Monthly Archives: November 2008

Pause for forts

I realise that I’ve said this twice already but you should all make a point of keeping up with David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe. Because it culls from newspaper sites the coverage can often be a bit variable in depth, but it gives you pointers to genuinely new stuff long before you’d find it out from any other source. So this week, or at least the week when I actually wrote this, what’s been emerging from the ground, or at least the landscape, appears to be very early medieval fortresses, a subject which has interested me here before. And of course with the pointers the reports give you, if you want to find out more it’s not hard thanks to the wonderful power of the Hypermation Intersoupway.1

On top of Gaer Fawr hillfort, Wales

On top of Gaer Fawr hillfort, Wales

Here for example is a view of the top of Gaer Fawr hillfort in Wales, where we now learn that laser scanning and other such terrain-mapping tech has been at work trying to plot the whole of the hillfort, and finding that underneath what you can see there it had five Iron Age ramparts and a later sub-Roman reoccupation. If you happen to need an example of that rush to the hills as the Romans left and the Saxons came, here’s your newest one. So reports Mr Beard on the basis of a report with graphics at National Geographic News.

Mound of the old ring-fort at Cruachan Aí, Tulsk, Ireland

Mound of the old ring-fort at Cruachan Aí, Tulsk, Ireland

And here is the early medieval ring-fort at Cruachan Aí, Tulsk, Ireland, which is, we are told by a report in The Irish Times to which Mr Beard points us, only one feature in a landscape with a history of thousands of years’ connection with focusing power. If you follow the link through the image, you can get to the page of one Hazel who went and visited the site while they were digging it, and it’s generally quite easy to get to these places on the web.

Castell de Gurb

Castell de Gurb

On that very subject! I discover that since I made my mostly-fruitless trip out there someone has now put directions to the Castell de Gurb in Osona, Catalunya (què no es Espanya! com sabem) on the web, as well as some rather fine pictures of the site, which means that when I go out there in January as I currently plan to, I shall be able, wetness permitting, to go up the hill from the other side this time and see what the vicars saw at last. Might just have photos in time for the book… Though really, to match these two Insular examples I’d have to make it to l’Esquerda too. Maybe I just gosh-darn will.

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia


1. I think I helped with this particular formation, but the final credit belongs with one Ben Harris, who had the rather ambiguous privilege of sharing a house with me for a long time a long time ago. I don’t believe he’s claiming any kind of copyright on absurdity…

Seminary XXXVI: whence the eleventh-century reform movement?

Senate House, University of London, wherein the IHR

Senate House, University of London, wherein the IHR

As I headed for the basement of the Institute of Historical Research shortly after the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on Wednesday 12th November, where in fact I then went and posted this all-but-complete post, I passed Magistra of Magistra et Mater on the stairs, and said unto her: “Do you want to do this one, or shall I?” And she has indeed written it up a storm, going far further into the issues than I could have done. So instead here only a short notice: on that day Conrad Leyser of Manchester University, with a small clutch of his erstwhile students in attendance too, spoke to the title: “Law, Memory and the Priestly Office in the West before the Millennium”. His basic case was to try and explain the eleventh-century reform movement through a growing professionalisation of the clergy, therefore viewing themselves as a class apart and defining themselves by standards of behaviour that became reformism. He mainly drew on ecclesiastical writing from around Rome, and John Gillingham thought there were links not made between those writers and the widespread success of the reform elsewhere, and I also thought that the crowd’s involvement wasn’t explained, although Dr Leyser managed to cite a sermon by Liutprand of Cremona that apparently spends time explaining why even if he be a bad priest he’s still holy and a vessel for the Holy Spirit, which would certainly bridge the gap. But Magistra has gone into the whole thing much better than I could, as has already been recognised by Dr Nokes’s new guest blogger in the Unlocked Wordhoard’s now-revenant Morning Medieval Miscellany, and I entreat you to follow it up.

The only other thing to note on this score is that since I originally posted the schedule the gap that was to have fallen on the 26th was lately filled by Bruce O’Brien giving a paper on language change in Anglo-Norman England. I have so much backed-up content that it was always long odds that I would post that in time to make it current information, but it causes me mild vexation for two reasons: firstly, the last time I saw him it was someone else talking about that, to wit Chris Lewis, who will probably be in attendance, and it’s just generally a bit weird to reverse all these things, and secondly that was the day before payday. So, precisely because I saw both of them in the USA I couldn’t go, as I didn’t have the train ticket money to spare. Bah. Of course by the time you read this I’ll be solvent again, but still. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of someone else blogging that one too?

Scots, lies and videotape: historians argue while Neil Oliver makes up Scotland’s history

Sensationalist subject lines ahoy! For lo, BBC Scotland seem to have successfully created a small controversy with the first episode of a new series called A History of Scotland. A post at News for Medievalists, repeating word-for-word an article in Scotland on Sunday, goes to the length of opposing two reputable historians of Scotland, to wit Clare Downham at Aberdeen and James Fraser at Edinburgh, over this new series, presented by Scottish archaeologist-turned-journalist Neil Oliver. Now, they’re not exactly throwing daggers at each other: Downham is quoted as saying: “I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here. I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package”, whereas Fraser says: “The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars”. And Fraser, who’s been working on getting sense out of annals for years, sometimes stretching even my credulity in so doing, and Downham, who was a student, among other things, of David Dumville, and would therefore be trained to read the sources with absolute maximum scepticism, might be expected to disagree more than that, if anything. But the reporting will get the programme a few extra viewers, I guess, and I can say this with confidence because having seen the NfM post, and finding that the programme is viewable for free online, I went and had a look. And now I’m going to add to the controversy by saying: this is excellent TV, but should have been cut at the thirty-five minute mark and then they could have left out the bit where they resorted to making things up and lying about texts. I do not exaggerate, but I will elaborate. But first the good side, because there genuinely is one.

