what it means in the documents? Sometimes, alas, no; it’s not as simple as indexing uses of feodum and seeing how they rise or fall (even if you had the kind of sample or statistical significance measurement that would make such an exercise meaningful). Feodum doesn’t really crop up much before the ninth century, and when it does occur then it actually means ‘a supporting allotment of public land, or the revenues from it’, so for example, a fiscal castle will have an associated feodum which provides its upkeep.2 In this element it’s really quite like fiscum, which doesn’t quite mean the institution of the fisc, the landstock of the public power, as we read it now, but its individual portions. So that castle might just as well have a fisc, and some Catalan documents actually use the two words as equivalents, “fiscis sive feodis”.3

Certainly, use of the term feodum goes up and up in the eleventh century. And if you’re Dominique Barthélemy (which, after all I’ve said about him here, I kind of hope you’re not), you emphasise that the two words have been associated for a long long time and that you can’t be sure what’s meant when a fief turns up, and deny the whole transformation because you’ve spent years taking the model apart in detail in different places.4 On the other hand, if you’re Thomas Bisson, you perhaps generally prefer not to sacrifice the big picture by getting bogged down in that detail, and like to try and show that big things are genuinely changing, and that does at least make a better story.5 But if you do it by simply counting the use of the word feodum without ever considering its ambiguity or the sample size of the documents, you don’t necessarily carry me with you… 6

It’s not that his Spoleto article here isn’t interesting, or even valid. The contrast he draws between Flanders, where a public power remains in control of the new feudal arrangements of military service, and where they don’t therefore lead to a total collapse such as Catalonia suffers, between Provence where it does all go a bit wrong because there’s no overall power that can bring it back into order, even a feudal order, and between Occitania where there isn’t even too much trouble but where the feudo-vassalic structure nonetheless becomes the overriding social structure, is interesting, and deserves more investigation, though by someone else as it goes too late for me. But without some deeper investigation of how the words is used in these very different areas, I don’t necessarily think we’re comparing like with like, and we certainly can’t really quantify these supposed fiefs.


1. You can find this usage defended in Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. So, for example, in Federico Udina Martorell, 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. 159.

3. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, including a 1003 document from Sant Pere de Besalú which confers revenues, “ex censali publico, quod vulgum feum nominat… “; Dominique Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495, at p. 458 where he cites Marc Bloch, “Questions féodales” in Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale Vol. 10 (Paris 1938) at p. 174 & idem, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

4 Classically, Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; in English, idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; idem, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein, rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147; and, most relevantly, Barthélemy, “Autour d’un récit de pactes”.

5 Bisson, “Feudal Revolution”; idem, Tormented Voices: power, crisis, and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998).

6. Bisson, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Feudalesimo, I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446, including a lengthy critique from Barthélemy which however goes for him on a subjective basis about how serious disorder was, allowing Bisson to simply restate his own view, rather than this point where he’s actually weak.

To be unscientific for a moment

All this stuff about the starting up of the Large Hadron Collider has had me thinking. I’m not the only one, obviously, but I wonder how many other people have thought this. The consensus seems to be that (a) it hasn’t destroyed the world yet, and (b) if it’s going to do so, it will do so in about three and a bit years. So, 2012. At which point, it will suddenly become clear which of us are really historians or not. Because the people who have their feet on the ground and minds in the present will be panicking, but those who spend their time mostly in the past will go into that great dark night still wondering: how on earth did the Maya know… ?

Aerial view of the Large Hadron Collider, Cern, Switzerland

Aerial view of the Large Hadron Collider, Cern, Switzerland

Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue

Back to the Spoleto volume once more! Bracketing the clutch of papers I just mentioned are two by Hans-Werner Goetz and Patricia Skinner.1 Goetz is putting the case of East Francia under the Carolingians, and Skinner is dealing with Southern Italy before and under the Normans. Neither of these two plays the conventional game that the papers discussed before were playing, but the ways in which they differ from it are themselves so huge that it’s really striking.

