Monthly Archives: October 2008

Seminary XXXI: Chris Wickham maligns neither historians nor archaeologists (much)

The week before last I did not go into London for seminars, and I suppose neither did I last week, in as much as that week instead, not just the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, but also the joint UCL Institute of Archaeology & British Museum seminar that usually runs in London on Tuesdays, to which for various reasons I can never go, all forestalled proceedings for the first ever Sir David Wilson lecture, organised as part of that latter seminar but separate therefrom and thus happening on the Wednesday, 22nd October. It wasn’t a seminar, because firstly there were more than a hundred people there, some from as far away as Southampton and Edinburgh (N. B. US readers, I realise that these are not real distances from your point of view, but it still means people came from the next country), and secondly because there was no discussion afterwards. This in turn was kind of a pity, because the speaker is usually all about argument, he being the Chichele Professor of Medieval History, Chris Wickham, who was talking to the title, “Problems with the Dialogue between Medieval Historians and Medieval Archaeologists”.

I have searched and searched for an online picture of Chris when writing about his stuff here, as has often happened, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. I’m not going to be the one to take it, though, because it might be so for a reason, and as the man generously writes me references, I can afford to offend him not at all. Similarly, you can’t really expect me to say anything too adverse here about his papers, but I will say that I have seen more fur fly in a Wickham paper than was ruffled in this one. I don’t think this was any failure on his part, but just that people who would come to hear Chris speak on such a topic already know about, and lament, the chronic lack of dialogue and understanding between history and archaeology, so I’m not sure how easy it would have been for Chris to tell us something genuinely new. Instead there was a lot of nodding in agreement, and though it might have been nice to see how easily the nodding divided between the two disciplinary components of the audience, let’s face it, that gathering had ears to hear what he was saying, and the problems are in the others who don’t.

The castle on Bamburgh Rock, one place where we can be pretty sure there was an Anglo-Saxon fortification

The castle on Bamburgh Rock, one place where we can be pretty sure there was an Anglo-Saxon fortification

So there was perhaps little left for Chris to suggest. He gave us some good case studies, such as the entirely different disciplinary classic theories about how castles come to England (historians: the Normans bring motte-and-bailey castles and generalise a rule from castles that the Anglo-Saxons had always resisted, thus bringing England up to speed with a century of development on the Continent, vs. archaeologists: there is a slow development of fortified sites over the tenth and eleventh centuries and these can be found in England at the same time as they appear on the Continent, and all the Normans bring is mottes, which would surely have been adopted anyway) and argued that both sides could learn from this, historians that ‘castles’ of a kind were very far from new (which any historians observing how readily Edward the Elder threw up medium-term fortifications against the Vikings according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ought to have realised) and archaeologists that nonetheless the Normans do something different with them, because their ideas of lordship are much more local, defensive and seigneurial than the grand Anglo-Saxon nobles living on fiscal allotments that are preserved between office-holders.

There are, Chris stressed, things that draw the two disciplines together. Most obviously, we are both trying to work out the past. In as much as both texts and artefacts represent by their existence an attempt by a creator to produce meaning, that we now try and discern in his or her creation, we are doing the same job. The important difference here, for the early Middle Ages at least, is that the audience for material culture was far huger than for texts, and this has to affect how we study them. I reflect that in an era of advertising and pretty-much-mass literacy, our own situation may now be the reverse of this, and wonder whether this explains how difficult some historians seem to find it to accept this or find it interesting.

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

He also pointed, however, out that the strengths of the two disciplines, history to elucidate meaning and consciousness, and archaeology to elucidate form and function, have led their practitioners in different directions. In this, his interesting point was that history has in some ways been running away from the archaeologists faster than they can catch up; the sort of hardcore Rodney Hilton social history of the sixties and seventies has a lot more to do with archaeology, and what archaeology can do, than do current trends in history towards cultural studies and literary analysis. Chris said he felt that history had left him behind a bit here, whereas archaeologists freshly strengthened with systems theory, processualism and then post-processualism, and a new certainty that they could construct their own version of the past without reference to texts, were now pursuing questions as big and broad as he had always felt important, and thus being much closer to his own work than many of his supposed colleagues. People who know me will see why I lap up Chris’s teaching so readily, this is a stance I have increasingly found myself being left with too.

The Umayyad mosque in Damascus, originally a church

The Umayyad mosque in Damascus, originally a church

Thus, even on sites where they agree, and he had some examples, the two disciplines tend to be asking very different questions, historians about practice and archaeologists about presence, historians about control and ownership, archaeologists about use of space, and so on; we can quite easily fail to overlap entirely. But in the end, while archaeology is hot, as Time Team and so on persist in proving, someone who wants to know what happened in the past does not yet go to archaeology, because the grand narratives, if only because as Magistra has recently been arguing we as personalities ourselves want personalities in narratives, are largely established by historians. Chris justly excused archaeology in part because it’s really only been going at these questions since the Second World War, and it’s in the areas where there is no grand narrative, prehistory being the obvious one, where archaeology has done its most challenging work to develop one. He however challenged early medieval archaeology, saying that it’s now at the level where it could start to provide its own grand narratives, His example was Syria and Palestine in the eighth and ninth centuries, when as he showed a consistent and comprehensible narrative of productive success, eventual fragmentation and reintegration at the cost of apparent lack of continued prosperity, plus new styles in the public use of space and new religious buildings, could be construed entirely from non-textual evidence, without damaging or challenging the separate textual grand narrative of the rise of Islam and the Muslim Conquests. In fact, as he pointed out, there are things that archaeology can add to the historical story, the apparent acute localisation of the Umayyad period and the previous continued prosperity of Byzantine Syria for example. He finished by hoping that archaeology make the most of this ability it has to produce evidence that must cause historians to reconsider their ideas, because otherwise we may so easily continue just not really paying any attention to each other.

P. S. I have delayed too long with the posting of this. In the interim the redoutable Magistra has weighed in with a fair challenge to, well, the interest of this kind of history. I don’t want to slow down this post by rewriting it some more, so I’ve replied to her there, and you may wish to go and see who if anyone wins…

Edit – P. P. S. Gesta of On Boundaries, who was also present, has now voiced their thoughts, which are rather different to mine or Magistra’s, and stem from a grounding in the practice of both disciplines so perhaps have a better foundation than either of us to say how far Chris is right about the ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’.

Feudal Transformations X: Stephen White vs. Thomas Bisson, 2nd round

It’s both good and bad to come back to an older post and revise it: good because it means I’m learning something, bad because I was wrong about being up to speed with it. But, I’ve never claimed to have the feudal transformation worked out, only that I might be getting closer to it, so here is another step closer, a post which engages with two of the previous ones from the Spoleto series (whose seed articles the seed of this one cites) and maybe even gets us further on.

The article this time is by Stephen White, who has featured here before and is with Dominique Barthélemy one of the more implacable opponents of the ‘feudal revolution’ theory or theories. Here, in a short and pithy article, he takes on Thomas Bisson’s ideas about violence and the importance of feudo-vassalic relations in the rearrangement of society that is held by many to have taken place around the year 1000 in Western Europe.1 Many might think this is greedy, as Professor White had already had a go at that thesis in 1996 as part of a debate in which Bisson was given a fairly thorough historiographic kicking by a selection of people who usually work earlier than him, White being the signal traitor from his own period.2 However, as discussed here Bisson went on with his theory after that, contending perhaps that no-one had really taken his point, which I might manage some sympathy with as White doesn’t necessarily seem to have taken it here either.3 What he does do however is remove an awful lot of the stuff that Bisson built up from his basic point, so it’s worth discussing here very briefly and then giving my own impression of the debate.