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

[Edit: what follows lightly altered from its original state to reflect Alex Woolf’s input about the production process in comments; this basically means that where I was previously being nasty about Neil Oliver specifically I’m now being nasty about the production team who apparently gave him a fixed script.]

There are far far worse ways to pass an hour while you potter with other things, and occasionally make spluttering notes, than watch this. Firstly, the director was keenly aware how photogenic Scotland is, and the country is the real star, Mr Oliver graciously allowing it to fill the screen nearly as much as does he. Several things in this episode, which he narrates in passionately excited style, are not only excellent television but also examples of what the resort to a visual medium can provide that other things can’t. Apart from hordes of re-enactors lurching through the mist in what may or may not be period armour, which I could take or leave I must admit, it brings the Pictish stones (or at least, those currently being laser-scanned in the National Museum of Scotland) into full play as coded but gorgeously-carved visual evidence, and the reconstructed crannog they show early on really made them real to me in a way that I hadn’t previously got. Also, several of the fortified sites that feature just do look really good viewed offshore from a helicopter and that’s hard to argue with. The section in the National Museum of Scotland is guided by Peter Yeoman, and was really good, though they cut very freely between symbol stones, never for example making it clear that there is only half of the St Vigeans “Drosten” stone left but cutting from it to another intact cross slab as if they were the same piece. As a result, I don’t know on what stone was actually to be found an intriguing little grotesque with horns and wings to whom they briefly cut just as Oliver was using the word “angel”. Horns? Hmm. But I can tell you no more because they didn’t tell me.

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, it’s understandable when the Anglians enter the story exactly at the halfway point that we get sentences like: “England was not enough for Athelstan” (and what was this England thing exactly, hey? not what it is today that’s for sure). An attempt to recast the Battle of Brunanburh (whose location Oliver is certain about, plumping for Bromborough on the Wirral without mentioning the debate of which that is only one side) as a kind of Hastings of the North in which it was attempted to settle once and for all whether Britain would be ruled by “a single imperial power or several independent kingdoms” is, well, at least arguable, though there is this weird double-think going on where when the Angles and West Saxons overrun their borders (obviously exactly equivalent to the modern English-Scottish border… ) that’s evil, whereas if the Picts do it it’s a sign of strength. And because this is TV I rather expect to see the debates cut out and only the production team’s favourite answer presented, and it pains me but it’s the nature of the genre. It’s just a pity that only a very few TV programs can handle not having a definitive answer (Michael Wood wins the crown here I think). So I wasn’t surprised to see the Aberlemno stone read assuredly as a monument of a defeat of the Angles, which I know from good old Leslie Alcock is less than wholly accepted.1

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

On the other hand some things are just stupid. The Rev. Malcolm King, warden of the current community at Iona, being brought on to explain what the political benefits of conversion might have been for the Picts, should really have been allowed to talk about Ogham to nuance the suggestion that it was principally writing and the administrative potential it contained that would have made Christianity appeal to a king. And of course, there’s really very little evidence of any written administration even in Christian Scotland outside of cloisters and cathedrals till much later. But leave that aside. I’ll also leave aside the assertion that the “Picts were notorious for head-hunting”, which as far as I know comes only from the fact that there are lots of decapitated bodies on Sueno’s Stone, that they had tattoos (which is no better evidenced than the skin-painting that I think more likely) and I’ll even ignore the fact that Oliver was made to call Broichan, chief wizard (magus, is the word Adomnán uses) of Bruide map Maelchon King of Picts a ‘druid’. Or even the idea that in the great Pictish expansionist phase the “Britons and the Gaels had to pay homage to the Pictish king”, for which there is just no evidence or clarity about what it would have meant if they did, and the idea that Picts were a single unified people who can be mapped by their stones, if only because I’ve attacked that last idea elsewhere… And lastly, yes, it is true firstly that Columba did not, apparently, convert many Picts; and secondly that the Gaels in Scotland at least knew Christianity before he arrived, though it is far from clear how widespread it was beyond the leading cenela (do I have that right?) and how much work still needed doing. The Vita Columbae has enough stories about pagans and evil men in it.

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

But we then get to the stuff that is actually misleading. You could tell it was coming because we switched from named sources to “historical records”. The Vita Columbae, which stands between Oliver’s script-writers and their myth-busting, is “more like a fairy tale than a true story”, but what “records tell us” must never be denied. Mr Oliver does in fact show us a source, and he finds it, to his surprise, in Paris, a manuscript which he describes later as “the birth certificate of Scotland”. In it, he assures us, we find otherwise unknown facts about the first real kings of Scotland. The program hypes up the obscurity of the manuscript, with Oliver asking the French curator whether many people come to see it? She answers, in French, that ‘only specialists in Scottish history’ really use it, “seulement les spécialistes en histoire de l’Écosse”, but the translator says instead that such people as access it do so in microfilm. As you will see, whoever translated the text for Oliver was similarly free with it… Oliver of course gets to sit with the actual codex, and to my eye, because I was still struggling at this point to remember what it must be, it’s quite Gothic, later than I was expecting from his hype. He points at king’s names, and then we disappear into a huge and enthralling reconstruction!