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sistermother St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

(By the way, since I drafted this and found that image in my stash, Gabriele at the Lost Fort has posted a series of far better ones and some introduction to Quedlinburg’s importance and history, so once you’ve read this, go and have a look. Hoi! I said once you… Oh well, anyway.)

Because of Karl-Ferdinand Werner and a Spanish scholar called Carlos de Ayala Martínez, Goetz’s article is not the longest paper I have ever had to read. All the same, sixty pages of very theoretical German historiography, my first German for a while, took me a long time to get through. He must have expanded what he said at the conference a very great deal, as he presumably had no longer to speak than anyone else and all their contributions, even François Menant’s which is seriously mostly footnotes, come in at between thirty and forty pages.2 So, what does it do? Goetz is tangling with the fact that really not a lot has been written about East Francia before the Ottonians.3 In looking into the gap, he takes a historiographical stereotype of the feudal transformation in Germany, which as he points out (and others, most notably Tim Reuter, whom many of us miss, have also pointed out in English) is a rather different, more state-guided and controlled affair than in parts West, which acquires a legalistic form which underpins a number of the stereotypes that Reynolds took to task in Fiefs and Vassals.4 (He doesn’t cite Reynolds or Brown, but then he is sort of on their side.) This leads him into much musing on what people have said about whether East Francia, whose shape was rarely the same for twenty years together, whose capital shifted, and which, his developing argument reveals, was changing the way its government operated over the period, was any kind of state, as well the larger metadebate about whether the state as defined by Weber, with its claimed monopoly of legitimate force, can ever be seen in the Middle Ages and if not, what terms or definitions can be used instead. This is, incidentally, another field where Professor Reynolds has been busy, but anyway, you can see where Goetz’s wordcount is coming from.5

By the end he has drawn out several long strands of the feudal state as it is conceived of for the later period, Ottonians or Salians, and stressed in each case that antecedents of some of its characteristics can be found in the Carolingian predecessor quasi-state. The message is that it really isn’t as simple as the scholarship has made it, because these elements which later form part of the ‘feudal imaginary’ as we imagine it often occurred there in contexts which are not, or not yet, feudal. I would have to go back into the text for examples, but that’s his basic attack; our definition of ‘feudal’ needs an awful lot of looking at before it will deal with this extensive but partial prefiguring. He is basically digging a big and obvious ditch in front of anyone who wants to argue that the Ottonians and Salians built their states on a new style of political relations that could be called feudal, rather than on a selective and evolving inheritance from the Carolingians and their idea of rule, but he does so very carefully, politely and with incredible breadth of citation.

But, apart from Reynolds and Brown, do you know what’s basically missing from the citation? Primary sources. This is an almost entirely historiographical paper. Of course if he’d had to prove every point from the sources rather than by regula magistri (or really, given whom he’s citing, regula collegarum) the paper would have been even longer, but it is also a stylistic choice tat places him in a tradition. He is basically doing a nuanced and subtle form of the old Verfassungsgeschichte, plotting the formation of the state. He is willing to consider jumps, skips, and “the possibility of a discontinuous evolution” but it’s basically ‘what makes this polity work and how does that change’? As such it’s a very odd, to this non-German anyway, mix of new thinking and old learning, and to get through the sixty pages only to find that the conclusion was, more or less, “seriously, guys, it’s all really complicated!” was something of an anticlimax.

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

Compared to this, and to the four thick papers already discussed that lie between Goetz’s and hers, Skinner’s paper is a real breath of fresh air. It does deal with the historiography, including both Brown and Reynolds, and does due deference to the conference theme by giving some account of the way in which Sicily and Southern Italy have been made to take a part in this big meta-narrative of feudalisation. It does this in a very few pages, though, sorting it clearly into themes, and then goes about much the same feat as Goetz, showing that the real picture was far far messier than that, but she does it Jarrett-style (I suppose, rather, I do it Skinner style, but I have read very little of her work; I’m familiar with quite a lot by people she came up with such as Jinty Nelson who would probably approach it the same way, though), by adducing example after example from bulging charter archives and showing that some places in Italy fit better than others, that the Normans didn’t necessarily bring a clean slate of feudal rule but kept whatever worked in their takeover areas, and that again, it’s all much more complicated. But where Goetz appears to be arguing for a new and better version of the main theory that will somehow take account of all that variation, Skinner is saying that there’s just too much of it, and that a better approach would be to throw out this silly expectation we seem to have that places can be made to fit and that there is a path they should have been on, and instead study what was actually going on in each area and see how many units of what size this makes, and thus we can make something a bit more meaningful of the way that the Normans manage to build a kingdom that runs more or less as a unit out of this variety and what that means in its political and social context. I like this approach a lot better, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