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

By his work shall ye know him (I can't find a picture of Bisson)

Professor Stephen White

Professor Stephen White

The late Professor Georges Duby

The late Professor Georges Duby

(Those images won’t lay out as I want them, but it’s more fun than not trying at all.)

White points out that Georges Duby, who largely started this whole debate off, didn’t think that fiefs, and therefore agreements over them, feudal relations as most properly understood, were very important where he studied, whereas Bonnassie saw them all over Catalonia and thought their repurposing crucial to the changes in society that took place.4 Bisson, argues White, tries to have it both ways by stressing that society in the wake of the transformation is entirely based around such pacts, and that they are clearly a very poor and ineffective substitute for the public government through courts and officials that had gone before. This is why Bisson got a kicking, and White proceeds to repeat it by arming himself with the work of Jinty Nelson and pointing out that the Carolingian state absolutely operated in such bases of patronage, agreements of service, and most crucially of all oaths of fidelity, whose language, White argues, is repeated almost word-for-word in the texts that Bisson uses, chief among them the Conventum Hugonis about which we were talking here not so long ago, to demonstrate the new era.5 Neither old nor new orders actually existed as Bisson conceives them, White argues, and the feudo-vassalic agreements that Bisson sees as a novel symptom of a new kind of society are in fact traditional texts taken, in the instance of Hugh the Chiliarch’s plaint and the letters of Fulbert of Chartres, to previously unpreserved lengths of detailed application which could nonetheless all have been sourced from Cicero, Carolingian capitularies, and ordinary oaths of the previous centuries.

Fair? Well, only partly. I too see problems with Bisson’s arguments about fiefs, seeing them where others do not, and I’ve discussed that already. On the other hand, though, I don’t read Bisson’s 1994 article the way that White seems to. White sees Bisson as arguing for a crisis of fidelity c. 1000, whence his article’s title; I find that Bisson argues for a rather broader change of political culture, in which an élite previously trammelled by a royal system of regulation is now set free to exercise its increasing monopoly on violence to its own advantage. This is a failure of the ‘public order’ in two senses, firstly that it doesn’t stop them, and secondly that it’s no longer a source for the lands and honores for which these lords now fight each other. I stress that I don’t necessarily agree with this in toto, but it is broader than White makes it.

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Map of Europe c. 1100 CE (click-through for far better one)

Also White’s argument ultimately leads to a situation where nothing really changed in society over the tenth and eleventh centuries, whereas it seems pretty demonstrable that stuff actually did. I mean, at the simplest level, the Carolingian Empire broke up into a welter of smaller states, many of which we now know and love. Even if the basis of political relations at a low level was the same circa 820 and circa 1020, which is the keystone of White’s argument and with which as a statement I don’t have a problem, the fact that the superstructure of 820 had vanished two centuries later must affect the way those people go about their business in each case. In the simplest terms, that development removes the ability to appeal beyond a certain level that had previously been there; so people’s ideas of what’s possible must change and that must affect what they try to do. It can’t just stay the same, even if there are documentary arguments which mean that change may be overstated by the mutationnistes.6 And it’s this change in political horizons that Bisson has seen clearly where White’s work seems to blur it, perhaps because his work on the early period is essentially local anyway.7 This is what Bisson sees as explaining the wave of violence that he finds in the sources, and it’s perhaps the proliferation of local lordships against which there is no recourse that leads to new kinds of records lamenting violence, whereas beforehand the victims would have gone to the king or his missi or someone, someone who is in many areas no longer available, rather than resorting to local rhetoric and calling on their saints and so forth. And that alteration in horizons and external involvements means that it’s each man for himself on a more local basis than before, however much of that sort of vying there was before the collapse, and we see this, as has also been discussed here, giving rise to a proliferation of local castles and so forth. Some of course see the proliferation of castles as the cause of that change of political targeting, but if so the castles are only happening because of the collapse of that consensus of authority that might prevent their building, so I think it’s all the same but parallel, not series.8

So in sum: Bisson has a genuine point but strings impossible derivations from it, White also has a point but fails to recognise Bisson’s and to an extent fails to describe the actual developments of the time, Barthélemy says we’re all misreading the evidence anyway but when pushed seems still to admit that there was change, an impression he can only get from those self-same sources and hey, he wasn’t supposed to be in this post anyway.10 And I think there genuinely was a change, but I’m not going to say that pulling lots of its parts back to a collapse of royal authority is enough of an explanation, because why does that authority fail hey? So this is not yet my answer, but it is a notice that I still don’t think we have a good enough one yet. By the time this goes up, I shall of course have heard another one, so we’ll see if I still stand by this then…


1. Stephen White, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48, taking on Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. Dominique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II” ibid., pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution’: comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195; Chris Wickham, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. IV” ibid., pp. 197-208.

3. Bisson defends himself in Thomas N. Bisson, “Debate: the `Feudal Revolution’. Reply” ibid., pp. 208-234, and continues in idem, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446.

4. Referring to Georges Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le region mâconnaise, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hauts Études, VIe section (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971), repr. in Qu’est-ce que c’est la Féodalisme (Paris 2001), of which pp. 155, 170-172, 185-195 & 230-245 transl. Frederick L. Cheyette as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais” in idem (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (New York 1968), pp. 137-155, and on which see now idem, “Georges Duby’s Mâconnais after fifty years: reading it then and now” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 28 (Amsterdam 2002), pp. 291-317; and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, II pp. 575-599 & 609-610 transl. in idem, “The Banal Seigneurie and the `Reconditioning’ of the Free Peasantry” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 114-133, II pp. 781-829 transl. J. Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242. On the place of such oaths and agreements in Catalan history see now Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

5. The work in question being Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 383-430.

6. Barthélemy so described Poly and Bournazel in his “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; they responded in kind with “Que faut-il préférer au « mutationisme »? ou le problème du changement sociale” in Revue historique de droit français et étranger Vol. 72 No. 3 (Paris 1994), pp. 401-412, with a further round as Barthélemy, “Encore le débat sur l’an mil” ibid. Vol. 74 (1996), pp. 349-360 & Poly & Bournazel, “Post scriptum“, ibid. pp. 361-362. Why have I never written all those down in one place before? That took ages to pin down and then I find François Bougard did it already: “Genèse et réception du Mâconnais de Georges Duby” in Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre, Hors serie 1 (2008), online here.

7. See for example the papers collected in White, Feuding and Peace-making, and the review by Jonathan Jarrett in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007). pp. 124-126.

8. Referring to Michel Bur, “Le féodalisme dans le royaume franc jusqu’à l’an mil: la seigneurie” in Feudalesimo, pp. 53-78 with discussion pp. 79-83.

UK museum use survey: is the money they give us making no difference?

I realise that museums are only medievally-relevant by coincidence, but in turn I expect you understand why I take an interest in the ‘industry’ that provides my daily bread, and so won’t mind too much if I advertise briefly a rather worrying little factoid that’s emerged from University College London, where Dr Susanne Keene has been carrying out research, using user surveys and staff surveys at around 200 museums across the UK. They’ve been analysing visitor numbers, what is being done to raise visitor numbers and how effective it’s being. This survey only covers stored collections, that is items not on public display, but since that’s basically the principle on which my department operates, partly because coins can only be displayed one side up and mainly because researchers tend to need lots of the same sort of thing whereas we tend to display a range, this concerns me directly.