The story is made to revolve around Constantine, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin, because, Oliver reveals, Kenneth is never called King of Scotland; he was a King of the Picts. This is perfectly fair, though Oliver is not allowed to mention that Constantine’s father Alpin is usually thought a Gael; Alex Woolf has recently unhinged that piece of argument, so it may not be needed.2 Oliver goes on to narrate, over dramatic reconstruction events, with lots of bearded men and worried boys sitting by fires looking moody, how the grandsons of Kenneth were not allowed to succeed, and they, cousins Constantine and Donald, were sent off to exile in Ireland when King Giric took power from the do-nothing King Áed by sticking a dagger in him (which is not said, but shown in reconstruction). Then eventually Constantine and Donald come back, but different; once Giric is displaced, the cousins succeed to a Pictish kingship but as Gaels by upbringing, and bringing Gaelic courtiers with them. It’s on Domnall and Constantine that Oliver is made to place the blame for the Gaelic takeover, not Kenneth. Somehow the Gaels and Gaelic bishop whom Giric is said to have installed don’t achieve this in the same way. Oliver then takes us through the rest of Constantine’s long life, which involved fighting King Æthelstan of England twice and losing both times, before finally retiring to Kilrymont (St Andrews) as a hermit.

It’s a fantastic story, and one I really thought I should have remembered. So, I have done some digging to see why I didn’t quite remember it, and the answer is, because Oliver or his writer has enhanced it quite considerably. Let’s start with the manuscript.

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock and taken from Bran Mak Morn's Pictish-Elven Witchcraft site, acknowledged here as their copyright requests and linked through the image

The manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4126, otherwise known as the Poppleton Manuscript. It is as it stands thirteenth or fourteenth-century (you see? Gothic) but is thought to be copied from an twelfth-century compilation, and obviously the original texts may have been older. May. I discover in web-searching that Oliver has started with this program a campaign to bring the manuscript back to Scotland, which is a sort of fair enough as it does contain many unique texts. The one Oliver means, which he once calls “The Chronicle of the Kings”, making it sound terribly official, is one of these, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. (Oliver translates Alba as ‘Scotland’ throughout, explaining once after several uses that this is “a Gaelic word meaning ‘Scotland'”, which is somewhere where others might disagree…3) Now this manuscript is so painfully obscure and unknown, that there is an online text and parallel translation of it for you to peruse. And if you do, you’ll find a few differences between what Oliver should have read, and the story he is made to tell. Let me quote you some significant bits of Timothy Weeks’s translation, linked there with the text running in parallel.

Áed held the throne for 1 year. The shortness of his rule has left nothing memorable to history; but he was killed in the town of Nrurim.

Oliver’s words manage to imply, by saying that the Vikings raided Scotland for two years and that Áed “did little to stop them”, reigned twice as long as he did, but leave that for a minute, there’s worse to come.

On the other hand Eochaid the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric the son of [a gap in the copy, but other texts name his father as Dungal] ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ordinator to Eochaid. In his second year Áed the son of Niall died; and in his 9th, on the very day of St Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his alumnus, was then thrown out of the kingdom.

Now Oliver says Giric killed Áed (or at least, “Áed is killed by his own men; all the evidence points to Giric”), and makes him Áed’s right-hand man, Eochaid never being mentioned. He doesn’t actually call Giric king but he certainly doesn’t say there’s anyone else in power. Also, the Irish exile of the heirs is not here. I’m not even sure where he has got it from, although Wikipedia currently notes it as a suggestion of Alex Woolf’s. It’s certainly likely, but we don’t actually know where they went, which rather knocks out the program’s Gaelic acculturation theory. And then Oliver is made to hypothesize that Giric was killed at Dunollie by the returning cousins, because there’s evidence of burning there, which would be fine as a hypothesis if the manuscript didn’t say that Giric was thrown out, so that even if he was killed it can’t have been in the kingdom if the manuscript—I’m sorry, “the records”—are to be believed. Then we reach the cousins.

Donald the son of Constantine held the throne for 11 years. At that time the Norsemen laid waste to Pictavia. During his rule a battle was fought at Innisibsolian, between the Danes and the Scots: the Scots were the winners.

It’s still between Scots and Picts here, you notice. But it’s Donald! or, if I may, Domnall, the returning outcast, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin—ach, I’m going Gaelic from here except in the quotes—Cinaed mac Alpín. There’s nothing of Causantín here, although because Oliver has to make much of him later he is clear that the younger son was present, for which there is no evidence. Oliver does mention Domnall’s death, but none of the events of his reign. Let’s go on.

Constantine the son of Áed held the throne for 40 years. In his third year the Norsemen raided Dunkeld, and all of Alba. Certainly in the following year the Norsemen were beaten in Strathearn, and in his 6th year King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, were to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.