The kind of stuff she throws up as evidence for the variety all seems very like home to me though. She has the same kind of frontier all-to-play-for conditions in her material as I do in mine, and the same sense of Islam-only-just-over-there motivating the warrior class too maybe. I already found Sicily really interesting for its mixture of cultures, in just the sort of edge situation that first interested me in Catalonia, and I think this paper has indicated to me that when I have models I want to test somewhere else, which is my ultimate aim for now, Southern Italy is probably where I should start by testing them. And you know, Sicily looks nice to visit :-) It’s nice to have some long-term aims…

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-143 with discussion pp. 145-147, & Patricia Skinner, “When was Southern Italy « feudal »?”, ibid. pp. 309-340 with discussion pp. 341-345.

2. François Menant, “La féodalité italienne entre XIe et XIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 347-383 with discussion pp. 385-387.

3. Though you could start with the coverage in Timothy Reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800-1050 (London 1991) and you’d have as good a grounding as there is in English I think.

4. Idem, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Susan Reynolds, “The idea of the nation as a political community” in Len Scales & Oliver Zimmer (eds), Power and the nation in European history (Cambridge 2005), pp. 54-66.

Museum digitisation spam vs. undersea visualisation software

I get spam about lists of museum professionals; now, I start to get spam about digitisation in museums. This one was actually relevant enough for me to follow the link and be faintly interested in the report they are trying to sell me:

The study presents data from more than 100 library and museum digitization programs from academic, public and special libraries in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK and other countries.

Until I read the summary and found that it’s basically quantifying averages. It’s of no use to me to know how many people other places have involved in digitisation, though it is faintly interesting how many places are attempting it with no extra funding/with outside help. All the same. It might interest my non-line-manager, but I’m already shunting a load of EU stuff from Vienna about how our website should look onto him.

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Why don’t I get spam about this instead? This is a desktop application for exploring sunken wrecks that have been digitised that’s been developed at the University of Hull.

Dr Paul Chapman, a computer scientist at the University of Hull, said that it was aimed at creating a permanent record of the wrecks. “Because of activities like trawling, these archaeological sites get destroyed,” he said. “What we have been focusing on with the Venus project is how to generate a permanent database or record of these sites.”

Underwater archaeological sites have also been damaged by divers taking souvenirs. “Our job has been to develop a virtual reality diving simulator that allows the user to dive down and experience the site first hand,” Chapman added.

One advantage of the simulator is that researchers can add in elements that are no longer there, for example even if the wooden frame of the ship is partially or completely destroyed it can be superimposed on the remains of the cargo that are still there.

“We can also animate the disintegration of the wreck over time,” said Chapman.

Perhaps no spam is needed; sounds like this should sell itself…

Bedos-Rezak on The Field, and on sources (third and last)

In the last few paragraphs of her paper in van Engen’s Past and Future of Medieval Studies, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak turns to the actual point of the conference at which it was being presented: how was medieval studies doing and how would it cope with coming challenges? Her response is the briefest part of her paper, but as many of the other speakers in whose work I’m less interested got their own posts, it’s worth giving the perspective of someone whose ideas have been so fruitful for me already.