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, in use for study

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum, where I work, in use for study

The report is 84 pages long, and although an awful lot of that is headings and illustrations I still haven’t gone through it in detail. If we spent the time that it would take to read the bumph that comes out of the Museums and Libraries Association on so doing, we wouldn’t have enough left to do the work for which they fund us, is my candid opinion, followed by questions I’d like to ask about the time they take generating it and what else they could do with that, but leave that aside. This was someone’s project, and that someone, since she is now a consultant, presumably got paid, but all the same she has some experience and the findings are interesting and apparently rigorous, in as much as she’s checked her findings with alternative tests on the data and so on. Now, my interest in all this is whether my job is secure, which has been uncertain ever since the organisation that provides most of my funding, via an intermediary organisation set up to show that we’re using it wisely, went into a reorganisation chrysalis in the middle of the year, with no real idea of what would emerge. So someone with this kind of data is in a position to either reassure or worry me.

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Vexingly, she has both good news and bad news. The good news is predictable: the public want more of museums’ collections to be listed online so that they can find out what there is that they’re not seeing! Huzzah, that’s basically what my job is, I’m safe! Except. The bad news she has is that putting more stuff online does not in fact significantly increase visitor numbers. Lots of museums put an increase in visitor numbers down to such factors, and visitors surveyed also said that online resources made them more likely to come to the museums. The actual numbers however don’t support either case: attendance is up everywhere (though since 80% of the museums involved were looking at figures of less than 100 visitors accessing the collections a year, this may not be very significant) and it’s not significantly correlated with online records or their increase. Much more worryingly, neither is it correlated with museums holding grants to increase their access, i. e. exactly the sort of money that funds my job. Of course putting stuff online may mean that people can avoid actually having to come and see it, and to match this survey we’d need another one analysing changes in web traffic, but the initial impression one gets from this survey is that all the money (such as it has been) that the UK government is pouring into the heritage sector is producing no more (or even less!) results than doing absolutely nothing would have done… I do hope that isn’t the impression the government gets! And meanwhile, come on public, what goes on?


The report is Suzanne Keene, Collections for people: museums’ stored collections as a public resource (London 2008), online here. The images used in this post are from a forthcoming pamphlet, Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use (Cambridge forthcoming) and are copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, even in these grotty low-colour versions that are all I have to hand.

Setting ethnicities: comparisons across Bohemia, India and Catalonia

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

I was just catching up with blogs before updating here myself, and found this note at Muhlberger’s Early History, which is one of his reports on the work of his collaborator, democracy advocate Phil Paine, two of whose book reviews form the core of the post. The one that caught my eye was about the creation of the nation of Bohemia, which the author whom Paine was reviewing, Nancy Wingfield (thus taking this post three references deep now), put largely down to a false monolingualism determined by the Austro-Hungarian authorities. I was especially struck by this bit:

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, ‘I am from such-and-such a village’, not ‘I am Czech’ or ‘I am German’. Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles.

Of course, it’s but the biggest blow in a long long process of back and forth between domination of German and non-German cultures in this kingdom that was once one of the electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, but this piece reminds me rather of something medieval, in terms of dates, but not at all European (and therefore not really medieval, as there’s no ‘middle’ for it to be in). It reminds me of a seminar I once saw given by an Indian scholar whose name is Romila Thapar. She is now Kluge Professor at the Library of Congress, but when her candidacy for the post was announced there was a great furore in India, and petitions raised against her that called her a Marxist, a Communist and someone who “denies that India even had a history”. Petitions were raised for her too, and she eventually got the job. (A balanced-seeming view that actually refers to her work here; a Hindu pro-tolerance one here, it’s all very complicated.)

Romila Thapar in interview

Romila Thapar in interview

So what was this dangerous firebrand preaching, when I saw her? That 11th- and 12th-century charter evidence from the North-West of India, where Muslim incomers had acquired a substantial rôle in society, showed both groups in apparent cooperation over land sales, witnessing together and so on, and so the embedded historiographical idea that in India Muslims and Hindus have always fought bitterly seemed in fact to be a much more modern construction. She blamed legislation by the British to prevent such conflict, they assuming falsely that there must be some. I don’t know about that—my reading on India is pretty scant—and my own work on spotting ethnic mix in charters means that I now wish I’d asked her how she was attributing religion to these people from their names, because I can point you to deacons in Spain called Muhammad, and so on. All the same it shows that there was no established discourse of a superior ethnicity such as was established in Bohemia by state intervention; there’s nothing in the documents that she presented to suggest that either Muslims or Hindus were controlling the process to the exclusion of the other group. They sat on village councils together, presumably did business together and so on. Now there may be more to Professor Thapar’s work than this, in fact there must be, but the impression I left with was that this person gets death threats because she suggests that once upon a time, Indians got on more or less peacefully. But the suggestion that an opposition now so crucial to so many people’s identities in India is a modern construct and not hallowed by the centuries of blood that Indians grow up hearing about is a big threat to current senses of identity.

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

It’s not hard to parallel this from my own studies, of course, because this is another area where it has become legend that a national identity was built out of conflict with the Muslims (in some places quite a nasty legendsome deconstruction here and see references below). The work I mentioned above about communities with Arabic names, groups who participate enthusiastically in the nascent Leonese kingdom’s formation, should show you that this is overstated, but in Catalonia it’s actually harder to show this lack of concern with ethnicity. People (and places) with Arabic names do occur, but rarely; references to conflict are infrequent but enough to suggest that it was fairly continuous but usually very small-scale. Meanwhile, because it is in some senses suppressed, the quest for a Catalan national sentiment is very important to modern-day Catalans; establishing that they were once a nation, perhaps even before upstart Castile, makes the case for secession much easier to maintain. This is why Ramon d’Abadal had to struggle so hard to establish the case that, really, before at least the millennium and probably later Catalonia was not yet a thing. The key point is supposed to come in 985, when the Muslim hajib al-Mansur led the army that sacked Barcelona; this, and the subsequent realisations that all the proto-Catalan counties were in it together and that they had no exterior support any more, has been held to start people writing about the area as if it had an identity of its own. I myself can see no sign of a unified response and think that the real efforts in this line come after the union with Aragón, partly because by then all the separate Catalan counties have collapsed into the control of the house of Barcelona, but also because until then there is no need to define themselves against anyone; France is still forming and hasn’t really got that far south, and Aragón is aimed in a different direction. Once the counts become kings elsewhere, though, the threat of inferior status makes the Catalans look to their lineages, or so I think anyway. There’s a lot of work on this I haven’t done though. The comparisons above however help me think it’s a case that could be defended: here again, it wasn’t a popular sentiment that set up a perceived ethnicity, it was a state exercise of politics that brings about an unwelcome process of definitions not necessarily mirrored at ground-level.


Limiting references to the absolute basics, Nancy Wingfield’s book that Phil Paine was reviewing is Flag Wars and Stone Saints: how the Bohemian lands became Czech (Cambridge MA 2007) (which should so very much have been called Czech your Change don’t you think?). Romila Thapar’s most immediately accessible work is probably either her Penguin A History of India: volume 1 (Harmondsworth 1990) or Early India: from the origins to 1300 (Berkeley 2004). The easiest and most readable antidote to the Menéndez Pidal Reconquista mythos is Richard Fletcher, “Reconquest and Crusade in Spain c. 1050-1150″ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 37 (London 1987), pp. 31-47 but see also idem and Simon Barton (eds), The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester 2000). On the Catalan lack of interest in such definitions you should soon be able to see Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming). The 985 theory comes from Michel Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par Al-Mansur et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur (Tours, 10-12 juin 1977), Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218. A reference for my scepticism lacks as yet, but let’s see what happens after November

Confronting the/my past: how do you learn about the Carolingians?