Aaaand it’s Alba. Though the Scots and… who? The Albanese? still seem to be separate. Oliver says this text calls Causantín King of Alba, but it doesn’t. That’s a different text in the same manuscript, a list of the kings of Scotland, which unlike some texts in this manuscript also survives in other copies. Some of these do indeed call Causantín King of Alba, but one still calls him King of Picts. Meanwhile, across the sea, both Annals of Ulster and Chronicon Scotorum, both reflecting what was at this stage a common text that later became associated with the abbey of Clonmacnoise, first use the title of Domnall, not Causantín. Oliver admits this but for some reason the program pins the real honour on Causantín. And yet it’s clear from the Chronicle itself that it was still possible to see both peoples separately even if Causantín is said, apparently, to have placed them under the same law, which might have been worth a mention but doesn’t get it, pity as it would have been good evidence of the “cultural takeover” that was ‘just as effective as genocide’ of which the two Gaelicised kings stand accused in the program.

So. A manuscript that doesn’t say what this program says it does; extra details silently supplied from elsewhere, these details usually being theories without evidence but otherwise usually being uncredited lifts from Alex Woolf; several kings missed out to streamline the story; an allegation that the text in which the royal titles occur is unique to that manuscript when in fact it’s a different text that isn’t; royal murders imputed without base in the evidence to succeeding kings… I think I’ve made my point. Alternative views better founded are not hard to locate.4 So I can see why Dr Downham had her reservations, there is a serious degree of fast and loose with the truth here, and the fact that the BBC Scotland website labels this as “factual” will bother me for a while yet. Actually the best image for it is a fantastic one they managed to get of a falcon, just after discussing the massive slaughter at Brunanburh. It darts its head down off camera, comes up with something and champs its bill, nom nom nom, and one has to sort of shiver because of the association with carrion. But what it’s actually got in its bill is down, because it’s preening. And that just about sums up parts of this spectacular but seriously distorting programme for me: fluff and preening, and an implication of meat that isn’t really there.


1. Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 172-173, concluding, “This discussion of possible interpretations of the Aberlemno battle-scene in politico-military terms has been necessary to demonstrate their essential frailty.” I do wish I’d met this man.

2. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 87-93.

3. For example Dauvit Broun, “The seven kingdoms in De Situ Albanie: a record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba?”, in E. J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (edd.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton 2000), pp. 24-42.

4. Apart from Woolf, Pictland to Alba, see Broun, “Scotland before 1100: writing Scotland’s origins”, in Bob Harris & Alan R. MacDonald (edd.), Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation c. 1100-1707. Vol. I. The Scottish Nation: Origins to c.1500 (Dundee 2006), pp. 1-16, with a detailed discussion of the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba pp. 8-14.

Seminary XXXV: what did the Islamic conquests actually change?

On Armistice Day, while some of you were quite rightly posting poppies in your blogs and I meanwhile had expected to mainly be asleep and so had scheduled that post about Vikings before I went away, I had hardly got back to work before I snuck away to go to a seminar.1 This was the third instance of the new Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar, and following Alice Rio’s wise strategy of inviting people from outside Cambridge,2 this time it was none other than Professor Hugh Kennedy, who is becoming a frequent flyer on this part of the æther, speaking to the title, “Continuity and Change through the early Muslim Conquests”.

Early Islamic castle (husun)—anyone know where?

Early Islamic castle (husun)—anyone know where?

(Edit: the castle identified as Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi in comments by Henrik Karl: someone give this man a job already!)

Hugh’s pitch was basically pretty simple and sensible, and oddly like the way Chris Wickham had tackled similar issues of early Islamic Arabia in his David Wilson lecture, in as much as both chose more or less to ignore Islam as a cultural and religious phenomenon and go for structures. Hugh was asking, as the title suggests, what Islamic conquest actually altered in the areas it took over. This stemmed from the observation that in ex-Christian Byzantine Syria and ex-Zoroastrian Sassanid Persia very different ‘Islamic’ cultures arise, and become reflected not just in the different societies of the area but also the different ruling groups that rise and fall in the control of Islam, the Umayyads from Syria and the cAbbasids from Baghdad and Iran. How much of this difference is explicable merely by what was usual in these zones before?

Some of the differences at least, Hugh argued, are Islamic in nature, and to do with the nature of the conquest. The Byzantine territories were taken piecemeal and by force and settled as they went. The Sassanid ones were however taken in one huge go, and urgent decisions had to be taken about how to pay and feed the army. The result, a salaried military occupancy in cities, vastly altered the Sassanid economy, mainly based on large rural estates, by creating a large market for produce and goods in the cities, which therefore swelled hugely. Lots of money also made its way back to Syria and there too the cities flourished. The cAbbasid takeover would stop this flow of money to Syria and its cities but Baghdad became huge in their care. Also, because of the different nature of the conquest and of settlement, existing administrative élites were incorporated far more fully in Persia, a gentry class remaining in their local positions much as in the Spanish frontier zones because the new élite were basically urban. Those élites meanwhile adopted many Sassanid trappings of rule wholesale, from headgear to coins; Arab-Sassanian coins bear the head of the last Shah, Yazdigerd III, for some years until a reform of 698 or so. Of course, the coinage of the Byzantine provinces is also imitative of the types before, which didn’t get mentioned, but the imitation there is uncomprehending and rubbish compared to the exact copy involved in the salaries of these soldiers in the towns like Isfahan. Numismatists have to struggle to tell early Arab-Sassanian coins from their predecessors; there’s no such issue (pardon the pun) with the more western stuff.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III