Her attempt to make her article relevant does smack a little of special pleading: it’s hard for me to escape the suspicion that she saw she had a captive audience of non-diplomatists and took the chance to deliver her soapbox piece and then justified it once she’d for once been able to get through the whole rant. I mean, I would have done that in her place. Maybe I’m just projecting. Anyway, her chosen justification is that in what almost all the speakers thought would be hard times a-comin’ for medieval studies, which given that this was 17 years ago now seems to have been pessimistic, source-critical disciplines would be the evolutionarily toughest, because they had the most to teach non-medievalists. She also stresses, though not in so many words, that this skill enables us to catch an easy ride on the po-mo gravy train, and here I could have a lot more sympathy. She is obviously closer to it than I am, and sees it as being able to participate in wider trends of scholarship; I’ll leave my stock rant already said.

Her main point is that because our sources are so scanty and difficult, we make our evidence explain itself much harder, and are much tougher on it, than modernists or social scientists who can deal in bulk data, and that they can learn from our basic critical thinking. She first speaks of “the ongoing, and felicitous, rapprochement with anthropologists” as evidence of this possibility, and that bit’s worth giving in her words:

The anthropology of living societies has inspired many medievalists to turn a renewed attention to law, demography, kinship, urbanization, rituals, taboos, elite, marginals, emblems, and totems (heraldry). Medievalists can in turn contribute specific insights into the principles that govern their relations to sources. Medieval historians have been accused of looking, not at the past, but at documents. Anthropologists have come to recognise that “doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, full of ellipses, incoherences, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries.” That which they call their data are their own constructions of other people’s constructions. Understanding what is said by the occurrence and preservation of documents and artifacts and through their agency, the identification of structures of signification therein, the assessment of these structures’, and of the modalities of their documentation’s, social ground and import are all of primary concern for medievalists.

And she goes on to argue as I say that all our work is critical and that we have clutches of even more critical sub-disciplines like palæography and diplomatic that teach and use skills that all the humanities are going to find they need.

I like this idea that we’re the hard-core of the humanities, though my favoured anthropologist interlocutrix tells me that the work she cites as evidence of anthropologists having this realisation was dating even then and then in the meantime critical thinking had entered the discipline by other routes too. The quote in Bedos-Rezak’s quote above in fact comes from Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, and Geertz is the medievalist’s favourite anthropologist partly because he tells stories and partly because, as we see here, he reads and uses medieval history. But he’s also pretty important in his field and was more so then and it’s a good one to have on your side. A reminder, however, that when we branch into other fields we do need someone on the inside as a guide. And perhaps Bedos-Rezak’s real purpose was to make her audience realise that they needed such help with charters, who knows? Anyway, it’s an argument we can all and many of us have used in a more general sense than that in which she deploys it, but here well-argued if difficultly-phrased, and I think she did just about succeed in making what she’d been saying relevant to the conference…

Another bit that stuck with me is shortly thereafter where she deals with the problem of sources being constructed, which was after all the cornerstone of her earlier argument. Now she has to make it possible for medieval studies to contribute to understanding despite this. This section I like because she takes the critical theorists’ arms up against them to an extent, and a fabulous phrase occurs in her defence:

… attention to sources is not simply a technique and a method. It is at the very center of historical interpretation, since any source is primarily about itself, a form that outlines the contour of an absence, a sign that projects in the present since no other plane of duration gathers the historian and her source into the same instant, a text concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past, and an event carried by a material arranged in a pattern that still makes sense today. Acceptance and analysis of the source’s self-reflective nature enables medievalists to grasp the specific process of meaning production implied by the discursive and existential mode of that source and permits the retrieval both of the ideological and evidential status of the text, and of the ideological and social standards from the past. Our recognition of past events is conditioned by the ideologies and assumptions of the scribes from the past, but it is still debatable whether what we retrieve is the medieval axis of reference and intelligibility. In fact the medieval conceptual and textualized categories (God, land, salvation, proof, authenticity) that we use as representations of that society, as explanation that make it intelligible to us, were in effect the very questions they had to explain through axiomatic truths. For the medievalist, all documents should be seen as at once true and false (a construct)…