There is I guess, no secret in the fact that I did two of my degrees at Cambridge, even if this is sometimes a cause of slight guilt. While I was there I was lucky to be taught by some very clever people whom I owe a great deal, and chief among those has to be Professor Rosamond McKitterick (though because I am ancient, she was only Dr McKitterick then…). Apart from a great deal of encouragement, administrative support and advice, and innumerable references, some of the things I owe her have only become apparent since then. Most of these are the things she made me (us) study, things that I would then, as a brash undergraduate, have as happily done without, and been a much poorer historian as a result. Such things were, for example, what palæography and manuscript studies can contribute to one’s grasp of historical change, not just intellectual history but, you know people moving from place to place, or just book production meaning you have access to a lot of sheep; or, generally, how what the clerics are arguing about can be part of the wider society they take part in and thus reveal some of the concerns of the man in the street; and I’ve since written here already about how what can, if you’re listening to Professor McKitterick for the first time, seem like a bewildering list of manuscripts resolves, once you know her approaches and can keep up with the citations, into genuine insight into issues of the days that she and I study, which perhaps no-one else could uncover for you.

An illumination of St John writing his Gospel from the Lorsch Gospels, taken from Wikimedia Commons

An illumination of St John writing his Gospel from the Lorsch Gospels, taken from Wikimedia Commons

So the main things I took from Professor McKitterick’s teaching were not to dismiss sorts of evidence as uninteresting just because I wanted to work on secular power and not monasteries, for example (not that I knew that yet, and you know, see how that worked out…), and that the élite and the general population were in closer contact and affected each other more than one might usually think. I also learned an awful lot about Carolingian intellectuals, and how to find that interesting (I still have a soft spot for Eriguena); I got my first taste of charters in the form of Tessier’s Recueil of Charles the Bald, and somewhere in there got a very important lesson about backing up your work, thankfully with something non-essential whose absence she forgave. I also got encouraged to study Catalonia after I wondered about it, and that has, if not worked out well, at least certainly worked out long-term. So yes.

This is all coming back to me fresh because I’m reading what is now my own copy, inherited by strange paths from her herself I believe, of her The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983). I’m not sure I ever read all of it before, which I’d consider shameful had the other two pupils of hers to whom I’ve mentioned this not confessed similarly. In their case it’s easy to explain why: it goes to 987, and none of us but me ever bothered with much after 900, whereas I went and worked on a periphery where the evidence only really starts in 880. This is the general state of the field though. The sources are much better for earlier, because Charlemagne and Louis the Pious’s kingdoms, and Charles the Bald’s also, generate lots and lots of writing and preserve more. Also, they have the big fantastic achievements (creating Europe and then creating France and Germany, behold the teleology) whereas the later kings either just hold on or, worse, fail to. Thus, there are a huge welter of books on Charlemagne; Louis the Pious has inspired a lot of scholarship even if, until a very few years ago, there was no single biography of him newer than 1839; and Charles the Bald has become the special darling of a whole bunch of scholars who’ve realised how important his reign was in setting up the events of several centuries following.1 This book goes further on, and I should have read it all then. Well, now I have, and it has been both educational and inspiring (it inspired the recent post about Cluny, for a start). On a lesser plane, however, it has reminded me of some of the things I found difficult at the time and in the teaching of the Carolingians more widely.

Cover of Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians

Cover of Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (N. B. image reversed, Lothar really sits half-left)

These all fall more or less into a category that one could call ‘assumed knowledge’. For example, Professor McKitterick herself naturally makes no real use of source translations, and she would often assume that one knew where the best edition was or how to find out, or would let us know that there was a translation but not necessarily know what it was called. That often made it quite difficult to produce it from the Seeley Library‘s rather taciturn catalogue (still incompletely digitised at that point). Now I see this assumption that we would understand the normal conventions of reference to these works as flattering, but when I think back to the confusion that references to the Life of Wala caused me, because its Latin title is Epitaphium Arsenii and the translation, which is in a volume called Charlemagne’s Cousins. doesn’t mention the work’s Latin name or Wala in its main title, I still grit my teeth very slightly.2 Of course, a lot of Professor McKitterick’s pupils go on to do research work and are of the general calibre and dedication who can survive with so little signposting, but in my own teaching I’ve always been consequently careful to give references that people can put into their own library catalogues when they’ve never heard of the book or subject before.

The other challenge was a tacit assumption that we already knew the basics. At Masters level that was either true or I wasn’t going to admit it, but at undergraduate level I think that one needs a narrative, which is not something that Cambridge medieval history generally at that time was very interested in. I still wrestle with the contradiction involved here, that we were expected, if necessary, to go to things like Louis Halphen’s or Heinrich Fichtenau’s old books, both available in translation but not going very far, or even for the basics of chronology Abel’s Jahrbücher, yet not to take any of it in too deeply as much had been revised since they were written. Our authorities were not authoritative, and the voices of authority that we heard were not interested in doing anything as mundane as telling stories. Thus, when Roger Collins wrote his Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, it got stinging reviews from some of my Cambridge teachers for being old-fashioned `battles-and-dates’ history but I thought it was a (slightly stuffy) lifeline, and I know some of my students have felt similarly about it, because they have to get this stuff from somewhere. So the book’s popularity has kept Roger in cravats or similar ever since, because it is needed. While I was under Professor McKitterick’s tuition her volume of the New Cambridge Medieval History made it to press, which was a considerable help, but something like Roger’s narrative will always have its rôle because it puts it all together in one sequence whereas by its nature the multiple-author NCMH is episodic and thematic.3

Cover of second edition of Roger Collins's Early Medieval Europe 300-1000

Cover of second edition of Roger Collins's Early Medieval Europe 300-1000

The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians encapsulates both what was marvellous about Professor McKitterick’s teaching, and these difficulties. It is not really a narrative, a history of the Carolingian era’s politics is not its main mission. Instead, it now reads to me more as a series of essays, arranged chronologically, on what Professor McKitterick herself then thought most important about that age. Sometimes that was in fact its political developments: the chapters on the last Carolingians and on the confused tangle of successions, especially in Italy, after the death of Charles the Fat, are perhaps the clearest accounts of those events I’ve yet read in English, and not just because I think they may be the only ones. (It must be said however that her few paragraphs about Catalonia cannot be safely cited, because they are riddled with errors, something I find extremely surprising; whatever the Annales Regni Francorum may claim, the Carolingian armies never took Tortosa, held Huesca only briefly and quickly gave up Tarragona.) On the other hand, the three chapters on culture and learning, where I think most such books would have had only one, all of which are among the longest in the book’s twelve, indicate a clear sense of the author’s own interests, and focus almost to exclusion on manuscripts, though there is also a brief and illuminating section on painting. Since this time, of course, Professor McKitterick has edited what remains pretty much the definitive work on such matters in English, so this is not what one still needs this book for, but it’s still illustrative.4

Also, there is assumed knowledge. For example, there are two references in the early political sections to the coup against Charlemagne by his son Pippin the Hunchback. He is in the index, but who he was and when the coup was are never stated. The extent of the information that is provided makes it clear that Professor McKitterick was aiming at relative novices to the field, but in cases like this, she missed, perhaps because of cuts that were made late in drafting or careless editor’s input. At least the complicated early end of the Carolingian period is well-covered now by other works. On the later end, as I say, there’s almost nothing else and happily this book remains excellent and illuminating on that period. It should be noted however that by then it’s deliberately covering only the Western Frankish kingdom, because Professor McKitterick saved work and words by deferring to Timothy Reuter’s then-forthcoming work, which became Germany in the Early Middle Ages, 800-1056 (Harlow 1991). Reuter’s book is very good, of course, but it wasn’t to emerge for eight years after this one, not that that was within Professor McKitterick’s power to anticipate or change. It means, however, that occasionally kings from the Other Side like Arnulf or Otto I loom into the narrative unexplained and the reader is very unsure where they sprang from.