Anonymous Arab-Byzantine fals from Baalbek (Lebanon), 650-90 A. D., imitating Byzantine nummus of Two Emperors type

Anonymous Arab-Byzantine fals from Baalbek (Lebanon), 650-90 A. D., imitating Byzantine nummus of Two Emperors type

One of the reasons for this difference that only came out properly in the discussion (partly because of the presence of Dr Peter Sarris, who talks faster than anyone I remember hearing who was using English, even me) is of course the different nature of institutional survival. In Persia the Shah is dead (or fled to China, no-one cares), the state cult has been overthrown and its assets seized and anyone who wishes to participate in the new state must convert, but can then do so. There is no figurehead of local identity. In the ex-Byzantine provinces the Church remains, protected but stifled, with its assets at least partly intact. Here the élites who could not flee (so, second-rate élites as all really top-rank ‘Romans’ have somewhere else to go) have something to hang on to which is not a way into the new structure. Furthermore, their old head of state and head of religion still exist (for those that recognised the latter) and are free, may even be fled to if you can get there, so there is no easy way for their continuing opponents in Islam to accommodate such practices or people politically. Persia is no longer an enemy but Byzantium still is, which confuses matters for both subjects and rulers where it had previously had and hoped to regain power.

One other thing I’d never thought of, and that Hugh had not yet investigated, that is a religious factor, but one with an economic effect I’d never considered. What happens to pig-farming? Probably a bad business to be in under Islam. But that means a shift to less independent food animals that don’t pasture themselves so easily, and that must mean less fodder or more effort to gather it. What the effects of that shift are we don’t know but it seems arguable that there must be some. And although Hugh’s paper was basically about what kind of difference deliberate fiscal choices about how to raise and spend money can alter society, still, it being an interdisciplinary seminar, as we milled afterwards, there was as much talk of the pigs as of the tax-collectors. I hope someone picks up on the pigs while Hugh does the good work on the taxes…


1. It does interest me that Remembrance is a much bigger deal in the US, at least as far as the blogosphere goes, than in the UK, where the Great War killed a far higher proportion of the population and is on almost as many school history syllabuses as World War II, which is on so many that people I went to college with used to dismiss history as ‘Hitler Studies’.

2. Perhaps because she knows that if someone local presented everyone else would ignore them…

More royal charters (“I told you so”) and frontier settlement in Aragón

Donation by King Alfonso I 'the Battler' of Aragón to the cathedral of Tudela, 1123 (Tudela was conquered in 1119)

Donation by King Alfonso I 'the Battler' of Aragón to the cathedral of Tudela, 1123 (Tudela was conquered in 1119)

I’ve just zipped through a Kalamazoo paper from 1990-something by one William Stalls, and find further confirmation of this idea that needs to get through, that royal charters don’t show policy as much as demand.1 His example was Alfonso the Battler, King of Aragón (1104-34), who seems, contrary to what Stalls tells us is accepted wisdom, to have taken his own sweet time about settling the frontier that he recaptured on the River Ebro. In observing that areas that were freshly conquered seem to preserve charters only from a period of eight or nine years later and sometimes even later than that, Stalls points out:

This evidence suggests that the purpose of cartas pueblas and fueros, then, was to sanction settlers and their rights of settlement, even that not initiated by the crown. The carta puebla and fuero do not always demonstrate some overall royal policy of directing settlement…. More likely, the custom of the Aragonese was for the king to approve settlement, not to lead it. (p. 220)

The analogies of this with my own work are probably obvious, but mainly I’m firstly glad to see someone else saying this piece about royal documents, and secondly that it still apparently needed saying in his area too at that time. People: we give kings much too much work to have done. I don’t mean to suggest that their days were idle, Alfonso’s in particular clearly not, but it’s not as if no-one did anything in these areas without the royal say-so. Most of your life as a medieval settler you’d never have anything to do with the king. By ascribing all this initiative to the king we lift it off the shoulders of the people whose lives depended on these decisions, and to whom we should allow the credit of having taken them.

View of the Ebro Valley

View of the Ebro Valley

That said, Stalls does have one interpretation that rather sits at odds with what my work on frontiers has led me to expect. Looking at one part of the Ebro Valley, he notes a clutch of charters from 1124 when Alfonso was actually in the area that seem to be trying to sort out a local defence network pro confusionem et defensionem christianorum”.2 The area had been (re-)conquered between 1118 and 1124, and Stalls’s main point was that its defence and settlement clearly wasn’t Alfonso’s first concern. However, as he observes, “if Alfonso had already settled the Bajo Aragón, then why would he need to undertake the settlement of 1124? The most plausible explanation is that such efforts had been lacking” (p. 223). That’s weird, to me, because the prevailing historiography is that though they might be under-populated, these areas were not generally unpeopled, that’s supposed to be just a topos of the narrative sources. But if settlement really was necessary here, was there no-one here really? It was a war-zone after all…

I suspect that the answer to this emerges later on, when he finishes with a rhetorical flourish about the city of Saragossa, asking how we would judge when it could be counted as being ‘repopulated’. Its Muslim population, forced to leave within a year by the terms of surrender (p. 220), had been pretty large. Stalls therefore asks, “If Muslim Zaragoza had a population of 25,000 persons, as some shcolars have estimated, then what is the number of Christians constituting its successful settlement? 5,000, 10,000, or 25,000?” I might ask, also, once tenure had been broken by the exodus, how many of the locals might take city plots on what would probably be good terms? They’d be Muslims, of course, but we probably wouldn’t hear from them. The Muslim population is very much in the background in this story of resettlement, called on to confirm boundaries sometimes (an instance given p. 223 & n. 20) but otherwise very much out of sight, out of mind. They were there though: Stalls reports:

In various lesser villages of the Ebro Christians were truly an oddity, a minority in numbers, although ruling the Muslim majority. For example, in some villages the only Christians to be found were the priest, notary and tavern keeper, while the rest of the inhabitants were Muslim, or, later, Morisco. (Pp. 224-225.)