I do find that bolded phrase (my emphasis) particularly effective, even enhanced by its difficult wording, at reminding us that what we’re attempting is not simple. But so many of its complications are bundled up in that paragraph, synthesized by her from many places of course but packed up very densely. It’s at once both a defence against the problem of situated knowledge in our sources, to wit that we can use the sources as evidence for thought-worlds and mentalities and thus partly reconstruct the society that created those and in which they could exist, and a pointer to a further problem, that what we think we understand about medieval society are not necessarily things that medieval writers themselves understood clearly enough to explain them to us even along this oblique plane of vision. This is more theory that I like, though I might wish for it to have been more clearly expressed. I find the visual image she uses to express this bundle brilliant, however; we’re squinting along a plane at something that doesn’t exist any more, but we’re that clever we can still get something good out of it that no-one else can reach… Our techniques turn a peep-hole into a sight.


B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343, quotes from p. 332 & 333-334; for the Geertz cite, see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York City 1973), p. 10.

A Collection of Things That Do Not Exist

I have for a long time now socialised as much or more with scientists as with people from my side of the Popperian divide, and in these especially computer scientists, because Cambridge collects and hoards them in a way that it doesn’t other academics. Some of them have truly impressive brains and are interested in everything, so they give me a good chance to pontificate about my subjects in pubs, for a start. But more and more I also come into contact with such people professionally, as the whole ‘computing in the humanities‘ thing gets more and more steam up. And this is what takes me to conferences in Vienna and so on, not least because having kept this sort of company for so long I can mostly follow the talk. Also, it gets me involved in collaborations back here in my actual job.

In Cambridge there is a research centre called CARET, the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies, which is basically concerned with electronic resources for teaching. They have got more and more spread out however, and projects all over the general area of e-learning are opening up. One that doesn’t yet involve me, but that plainly might, is to do with museum catalogues. I’m not going to tell you about it, however, firstly because I basically don’t know, but secondly because this is much more fun than anything I might have to say.

As part of the exploratory work for such a thing, my friend at CARET Dan Sheppard has come up with this test set, which is only meant to be a proof-of-concept database filled with what is meant to be ‘nonsense data’. But Dan’s idea of nonsense data, combined with his inimitable coding style, creates surrealist high comedy! (It’s like the whole ‘making computers produce art by forcing them to write nonsense‘ approach.) So two entries into the catalogue I am finding described a “miniature post-conquest Liao Dynasty Wirework sousaphone”, which is apparently 64mm long and “entirely beige, except for the damaged part, which has been stained beige as a consequence… Overall, it depicts a monkey using a violin. It may have been a controlled substance, as the blue bowl-shaped recess is moldy.” The next one is a “small heavily waterlogged early Greek Ruby cymbal” which weighs 184000 g. This is going to keep me happy for a good few working days now. May you all also enjoy…

More feudalism from Spoleto: Elizabeth Brown where are you now?

Larry Swain did ask me to write more about this Spoleto volume, and what with him and the debate I seem to have got started with Another Damned Medievalist, I suppose there’s an audience of at least two for this post. I’ll try and keep it brief, though, because even for me it’s quite dry, and basically there’s only so many times I can illustrate a post with ye olde feudal homage illumination, so I have to keep myself limited on the number of posts where I actually talk about it.

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

A group swearing homage to the Count of Barcelona, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Sometimes you have to wonder whether Elizabeth Brown should have bothered. Spoleto draws a very European crowd, obviously, and especially among them Italians and Germans. Therefore, in the middle of this volume is a clutch of German and Italian papers that make up quite a lot of its weight. Of these the weightest is by Hans-Werner Goetz and I’ll come back to that in another post, if at all, because it’s doing something different to the following four.1 These four, Piero Brancoli Busdraghi, Amelio Spicciani, Hagen Keller and Gerhard Dilcher, are all basically arguing about the content of relations between lords and their soldiers at different points and periods.2 Busdraghi, Spicciani and Keller all cover Italy, though of these only Spicciani really comes south of Lombardy and Keller gets good ground out of comparisons with Germany. Dilcher is different in that he focuses on Germany, and under the Salians and Staufen kings whereas all the others are paying attention to the eleventh century most of all, and Spicciani again earlier too where it’s useful. I think Keller’s is the most subtle and Spicciani’s the most empirically justifiable, but the basic question is the same: how feudal is it all? And this would be enough to make many people quite frustrated, because as I mentioned in 1974 Elizabeth Brown asked us all to stop that.