The History Faculty and Seeley Library at Cambridge by night

The History Faculty and Seeley Library at Cambridge by night

All in all, though, it seems that the book has been needed to do something other than what its author intended. For want of anything else in English that covers the full period, it’s become a textbook for Carolingian history, and presumably it was commissioned as such, but although assigned to undergraduates, really this is a graduate book. It makes new sense of old debates and, as the blurb on the back says, it also serves very well for bringing debates that had effectively been conducted in other languages into English. What it doesn’t do is tell you the whole story, but then, the whole story has yet to be written. I’m not even sure it can be. But I still think someone needs to try, because it’s harder than it should be to learn without it.


1. Rosamond herself has just completed a book about Charlemagne, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge 2008), and that will I imagine give references to the large body of other work; here I refer especially however to Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingienne (Paris 1949), transl. Giselle de Nie as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977); Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium: soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire, Studies in Medieval History 9 (Oxford 1957); & Sigurd Abel (ed.), Jahrbücher des fränkischen Reiches unter Karl dem Grossen, ed. Bernhard von Simson (Leipzig 1865-83), 2 vols & Bernhard von Simson (ed.), Jahrbücher des fränkischen Reiches unter Ludwig dem Frommen (Leipzig 1874-1876), 2 vols. Notice how the series goes no further forward, although it did go further back
On Louis the Pious scholarship now rests heavily on Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Oxford 1990), but recent Leeds papers have been a ferment of new thinking. The new biography referred to is Egon Boshof, Ludwig der Fromme (Darmstadt 1996), but I haven’t read this so can’t say if it advances things.
On Charles the Bald there is most obviously Jinty Nelson’s biographical study, Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, The Medieval World (London 1992); that emerged from a similarly field-resetting conference, Margaret Gibson & Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom. Papers based on a colloquium held in London in April 1979, BAR (International Series) 101 (Oxford 1981), 2nd edn. Charles the Bald: court and kingdom, Variorum Collected Studies (Aldershot 1990) with slightly different contents and all papers updated.

2. The text is edited as Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Radberts Epitaphium Arsenii” in Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, philosophisch-historische Klasse 2 (Berlin 1900), pp. 1-98 (though Migne’s older text is online here); the translation is in Allen Cabaniss (transl.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalhard and Wala (Syracuse 1967).

3. Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, 2nd edn. (London 1999); Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. II: 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995).

4. Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994).

Choose your revolution: a hard choice for a counter-culture medievalist

Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, with some of his knights

Really keen readers will remember me outing myself as a fan of loud rock music a little while ago by quoting a Motörhead song about the use of history, mainly because it existed to be quoted. Motörhead are playing Cambridge Corn Exchange on November 17th. Meanwhile, on November 17th, it’s Chris Wickham‘s Creighton Lecture on “The culture of the public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution’”. And now of course I have realised that these are the same day. Am I choosing to be a rock’n’roll rebel or a feudal revolver? Well, let’s face it, I’m going to the lecture, but not without some annoyance at the clash. I’m missing another band I know and love by going to the Haskins Society Conference too, and to them I’ll have to explain myself.

To any prospective employers reading, let this assure you, not that I have only just acquired basic skills with a calendar *however much it might look that way*, but instead that despite my dodgy hair both head and sometimes facial, and despite also my weakness for using song titles as subheadings, when the chips come down, it’s Clio who has my heart not Euterpe or Terpsichore. Mmm, chips.

Seminary XXX: Ephesan epigraphy and Byzantinist jibes

Professor Charlotte Roueché

Professor Charlotte Roueché

The Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 8th October was by Charlotte Roueché, under the title of “Late Antique Ephesus: Walking the Streets”. As you may be able to tell from the title, Professor Roueché has a lively sense of humour, which made this one of the most amusing papers I’d been to since Roger Collins last addressed the seminar, though the number of jokes at the expense of classicists and archaeologists and well, anyone who wasn’t a Byzantinist epigrapher rather did in the end pile up a bit like Frank Zappa’s works, snarking at so many people that there’s no way for the listener not to be attacked.

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

This is, admittedly, not to say that she doesn’t have a point. Even if one didn’t know full well that classicists are likely to want to dig up a fourth-century site to find what’s under it, and quite likely restore the early Roman stuff which was probably robbed to build the later stuff (of which she used the example above, the Prytaneion of Ephesus whose columns had been dismantled and reused in the sixth century), one could easily believe that Byzantine inscriptions, written of course in classical languages (both Latin and Greek at Ephesus at least—more on that in a minute), would not rate high in the publications of this material, done of course by classicists for the most part. She had one very sharp example, of a column at Ephesus on which had been inscribed an acclamation of the Empress Eudoxia, which was therefore published in the relevant corpus for the year 395 or thereabouts, because Emperor Theodosius I (379-395)’s wife was called Eudoxia and therefore, &c. Unfortunately, Emperor Heraclius (610-641) also had a wife of that name, and since the other thing on the pillar is an acclamation of him, it seems overall more likely that it’s the later not the earlier. But the corpus puts the one early and Heraclius’s late and there’s no indication in the edition that these things are associated in any way. This is a problem about which we heard a great deal. (The relevant pillar is one of many on what’s called Marble Street, shown below, though I am informed by Prof. Roueché herself that properly speaking Marble Street starts beyond that, and the below is really Kuretes Street, as confirmed here. The photographer didn’t know that, then, is all I can say…) Ephesus also has the additional problem that, being in Turkey even if at the very western end of it, the government is more interested in Ottoman archaeology than Christian archaeology, so funding tends to have to come from overseas and then be successfully got into place. (That this can be done is shown by the huge Inscriptions of Aphrodisias project, which has them all online now, a process in which Professor Roueché had no small part.)

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists; Marble Street lies beyond

Because Professor Rouché was conscious that she was talking to an audience who primarily work on Latin, Western, parchment texts, she spent perhaps more time than she really needed emphasising the particular difficulties of an epigrapher: the fact that the evidence comes out of the earth without much ability to choose it, that it has to be cleaned, has often been reused, and so on. I think we got all of this quite easily but I’m no-one to criticise for making the most of the special nature of one’s field after all. What she was actually doing was coming to ask for comparanda, because what you can’t easily see on that image above is that the actual paving stones are also heavily inscribed, and what the inscriptions mean is rather unclear because they’re only symbolic, in the literal sense of being composed of symbols. They are traditionally dismissed, as Professor Roueché was inclined to see it, as gaming circles, which as she said belongs to a very Gibbonesque view of the late Empire where everyone’s so decadent that they’re playing dice in the middle of the street, perhaps because there’s nothing else to do till the barbarians arrive and so on. Of course, in Ephesus, which was a provincial capital till the seventh century (there’s a relatively neat and well-illustrated account of its history here, and Philip Harland has a page up about the site), that takes a bit longer, and the classicists and classical archaeologists have to deal with the fact that very little of the visible fabric is older than fourth-century and had even then seen centuries of use, modification and rearrangment. She wonders, anyway, if they may not be positions marked out for groups in ceremonies, for which there would be more readily intelligible parallels both from earlier Greek cities and later Rome, or even market-stall stances, which one wouldn’t want in text as market-stall holders would probably change faster than you wanted to replace your paving-stones…

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

Two other interesting things struck me as being worth remark about this paper. The first was that the extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Aphrodisias, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface… The other thing was language shift. A lot of the inscriptions are Latin, but most are in Greek, and at Aphrodisias almost overridingly so (because it’s not a capital, was in fact a free city which Romans have to have notional permission to enter, and so on). All the same, when dealing with the Emperors Latin creeps in. I’ve been noticing this myself with Roman Provincial coins lately that I’ve been cataloguing for the exhibition I mentioned, over time what was ‘SEBASTOS’ (transliterated) becomes the Latin word that translates, ‘AVGVSTVS’, but still in Greek (so usually AUGOUSTOS, again transliterated). She pointed us at an acclamation of Justinian I that ends, “TOU UINCAS” in Greek letters, that is the Latin ‘tu vincas’, thou shalt conquer, simply transliterated into Greek without translation. There are others like this, but by this Latin is on the retreat in the Eastern Empire: all the same, apparently when dealing with emperors of the Romans, as the Byzantine rulers consider themselves, one uses the language of the Romans, at least a bit. Both of these things involve mindsets very different from those I’m used to thinking of, but as Professor Roueché observed during the questions, it presupposes that the people making these inscriptions are trying, if rather diffidently, to identify with the West as a larger thing that includes them, and from which scholarship tends instead to divide them. Worth remembering.