Makes me ask about that 1124 settlement, if there was a population there already, they’d largely be Muslim, wouldn’t they? So whom did the settler Christians need defending against, again? All kinds of stuff about interaction to be teased out here, but for the minute I very much suspect that the clash between the ‘populated frontier’ view of the historiography I know and Stalls’s necessity of settlement is to be explained by the ‘dark matter’ of the non-Christian population…


1. William C. Stalls, “The Relationship between Conquest and Settlement on the Aragonese Frontier of Alfonso I” in Larry J. Simon (ed.), Iberia and the Mediterranean World of the Middle Ages. Studies in Honor of Robert I. Burns S. J., volume I: proceedings from Kalamazoo (Leiden 1995), pp. 216-231.

2. Ibid., p. 222, the quote in n. 15 citing José Angel Lema Pueyo (ed.), Coleccioón diplomática de Alfonso I de Aragón y Pamplona (1104-34) (San Sebastián 1990), no. 134.

A conference across the sea

I am slightly torn with this entry, between doing it briefly without saying anything too controversial to what appears to be a newly-expanded readership, because many of you may be the people about whom I’d be writing, and between doing it justice. Since my attempts to keep my posts short never really work, I think I can guess which side will win…

Anyway, this post is about the Haskins Society Conference just gone, where I just went. You may not know what the Haskins Society for Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Angevin and Viking History is, but their full title there given (and punctuated as per UK English I notice, which is odd) and the explanation on their webpages may answer your question:

The Society was organized in May 1982, mostly at the instigation of graduate students from UCSB. Permission was gained from George Haskins of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to name the society in honor of his father, Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), a great force in the development of medieval studies in America, whose Renaissance of the Twelfth Century reshaped our conception of high medieval civilization and whose Norman Institutions contributed fundamentally to our understanding of medieval Normandy.

So there you have it, and as you can tell from the index to their journal, the work that gets presented to them is often of a pretty high order. Quite what I was doing there, given that I don’t deal in any of their immediate spheres of interest beyond a general one in kingship and nobility, is an interesting question, and we could get Aristotelian on it, but the efficient cause was that Matt Gabriele of Modern Medieval asked me to participate in a panel he was chairing, and this was the point at which I realised this whole blog idea might have been good for something after all, and I accepted without counting the cost.

I could just about afford it. The conference fee itself is not too bad, steeper than Leeds (which is pretty steep) but without Leeds’s budget-airline-like hidden charges. The accommodation however, even at a discount rate, was far beyond what was really needed. Leeds is too big to do anything much beyond student rooms, Haskins can squeeze into hotels, but hotels in Washington DC two days after the US public had elected someone whom many seem to hope will be Superman,1 were never going to be cheap, and the cost of the accommodation far exceeded the conference fee whereas Leeds is always the other way about. The food, also, was not exactly budget, though it was easy enough to stomp off somewhere and ensure, at least, that you only paid ten dollars for a huge and nutritious meal rather than twenty for a medium-sized gourmet one (though the hotel food itself was rather poor). The coffee is generally far better in the US than in the UK, at least. Anyway, I’m not going out much till pay-day, and I’m unlikely to go to Haskins again until I can make someone else pay for it, alas; it’s just not viable from the UK for me. Also, if first impressions are to mean much, it was raining when I arrived just as it had been in England when I left, and pretty much the first store-front I saw offered me this failure of intended expression:

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

'I do not think it means what you think it means'

But was it worth doing? Well, ultimately I guess we still have to find out, but I thought it was a very positive experience. It was fascinating to put faces to many names: I used to be able to guess people’s appearances from their writing a bit, but this went wrong in 2003 or so and now everyone I meet in the field comes as a surprise. On the other hand, the first person I recognised was an IHR regular and so were many others; it was very much, in that respect, like the party at which, to your delight, two previously separate groups of friends finally mix and all get on splendidly. In general it was a sociable and friendly conference, and Alan Thacker observed to me how noticeable it was that literature types and hard-history types had all found ground on which they could talk to each other productively. So I would say go if you’re likely to be interested, but only if you have somewhere cheap to stay (next year is at Boston College, which might be cheaper) and eat.

That leads onto the next question, are you likely to be interested? Well, let me give you the program, with one-sentence remarks that should hopefully keep me from alienating any new friends and contacts.

Friday, November 7

Featured speaker: the C. Warren Hollister Memorial Lecture

Paul Hyams, “Reconciling Brain and Backbone: is medieval history still defensible?”
An interesting and anecdotal plea for us to avoid avoiding the past’s analogies with the present, but instead to use them as a way to get the news out that people going through tough times can learn from the fact that other people went through similarly tough times before.