It is not quite basic and unmodified as some of the work she was contesting. As Chris Wickham said at this same conference, people do get their models of feudalism confused, but even when you’re clear about what you’re looking for, the human variation involved in society makes it a lumpy fit. All of these scholars were, either explicitly or implicitly, working with a juridical definition of feudalism that more or less limits it to military arrangements made between lords and soldiers paid for with temporary land grants, but they weren’t being quite as simplistic as “is my model visible here?”, because That Never Works. Instead they’re conceptually working at one remove, where the question is, “what is going on in my area that makes it distinctive in its transition towards feudalism?”, which lets you use the local variations to try and explain why your area is such a lumpy fit to the model. It is, however, still working with the model.

How does this look in practice? Of the four papers here, two particularly address a particular document of 1037, and the other two use it as an endpoint or starting point. The document is an edict of Emperor Conrad II that was intended to end a two-year uprising by the lesser vassals of the kingdom of Italy (which, you may need to know, was the north; of the south, which was nothing like as coherent, we’ll hear another time). The vassals were up in arms because they felt in danger of not being allowed to succeed to benefices that the lords had given their fathers; their expectation was that the “ius patrum suorum” should be continued in their hands, and Conrad went some way to setting rules for this that had not, previously, existed in a way anyone could rely on. This was good for his image as lawmaker and peacemaker and, Dilcher argues, more or less left Germany out of it, where such rules came, if at all, with the Roman law revival of rather later and on a background of long-developed German, not Italian, custom. But Dilcher’s focus is later, so his paper starts with this Edict; meanwhile, Brancoli Busdraghi’s ends with it and it forms a constant background to Spicciani’s and a frequent partner in the dance through concepts and practices that forms Keller’s contribution. It’s obviously a fascinating document and a good place to focus all their sorts of enquiry.3 So Brancoli Busdraghi finds that it plays substantially to the interests of the powerful, because although it does make it harder for them to arbitrarily remove their followers’ sons’ livelihood (which is, Spicciani emphasises, what it will have meant in some cases) it also fixes those followers in dependent service, removing their options too. Spicciani reads it in quite the opposite way, seeing the combination in pursuit of a ‘class’ interest as an indication that the lords are more or less at the mercy of the mob here and stressing the skill of the compromise that Conrad finds. Keller asks, somewhat incredulously, how a simple law could apparently resolve such social tension, and argues therefore, Barthélemy-like, that what is really happening here is orally-transmitted expectations being made concrete but that were already pretty general; Conrad therefore restores order by recognising it and only a few people have to change their practices. This somewhat fails to explain the uprising in the first place, and Spicciani’s strength is in explaining it, but Keller has much to say about how writing could exaggerate the importance of things simply by bringing them to the fore of our attention.

He cites some English work for this. In this he is unusual, but there is one work they all cite, and it’s not Brown but Reynolds.4 In a sense, they have to, because she goes for the Edict among the many other sources she considers misrepresented or unrepresentative. Against her argument that basically all the evidence for the model at issue is late and at least slightly wrong, Dilcher and Keller both claim at different levels of subtlety that oral practices underlie these later reflections so that really, the system is there beforehand but not evidenced in writing. In this way they avoid dealing with any of the rest of her criticisms about the model itself, or any of Brown’s. None of them cite Brown. But what they are doing, despite its actual historical content, is setting papers around the question of how much logic-chopping you have to do to retain the feudal model in the case of their areas. Does it really help? Is it not more interesting that the Romagna and Lombardy do power relations in different ways, and to explore why that is and what effects it has, than merely trying to work out at what different points they move onto a ‘feudal’ base? It helps me less to be told, with a considerable backing from almost entirely secondary sources—Spicciani’s demonstration of variation in other areas is a breath of fresh air but he is still basically discussing other historians, not the sources, and the others use even less primary material—that the passage to feudalism was more or less influenced by written law and Italian custom, than it would to be told how this lord and that lord organised their armies and whether it was significant for their status and effect, if it worked, and so on. I don’t think ‘is it feudal or not and if not why not?’ is useful to us most of the time, because if what we are finding is that ‘feudal’ is a category that doesn’t fit easily then its explanatory value is strongly diminished. And you know, Brown said that in 1974 and twenty-five years later Reynolds’s work, by attacking on so many fronts that some of them had to be defensible, was here actually making it easier to ignore what Brown and she were saying in common. I could wish Brown had been at the conference and able to speak her piece; apparently it still needed saying.