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias

A library with pedigrees

A package came for me the other day that turned out to be a copy of Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals’s Els Primers Comtes Catalans, which is pretty much the starting book for what I work on, an attempt to sort the national myths from the actual evidence for early Catalonia. I’d browsed for it on ABE Books on a whim and found a copy for sale in the UK. I was so pleased to score it—and it’s a nice copy too, dust-jacket has one chip and that’s all, tight, VG+, yes I did use to work in the trade since you ask—that I never thought to wonder why there was a copy for sale in the UK.

Cover of Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals's Els Primers Comtes Catalans

Cover of Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals's Els Primers Comtes Catalans

The last two trips I’ve made to Exeter have been for conferences, I mentioned one here and the other one was before the blog, and on both occasions Professor Richard Hitchcock has been selling no-longer-wanted parts of his library, as I guess he settles down to working only on what he intends to continue with. I’ve never had the money to buy the few things he was offering that touched my period, much to my chagrin. So it’s kind of amusing to find his signature in the flyleaf of my new book.

I can add this to the few volumes of Philip Grierson‘s, the couple of presents from Rosamond McKitterick and Matthew Innes and the long ton of Jinty Nelson’s cast-offs that make up a good chunk of my library. Mind you, this is not the most extreme case I know of: Matthew still has a copy of Braunfels’s Karl der Große Bd I. that he got from Rosamond, who’d been given it by Philip (who was in it). I really need to have books to give to these people to link the ends of this loop up, sadly not possible to Philip but otherwise it would be neat. I wonder if any of what I amass will be of worth to my students in the inevitable end, and if any of it will have passed to me by such means like these. How many generations can we pass books through?

A Jarrett bookcase

A Jarrett bookcase

So when did Cluny become so special, exactly?

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Some of my recent reading has led me back to thinking about Cluny. I’m not thinking so much about the place, however, or even the historical entity, but about how we approach it as historians. If you’ve ever been taught about the Church reform movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries, which since it more or less led to the Investiture Crisis which brings up the sort of issues that even modern historians love about theories of sovereignty and so forth, you probably have—I’m just going to let that sentence drop, actually. Breathe a minute while I get my style under control. OK. Ready? Right, here I go again. If you’ve studied the reform movement you’ve been told about Cluny, I guess. Similarly, if you’ve taught it, you surely mentioned Cluny, because except for Gregory VII and Henry IV’s poison-pen exchanges, Henry standing in the snow in sackcloth at Canossa while Gregory bit his fingernails, and the final denouement quote, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, wherefore I die in exile”, which is all good stuff but late, the biggest thing in the topic is Cluny.1 And although it is a bit like teaching the geography of mountains with Everest, when something more average might be more representative, we all want the students to go away enthused, and so we pick on Cluny, with its 24-hour prayer cycle, unceasing commemoration, and Europe-wide donations, grants from the King of León man, places Cluny’s never heard of donate to Cluny because it’s so famous and it has strings of daughter houses, some of which acquire their own strings and so on. It also generates some truly spoony sources, either in quantity or in content, and so it is the obvious thing to try and cover all reform-period bases with. I get this, I’ve done it myself. If they’re really interested, they can go on to look at one of the lesser houses that Cluny reformed, like for example St-Martin de Tulle, themselves.2

All the same. When Cluny starts, no-one knows this is going to happen. But when I first taught this, I was told to do so from Cluny’s foundation charter, as if it set out new principles, as if it might be read as a manifesto for the New Age. This kind of distinction is, I think, also implied by the way it’s in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, where charters are a rarity.3 This one was significant enough to get in however. And it is quite a startling document as you can see there, albeit mainly for its grandeur and curses. But anything else? Well, I wasn’t quite sure at the time, and then the other day my reading put this before me:

William of Aquitaine had no thought of monastic reform when he founded Cluny. His donation charter, usually dated 11 September 910, states clearly that the foundation was to ensure his salvation and prayers for his soul and for the souls of the members of his family…. William also granted the monks their freedom to elect [the first abbot] Berno’s successor from among their number and the monastery was commended to the protection, not of any lay ruler or member of William’s family, or to any bishop, but to the apostles Peter and Paul and their representative the Pope. Cluny was in fact to enjoy full immunity in the technical sense, though the actual word was not used in the charter. No secular prince, count, bishop or pope was to enter the possessions of Cluny, or to sell, diminish, exchange or in any other way take anything from the monastery’s property.

Much has been made of the clause making Cluny only answerable to the Pope alone and free from all secular interference. The precise legal position as a result of this position, however, is not at all clear. In practice the links established between the new monastery and Rome seem to have been very limited, and it was the elimination of future family or outside lay interference… which can be counted as the most important feature of the foundation charter. As Cowdrey has pointed out, the Cluny foundation charter contained almost nothing for which there was not already a precedent.4

Well, she’s right. It’s not that special. I mean, it’s a very splendid read but so are many ecclesiastical charters for solemn occasions. The whole ‘no secular prince’ bit sounds grand but that’s because it’s lifted wholesale out of royal immunity charters; it’s interesting that William chooses to grant like a king, and even more interesting how he leaves himself out, but the form itself is not new, it’s quite old.5 Likewise, the family exclusion could be read just as an elaborate way of saying to his heirs that they absolutely can’t have this land back or impose a family abbot. In fact Cluny is very far from being averse to forming relationships with families and family property, though the way that the place is set up does mean that these have to go through some fairly elaborate hoops where other places might just, you know, have a member join and hold their lands for the house.6 And the subjection to Rome, well, keen readers may remember that this happens in other places too (albeit later) and there it’s basically a fun way of getting your land outside of normal secular jurisdiction without cost,7 because obviously the pope isn’t going to come and stay, is he? Actually, of course, at Cluny he does, but only after Cluny has become the sort of place that trains future popes so that they want to come back and visit, you know?

Pope Urban II celebrating mass at his old home of Cluny, on the eve of the First Crusade

Pope Urban II celebrating mass at his old home of Cluny, on the eve of the First Crusade

So it struck me that it would be useful, perhaps, to put another foundation charter up from before Cluny’s and the reform movement. What with Lay Archives I ought to know where to find such things, but actually there are fewer than you might expect: grants by noblemen to houses that they say they built are one thing, and quite frequent (some of them even by people called William, indeed; Count Guilhem of Toulouse, who founded the abbey of Gellone in Languedoc, first mentions this as we have it in a substantial donation to it that he makes in San Pietro di Roma on pilgrimage, and he is later considered a saint: beat that, Cluny!) but actual foundation endowments, fewer. Nonetheless, there are some out there, and the one I could get most easily was that of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu in the Dordogne, and so can you if you like because as I’ve mentioned before its cartulary is free to download on Google Books. My translation however isn’t, so I give it below.