The Legend of Charlemagne and the Negotiation of Power

  • Jonathan Jarrett (who he?), “Legends in their own Lifetime? The late Carolingians and Catalonia”. Apparently the area that would become Catalonia remained attached to the idea of the Carolingians enough to occasionally obey them even up till 986, which is all very well, and (I thought) stylishly demonstrated, but why was this guy saying it here right after the keynote, eh?
  • Wendy Marie Hoofnagle, “A New Look at the New Forest: the rôle of Charlemagne in the Exercise of Royal Power”, arguing that William the Conqueror’s laws about the royal forests of England emulated Carolingian legislation like the Capitulare de villis
  • Anthony Adams, “The Memory of Karolus Magnus and the Question of Power and Privilege in Late Medieval England”, treating Charlemagne as the rather degenerate figure he becomes in later romances where the hero usually mocks him rather than respect him

Women and Lordship

  • Lois Huneycutt, “Adeliza of Louvain, Queen of England, Countess of Arundel, and the Flemish Connection”
  • Heather Tanner, “Cyphers or Lords? The inheriting countesses of Boulogne and Ponthieu (1173-1260)”
  • RaGena DeAragon, “Two Countesses of Leicester: Petronilla de Granmesnil and Loretta da Braose”
  • A very coherent session in which several high medieval noblewomen got their 15 minutes of fame, but I was most struck by the last paper which compared two successive countesses of the same honour who could hardly have been more different, one joining her husband in rebellion and the second spending most of her adult life as a widowed anchoress.

Historical Narrative and the Problem of Authorship

  • Thomas Bredehoft, “Wulfstan the Homilist and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, arguing that more annals than have previously been reckoned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be attributed to the pen of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, with knock-on implications for the history of the ‘D’ manuscript
  • Nicholas Paul, “Les livres, les gestes e les estoires: the authorship, function and proliferation of dynastic historical narratives in the twelfth century”, looking at the sudden and brief flurry of genealogical historiography among the nobility of the West in that period, special mention for being the second person that day to talk about the Catalan dynasty myth

Saturday November 12th

Men and Masculinities at the Courts of the Anglo-Norman Kings

  • Kirsten Fenton, “Men and Masculinities in William of Malmesbury’s Presentation of the Anglo-Norman Kings”
  • Simon Yarrow, “Men and Masculinities in the Writings of Orderic Vitalis”
  • William Aird, “‘The Wild Bull and the Old Sheep': images of masculinity and conflict at the courts of William Rufus”
  • Again, a session so coherent that any of the speakers could probably have written both the others’ papers, but all leaning towards the idea of a conservative church literature decrying men of the latest fashion they found to be long-haired and sexually ambiguous so as to get the girls. For some reason this possibility confused some of the audience, who therefore we know do not work on goths…

Personal Names and Cultural Identity

  • Francesca Tinti, “Names, Miracles and Witnesses in early Anglo-Latin hagiographies” pointing out that Bede drops a lot of his sources from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert when writing his own and substitutes his own chain of authorities, and discussing that’s effects
  • Regan Eby, “Personal Names and Identity in Eleventh-Century Brittany”, showing that families did not divide between French and Breton identities in the border zones of Brittany but in fact used both name-stocks for their children equally
  • Chris Lewis, “Cultural Identity and the Changing Personal Names of the English in the Twelfth Century”, arguing that English names persist a long time but that some Norman names become so common as to effectively be identifiers of English origins by this time

Featured Speaker

Mark Gardiner, “Can we quantify the area of assarted land in twelfth-century England?”, complicating the idea of land clearance by reminding us that uncleared land is often still under quite heavy use for grazing and forest pasture, which eventually clears land itself, as well as other solid observations.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bede

  • Alan Thacker, “Bede and his Martyrology, arguing that the venerable author was doing something different, a kind of collection of little-known saints, than what the prevailing trend of such writing wanted
  • Sally Shockro, “Bede and the Rewriting of Sanctity”, analysing the use of Biblical material between the Anonymous and Bede’s Lives of St Cuthbert and feeling Bede’s to be much cleverer
  • Lin Ferrand, “Atmospheric Phenomena in Bede’s De nature rerum“, checking Bede’s record of weather to show that he was not above modifying Isidore of Seville’s text when what went for Seville really didn’t at Jarrow, but that he didn’t always bother

New Perspectives on the Bayeux Tapestry

  • Elizabeth Pastan, “Questioning the role of Odo of Bayeux”, seeking to remove Bishop Odo from a position of compositional control to that of general patron, unbending many circular arguments
  • Stephen White, “Harold’s Oath on the Bayeaux Tapestry”, discussing the context of Harold’s oath in those other oaths between lords that we don’t call feudalism, and again deflating some rather distended assumptions about Odo’s and Bayeux’s involvement

Workshop

Deborah Everhart led a workshop entitled, “A Workshop on Learner-Centred Medieval Studies Course Design”. This was useful to me in generating ideas for teaching but didn’t necessarily contain much that was new to those already in the classroom. Here it seems worth diverting to notice that there was in general a lot of talk about teaching, and a lot of comparison of strategies, situations and solutions. You wouldn’t get this at a UK conference, or at least I haven’t noticed it: in the UK teaching is seen as a danger to one’s RAE score first and foremost alas, and this is a fault of the RAE really, as quite a lot of us like teaching I think. The actual session was not as much use to me as it might have been, I guess, as my teaching training covered a lot of the same ideas, but if you see my notes:

haskinnotes

… you can see that I was at least thinking as a result of it, even if not actually paying it much attention. And yes, they did give us notepaper, which would be one expense to cut, and yes, my longhand really is that bad. Anyway. To someone with more teaching experience I understand that the workshop was even less worthwhile, but Ms Everhart has a pitch to make of course and there was genuine good intent here as well.