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-148.

2. Piero Brancoli Busdraghi, “Rapporti di vassallaggio e assegnazioni in beneficio nel Regno italico anteriormente alla costituzione di Corrado II”, ibid. pp. 149-173; Amleto Spicciani, “Concessioni livellarie, impegni militare non vassallatici e castelli: un feudalesimo informale (secoli X-XI)”, ibid., pp. 175-227; Hagen Keller, “Das Edictum de beneficiis Konrads II. und die Entwicklung des Lehnswesens in der erste Häfte des 11. Jahrhunderts”, ibid. pp. 227-261; & Gerhard Dilcher, “Die Entwicklung des Lehnswesens in Deutschland zwischen Salier und Staufern”, ibid. pp. 263-308.

3. It is edited, should you be interested, in Harry Bresslau (ed.), Die Urkunden Konrads II. mit Nachträgen zu den Urkunden Heinrichs II., Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum et imperatorum Germaniae) IV (Hannover 1909, repr. 2001), online here, doc. no. 244.

4. I only just gave these references, it seems, but, for completeness: Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).

What is the point of charters? Bedos-Rezak part the two

It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this second part of my original tri-partite plan for response to the article by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak I mentioned to you some time ago.1 If you’ll cast your minds back, as well as the general fulmination against people not thinking before they use charter evidence, where I am right with her, I mentioned that there were things she said that didn’t match my evidence, and these differences in the material we know lead to a fairly important clash over just what early medieval people were actually using these documents for.

A land sale from the archive of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

A land sale from the archive of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

A more elementary problem with Bedos-Rezak’s article is that her focus opens in 1050, and of course everyone who works early likes to show that things people think begin later don’t, because they really begin in your own period obviously. Early medievalists do it to the high medievalists, late Antiquarians do it to us, and everybody does it to the Renaissance scholars. So there are things she emphasises as changes that look well pre-figured to me, and in particular she follows Michael Clanchy on the new growth of documentary literacy, a position that years of early medievalist argument have since persuaded him to nuance.2 And she looks to the Peace of God as providing an idea that office could be a pious way to live your life to the rumbunctious secular nobility of the eleventh century, whereas we Carolingianists would find such ideas in circulation from much earlier (and the late Antiquarians would mention Theodosius and Ambrose pointedly).3 But some of the questions, about how to read the evidence, are just as relevant for me as for her.

The main one of these is that, in her material, charters don’t get used in court. Now the whole apparent point of a charter is to demonstrate right to some, well, rights, and they are self-evidently constructed as if for public reference; they are a statement to an implied audience, not a personal memorandum, and even the abbreviated notitia form you get in some places later on is aimed at someone other than the transactors. And I recognise this from much earlier, in particular from the bishopric of Freising in the eighth and ninth centuries. One of the things we did in the research for Lay Archives, you see, was to revisit Hübner’s handlist of early medieval court cases, and check to see which of them used documents, and if any of those documents were apparently lay ones.4 Freising has a clutch of dispute settlements, actually probably twice as many as Hübner knew, but none of them mention documents at all. And this is odd because Freising also has hundreds and hundreds of notices of donations.5 Was it that charters were so effective that only the ones with no documentation got contested? This seems too good to be true, but the alternative is that they, like Bedos-Rezak’s Frenchmen, were writing an awful lot of documents that were not used when it seems to us as if their moment had come. What on earth were they for if not to be used?