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, from Wikimedia Commons

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, from Wikimedia Commons

The authority of the ancients sanctions and a unity of the laws decrees, that whatever one wishes to do with his properties, in every respect, according to the will of God, he shall have free choice in the matter. On the which account I therefore in the name of God Rodulf, high-priest of the Church of Bourges, for the love of omnipotent God and for the remedy of my soul and those of my parents, do cede and wish to be ceded in perpetuity to the monastery, a new endeavour indeed, which is called, previously Vellino but now by us Beaulieu, which I, Christ being propitious, am ordering constructed on the estate in my ownership in honour of Peter Prince of the Apostles, for the stipends and uses of the monks there serving God, some bits of my property, which are in the region of Quercy, in the vicariate of Causse, that is my villa, which they call Sarrazac, as one with the church which is in honour of Saint Genesius, with cultivated and uncultivated lands, vines, woods, houses, buildings and all things pertaining to it, and the slaves of either sex pertaining to that same place; and in another location, in the region of Turenne in the villa whose name be At the Medlar, our manor, which I bought with a given price from Pierre, with all the things pertaining to it; and in another place, in the same region, a vine beneath the castle of Turenne, which I bought from Ragambald. All these aforenamed things and the collected things pertaining to the same places, to the aforesaid place, for the stipends indeed of the monks and for the building of that same place, I wish to be conceded in perpetual right. Indeed, what let not occur and I hardly believe will be brought about, if I myself, this wish having changed, or any of my heirs or kinsmen, or any opposing person whatever, who should wish to make a quarrel, slander or any opposition against this cession, first of all by the authority of my ministry I do bind them with the chain of anathema; next let them incur the anger of omnipotent God and his saints; on top of which, let he who brought the quarrel answer for it under duress with thirty pounds of gold, sixty pounds of silver, along with a similar sum for the fisc, and let whatever evil he sought not be accomplished, but this present cession remain firm and stable with the appended stipulation.
+ Bishop Rodulf subscribed. Signum of Gotbald. Signum of Grimoald. Signum of Deacon Evrald. Signum of David. Signum of Hugh. Signum of Agiulf. Signum of Enedol. Signum of Grimoard. Signum of Odolric. Signum of Ebrard. Signum of Edac. Given in the month of March, in the fourth year of Charles, the most glorious king.

That year is 844, should you be wondering.7 Some brief background: Bishop Rodulf is from the comital family of Turenne, so he knows that castle well; his father is count, his brother will be count, and neither of them are especially huge donors to Beaulieu, not least because they prefer to give either to their own foundations (his sister gives here but also founds her own nunnery) or to their kinsman the bishop’s cathedral. So this family foundation is not an unusual thing that William is doing at Cluny, but the way he keeps his own family and indeed himself out is genuinely unusual, even if a lot of the rest of what separates that charter from this is pure style and showing-off of Scriptural knowledge. (That, for what it’s worth, would be much easier to parallel.) There are also hints that William was moving in a different political climate: he makes the quasi-royal immunity and remembers King Odo’s soul, but doesn’t mention the current king over his region, Charles the Simple, at all except in the dating clause. Rodulf doesn’t do so either, but he doesn’t give the immunity or anything like that because, when the monastery is nearing completion (in 859! despite various donations it takes them a long time to build the place, it first certainly being finished in 864 and the monks apparently living at Rodulf’s cathedral in the meantime) he goes himself to King Charles the Bald and gets a genuine royal immunity which has a lot of the details in it that William had to, or chose to, provide himself.8

So in sum I do not go quite as far as Professor McKitterick or indeed Cowdrey before her in minimising the special quality of this charter. From what parallels are easy to find William of Aquitaine was doing something actually unusual in the terms by which he established Cluny, which was basically to swear off having any influence over it once it was up and running. On the other hand, the place’s actual purpose is to save his soul and preserve his memory, just like Beaulieu for Rodulf. Rodulf may also have been trying to dump a load of his property into a monastic safety-deposit which would then be made immune from fiscal levies; William can’t have been doing that, because he didn’t need to, he was the fisc. So he was I think, whether it were new or no, doing something unusual and surprising; but I still think that what Cluny was to become does not really derive from what makes William’s establishment of it unusual.


1. Uta-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia 1988); Barbara H. Rosenwein, Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the tenth century, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1982).

2. Actually as far as I know no-one’s really studied Tulle as a reform centre. There’s apparently a slew of basic local narrative work epitomised by Joseph Nouaillac, “Histoire de Tulle: Les origines de Tulle et de son monastère” in Lemouzi. Revue franco-limousine Vol. 155 (Limoges 2000), pp. 6-18 and Paul Maureille, “La fondation de l’abbaye (Saint-Martin) de Tulle”, ibid. Vol. 65 (1985), pp. 224-227, but outside that, what I’m sure is an honourable and respected local periodical, not so much and its charters are not only published but online, so one could do something: they are Jean-Baptiste Champeval (ed.), Cartulaire des abbayes de Tulle et de Roc-Amadour (Brive 1903), online at Gallica.

3. Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1903), Vol. I, doc. no. 112, transl. Ernest F. Henderson in his Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London 1910, many reprints), pp. 329-333.

4. Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (London 1983), p. 281.

5. On immunities see now Barbara Rosenwein, Negotiating space: power, restraint, and privileges of immunity in early medieval Europe (Manchester 1999).

6. Barbara Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of St. Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).

7. Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1859), online here, doc. no. XXXIV.

8. Ibid., doc. no. V, because as with many medieval cartularies, the arrangement here is not by date, but by importance; so the royal and papal privileges come first, then the founder’s documents, then the rest is organised or not according to purpose. On such matters you can see Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

The last angry nun in Sant Joan de Ripoll

From thriller titles to Western echoes, although I don’t think Sant Joan de les Abadesses is really the west of anywhere. Nonetheless, it’s back there we go once more, because I have been revising the book again (now in second draft) and come across this snippet that makes for a story such as I like to tell you all.

Cloister of the abbey of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Cloister of the abbey of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Stop a minute in this cloister and I’ll tell you about someone who used to live here, back in the day, when the abbesses still ruled and a dominant Castile was still a glint in Fernán González’s eye. But first I need to set you up with some background. You probably remember Abbess Emma? Well, her end is obscure; no-one knows where she’s buried, and we don’t know exactly when she died. The last mention of her dates from 942, then there aren’t many documents for a bit and then in 949 there was a big meeting at Sant Joan whose matter makes it clear that she’d been dead for a while.1 The meeting was attended by various great and good of the area, including the deacon Miró Bonfill, one of Emma’s nephews, Bishop Guadamir of Vic, Archdeacon Ató of Vic who would be the next bishop, Viscount Guadall of Osona and Bishop Godmar II of Girona, but it was headed by two more of Emma’s nephews, Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, fairly new to the job and probably about 19 years old, and by his elder cousin Count Sunifred of Cerdanya. Neither of these two exactly ruled Sant Joan, because the area had since 899 been technically under royal immunity (King Charles the Simple‘s signature on the document that says so is the blog header up there), but Sant Joan’s properties were mainly split between Osona and Cerdanya, so it was these counts that problems at Sant Joan mostly affected.2

And problems there were, because as the scribe reports, after Emma’s death Borrell’s since-deceased father Sunyer had, ‘out of cupidity’, imposed an abbess of his own choosing, ‘an unsuitable woman, as later became clear’. These dark words are all we know about Emma’s immediate successor, a catspaw for the greedy count who had also acquired a more or less controlling interest in the valley immediately overlooking the monastery from the south, which was now held by Borrell.3 She was also dead now, however, or otherwise removed, and the meeting was to decide on a successor. Sunyer’s malpractice had apparently caused him great remorse in his final years as a monk at Notre Dame de la Grasse, but the counts weren’t letting go of the wealthy convent for all that, and the successor was the recently-widowed dowager countess of Urgell, Adelaide, Borrell’s and Sunifred’s aunt-in-law. She doesn’t seem to have taken the job seriously, goes on appearing as countess and by 956 had been replaced by one Ranló, though as Adelaide had married the counts’ uncle Sunifred II of Urgell in 907, she may well have been dead by the time we first see Ranló (though Ranló, too, was at least 63 by this time and probably older; long-lived religious women is a bit of a theme round here).4