Sunday November 8

The Thought and Practice of Religious Life

  • Bruce Venarde, “Robert of Arbrissel and the Mainstream”, in which the man who probably knows this mysterious preacher better than any living tried to explain that although his tactics were unorthodox, his general reformist and theological strategy was genuinely quite the opposite
  • Erin Jordan, “Monks, Nuns and Anniversary Masses: the importance of gender for thirteenth-century Cistercian abbeys in Northern France”, which showed to the speaker’s apparent surprise as much as our own that despite supposedly being less spiritually ‘effective’ because of the inordinability of women (something which was questioned in part in comments for the period before the twelfth century), Cistercian nunneries in her area and period attracted as many requests for commemorative masses as did their male equivalents
  • Maureen Walsh, “‘All Will Be Well': universal salvation in the theology of Julian of Norwich”, an account of the resolution of confusion between Julian’s own Church-taught view that we’re all damned to Hell and the Word she received that we would all be ‘well’ and how she stayed inside orthodoxy while saying that the Church had it wrong

Now, at this point, I stepped out to try and get to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks rather than have spent my entire time in Washington at a conference venue. It looks like a lovely place to visit, and because it contains the other portion of Philip Grierson’s coin collection, I feel I have some small connection with it. Unfortunately, although I had a quick look at the Museum website to work out where it was, I didn’t read closely enough, and it was shut when I got there.

The <em>outside</em> of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

The outside of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum


So I did some shopping, had a wander and came back for the concluding round table discussion, which to my delight involved someone talking about Randolph Starn’s idea of history as genealogy, meaning I was able to get my oar in as keen readers might expect. I was quite keen on making it clear to people that I could think in a discussion, and I may have let this get in the way of actually contributing much. I hope not though.

And then by the great kindness and automobile of Another Damned Medievalist, it was to the airport, and home eventually, as on the way there a few seats in various directions from the plane’s entire complement of squalling infants, but, such is life. It was enough like a very bad night’s sleep that I managed to balance out the jetlag quite quickly, but I am still trying to go to bed at three a. m. even now. Oh hang on, that’s normal. When do you think I write these things, after all? Evidently not when I’m awake… Still, that’s a report for you, and if I’ve mentioned you, hullo, it was interesting to meet you… I have come home with a renewed sense of confidence in my own work and ability, which I’m managing to retain despite life assailing it with criticisms and dying rock drummers, and that is worth quite a lot of money.


1. I should maybe make myself clear on this. I think the election of Mr Obama is a grand thing for the reputation of the USA, but from an outside perspective, this enlightened and probably very noble man is still going to push my government into buying a hugely expensive and completely unnecessary upgrade to our nuclear deterrent, now, isn’t he? So I’m not quite as invested in him as my readership may largely be, yet.

Questionable interpretation: early medieval church sites in Northern Britain?

I’m all for a bit of free-thinking archaeology, as I hope the blog makes clear—in fact, for this post I finally caved in and created an ‘archaeology’ category that has been variously retrospectively applied—and as someone who works with people who work with metal detectorists, I am not one to diminish the rôle of the amateur in the unearthing of the past. All the same, sometimes ya gotta wonder.

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

For example. Very near the site of these standing stones, reports News for Medievalists on the back of several newspaper stories, it is being reported that two amateur archaeologists have located the site of a fifth- to tenth-century chapel, and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland have been called in and said that it seems to be so. But really, the evidence is no more than that there is a square building there, it hasn’t been dug or anything and the dating and purpose is being deduced entirely from the building’s shape, which I don’t think will really do; I’ve seen what kind of leaps of logic that can lead to when there’s no digging done. It’s noticeable for one thing that even in the news story it’s evident that the RCAHMS team disagreed among themselves, and for another that they’re not prioritising digging it, which I think if there was good evidence of such an early date they genuinely would, what with the plethora of such sites just lately. Some might of course argue that what with the standing stones, it was a good candidate for conversion, and this may be true, but that really isn’t evidence enough to record a chapel here.

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswalds Lythe

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswald's Lythe

On the other hand, this exhibition of carved stones from the churchyard of a little-known Northumbrian church is certainly the real deal, and it is therefore reported both by Medieval Material Culture and the Whitby Gazette, with considerable pride on the part of the latter. On the other hand, though a first glance might make it look as if these were new discoveries, they were actually found in 1910, and though that means that they just about missed the standard big textbook on the subject, and they have at least been restored in the previous year and are going freshly onto exhibition, I’m slightly less excited than I thought I was going to be by this news. All the same, the irony exists, in that though at least one of the pieces they hauled out of the ground here in 1910 had what seems to be a depiction of Ragnarok on it, not at all Christian, I’m a lot surer there was a Christian place of worship here in the tenth century than at Baliscate.