Seal of Count Bertrand II of Forcalquier, 1168, in the Archives Nationales de France

Seal of Count Bertrand II of Forcalquier, 1168, in the Archives Nationales de France

She approaches this question by dealing with something that genuinely is a change in her period, the shift away from witnessing charters and towards sealing them. In my period, the only people who seal charters are kings and popes; but by the end of the twelfth century most important laymen had their own seals, guilds and churches did even, and witnessing by contrast was quite rare. In my period the royal charters never have witnesses, which is annoying, but as you approach 1050 they develop them; the Capetians quite rapidly get their charters witnessed, and this has been both seen as a clear sign of, and used to analyse, their weakening clout.6 And even in Catalonia, where witnessing is regular but usually small-scale, it gets much bigger. Also, of course, the question of who is witnessing is important, but for another post. This increased witnessing dies off again fairly soon, however, and the seal is the new form of authentication.

Bedos-Rezak has some interesting things to say about the symbology of a seal impression, generated by a relief object reproducing one’s own image, and also about the generic quality of some of these images, the legend that identified the seal owner paired up with an Everyknight-type depiction that linked him to a very broadly-defined social position. It’s fascinating, but not the point. The point she makes is that increased literacy and the very spread of law, reading and just seal use itself, as well as the devaluing of this once-royal practice, means that seals will pass as authentication of a document in a way that they once would not, and that before this the witnesses had provided that rôle. That is, by doing your transaction in a big group you got a reasonable guarantee that it would be correctly remembered and sworn to by many people; and that the charter in these instances is not functioning as a record itself but the form that creates the ceremony which provides the actual authentication. Charters, for Bedos-Rezak, are for creating authenticity, and by 1200 they have a new way of doing so that makes them usable much more like documents that we know and understand, whereas before they were being used as focal points in a ritual whose point was not in fact written record. It all fits together quite nicely.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s just that in Catalonia and the South of France, people did use charters in court cases at this time. I’ve mentioned at least three here myself, I could find you others, and Patrick Geary has put some real work in on this.7 What that means is that in some parts of Europe the original idea of document as public reference was still operative, that a charter was still a judicial document even if it was a home-made one. This doesn’t invalidate what she thinks twelfth-century Northern France was using charters for, and it may be what ninth-century Freising was using them for too, but we need to allow for more than one paradigm operating simultaneously, not a single answer but competing or complementary ones. The work to be done from here would be to try and work out which of those two states of coexistence is more like what we can see in the documents, I guess. We’ll see.


1. B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.

2. Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979); idem, “‘Clanchy revised’? Did the Normans really make a new start in the use of written record in England?”, Plenary Lecture, 77th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, Institute of Historical Research, London 2 July 2008.

3. For example, see Karl-Ferdinand Werner, “‘Hludowicus Augustus’. Gouverner l’empire chrétien: idées et réalités”, in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (eds), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 3-123.

4. Rudolf Hübner, “Gerichtsurkunden der fränkischen Zeit” in Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung Vol. 12 (Wien 1891), Anhang & Vol. 14 (1893), Anhang pp. 1-248, repr. together separatim (Aalen 1971).

5. Theodor Bitterauf (ed.), Die Traditionen des Hochstiftes Freising, Quellen und Erörterungen zur bayerischen und deutschen Geschichte (nF) 4 & 5 (München 1905-1909, repr. Aalen 1967), 3 vols.

6. Precise references would take a while to find but you could certainly get those two perspectives respectively in Ferdinand Lot, Études sur le règne de Hugues Capet et la fin du Xe siècle, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Etudes 4e série 147 (Paris 1903, repr. 1975) and Jean-François Lemarignier, Le gouvernement royal aux premiers temps capétiens: 987 – 1108 (Paris 1965).

7. Patrick J. Geary, “Land, Language and Memory in Europe 700-1100″ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 169-184.