The record of the meeting of 949 over the succession to Sant Joan

The record of the meeting of 949 over the succession to Sant Joan

But it’s not Adelaide I want to tell you about. Here is a scan of a photograph of the record of this meeting, and under it there should be linked a full-size version which blows up rather better. From the full-size version, if not from this small one, you can probably see that there are a lot of autograph signatures, Borrell’s dead centre in splendid capitals probably being by the scribe Guillad, and Sunifred conspic. by his a. but Gentiles, who had been Emma’s chief notary, appearing in the full-size glory of his own hand, above left of Borrell’s, for the last time ever. Never mind him, though, he’d had his share of the limelight; the really interesting thing is that four of the nuns also sign, apparently in their own hands. Guillad either didn’t know they could write, or thought they needed help, as he put their names in himself, but their own signatures appear also, above and to the right of Gentiles’s rather up-and-down rustic capitals hemmo d~o dicata (you see, Emma was a popular name in this area by now…), immediately above her RIHELDES D~O DIcata, Riquilda, to her right Chindiberga, right over to the left again on the next line Carissima, ‘dearest’, and back up again, just to the right of the younger Emma, ELO †. I mention Elo last because she’s the subject of the post (at last, you say!). The nuns Bellúcia and Aldècia are also made to sign by Guillad, but they apparently didn’t or couldn’t write so I shan’t locate their signatures for you (can’t actually see Bellúcia’s, I admit). On to Elo.

We know a little bit about Elo because she goes on appearing after the others. The writing nuns also turn up as witnesses to a couple of big exchanges with Count Sunifred and the deacon Miró, and also their brother Count Oliba Cabreta, in 962 that effectively set up the new comital monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon on land that Abbess Fredeburga gave in exchange for land that had once been Sant Joan’s, but got taken over after Emma’s death.5 As I’ve observed before, it’s tough to be up against The Man in late-Carolingian Catalonia. Anyway, the same four signed one of the three documents from that deal too, but thereafter we don’t see Carissima, Riquilda, Chindiberga or the younger Emma any more, whereas Elo turns up again. This is mainly because her father, whose name is Asner, seems to have had no other heirs, so kept granting her extra land. As she got older, in her turn she granted this to Sant Joan, which is how come we have the documents.6

The nave and apse of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The nave and apse of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

But times had changed at Sant Joan during Elo’s lifetime, as I’ve mentioned before. You can see from the mess that Sunyer left behind and how his successors dealt with it that the counts were keen on clipping Sant Joan’s wings. In 1017 this came to a head when Abbess Ingilberga and her nuns were appealed before Pope Benedict VII by a load of Catalan dignitaries, who said that the convent was populated by ‘parricides and whores of Venus’ and obtained its dissolution. Elo did do quite well out of her father, but she doesn’t appear to have needed to kill him for this to happen, and Ingilberga certainly didn’t kill her father, who was Oliba Cabreta, because he had died a monk in Monte Cassino in 990. What their personal morals were like I couldn’t say, except that Elo didn’t acknowledge any heirs in her charters. So we might suspect a stitch-up, and even if we didn’t the fact that the abbey immediately became part of a new bishopric of Besalú into which the leading count’s son was installed as bishop kind of clinches the deal. So poor Elo was out on her ear, reputation besmirched and sanctity imperilled, although Bishop Oliba of Osona, perhaps somewhat bothered by having sworn before the pope that his half-sister was a father-murdering whore, did at least establish that the nuns all got an allotment of land to support themselves on before the remainder went to the new bishopric. The ousted abbess got to live in the episcopal palace, even, it’s not exactly righteous hatred is it?7

Anyway, I bet Elo was OK. She amassed quite a lot of land from her father, and she last appears in 1028. So let’s just do the arithmetic there: first appearance in 949, last in 1028, that’s an eighty-year career more or less! She can’t have been very old when she first appeared; no wonder her script is so child-like, she was in fact a child… And since she presumably wasn’t age zero in 949, she’s quite likely to have been ninety or more by the time she died: not a bad run! Which tells us first that Sant Joan were schooling their nuns from an early age, and secondly that that meeting was a bone of contention, because at this rate they got pretty much everyone with an interest in the nunnery, from the oldest (old Gentiles the notary) to the youngest (Elo and Carissima and so on) to make their marks and endorse it. I wonder how bitterly Elo might have remembered that in 1017 when she was turfed out of the cloister where she’d spent the previous, what, sixty-eight years from child to venerabilis femina, and ‘devoted to God’ throughout. I don’t suppose she was cheerful about it.

On the other hand, she must have had a huge fund of stories to tell anyone who listened. The place was being called Sant Joan de les Abadesses, ‘St John’s of the Abbesses’, by then (before then it was just, you know, Sant Joan de Ripoll) and she’d known those abbesses, at least the last four, probably five, might even just have remembered the first and greatest of them all, Emma the elder. None of the other nuns can have lived on so long after the dissolution, she really must have been the very last nun of Sant Joan. She could have answered the question “did Count Arnau really ravish the abbess, Auntie Elo?” with the correct reply, “No, little Quixilo, because Count Arnau was not real,” *whap* and so on,8 because she was there at the time (the Comte Arnau legend is later, but so very annoying that I’d like Elo to have quelled it anyway). She must also have been a figure of renown, of course, a relatively wealthy and extremely old woman with a long career of religious service behind her and the guilty respect of most of the local churchmen. Whether that made her complain any the less or feel better about things, I doubt, but unlike some people she had some basis for thinking that things had been better in her youth, no? So there you go, ladies and gentlemen: Elo, the last angry nun of Sant Joan de Ripoll.


1.Last mention in Frederico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 120; this meeting is no. 128, and the picture below comes from the facsimile in that volume.

2. The immunity is Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 11, and edited in a few other places too.

3. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 126-131 & 143-146; the episode will also be covered in the publication of this as Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

4. One subsequent appearance in Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 130 still calls her Countess, not Abbess. On Ranló see Jaume Marqués Casanovas, “Domna Ranlón, ilustre dama gerundense de mil años atrás” in Anales del Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses Vol. 15 (Girona 1962), pp. 317-329.

5. Ibid. docs nos 162 & 163, plus also Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, S. Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2005), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, 2 vols, doc. no. 360.

6. Her appearances are: Udina, Archivo Condal doc. nos. 128 & 163, Gaspar Feliu & Josep María Salrach (eds), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 19-21 (Barcelona 1998), doc nos. 62, 117 & 187 & Miquel Sants Gros i Pujol, “L’arxiu del monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses: notícies històriques i regesta dels documents dels anys 995-1115″ in Eufèmia Fort i Cogul (ed.), II Col·loqui d’Història del Monaquisme Català, Sant Joan de les Abadesses 1970 Vol. II, Scriptorium Populeti 9 (Poblet 1974), pp. 87-128, with English summary pp. 423-424, doc. no 29.

7. The documents here are Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari i Escrits Literaris de l’Abat i Bisbe Oliba, ed. Anscari M. Mundó, Memòries… XLIV (Barcelona 1992), Diplomatari nos 10 & 49; for commentary see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), II pp. 141-277, or in English Adam J. Kosto, “Oliba, Peacemaker” in I. Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 135-149 or indeed Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 152-153.

8. I don’t hit children, least of all my relatives, just so you know. And Elo was probably too frail or too holy or both to do so either. It’s just artistic licence OK? As long as we’re clear. Good.