Seminary XXXVII: small pieces of metal from the ninth century

Alice Rio’s fabulous programme for the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar continued to unfold on the 25th November when Jinty Nelson, no less, came up to talk to us to the title “Bits and Pieces: why historians should think about small metal objects from the ninth century”. Jinty is as I’ve said before always an engaging speaker, her papers perforated with tiny sidetracks that seem like digressions but that function as hooks to help you remember what she was talking about afterwards. A different result of this is, though, that there’s so much gravy in any given paper that it’s hard to just talk about the meat if, like me, you’re trying to report it…

Bark of a palm tree

Bark of a palm tree

Broadly speaking this was a second instalment in one of Jinty’s recent themes, that historians and archaeologists not only can learn a lot from each other but absolutely need to, this kind of being the case studies to support her anecdotal introduction to the theme of last year. So she started with the annal for 858 from the Annals of St-Bertin, which of course she translated years ago but only really saw this time round.1 Prudentius of Troyes, still writing it at this point, recorded a year full of terrible and unnatural events, and among them is a tree washing up from the sea whose trunk was covered not in proper bark but in triangular protrusions, which he likened to the decorations that men and horses have on their wargear. I know what it brought to my mind, to wit something like the picture above, but what this brings to the mind of those learned in objects is apparently strap-ends, and I suppose I see what they mean.

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Now these are treasure, and so Jinty took us through some of the social meanings of treasure in the early medieval world, and highlit power, of course. Then from there to coins, especially the portrait coinage of Charlemagne, which I touched on here some time ago, and the messages it sends to have your likeness sent about the realm. This had more mileage in it than some discussions of this I’ve seen, because of considering whether people really looked at the coins (and could read them)—without looking, UK people, what’re the queen’s titles on a British coin now, eh?—and also whether they could be effective without also being economically functional. This garnered some discussion afterwards, though because my boss was lecturing in London the same day Jinty had quit there for Cambridge, of course, I kind of had to be the numismatist in the room, which isn’t something I enjoy too much because I fear type-casting in a sphere where I’m really not very expert.

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The last example of metalwork and power was another famous one, the Alfred Jewel, which is now believed to have been the head from an æstel, a book-pointer; you’d have had a stalk of some sort marking your position on the page and your hand over the jewel, like, as Jinty said, a computer mouse. But did you know we’ve now got several of these things, three found quite recently? None as grand as this one, but one from the Lofoten Islands of all places. Or, given the one visitor to Alfred’s court whom we know went there, maybe not so strange… But this little clutch of things shows how eloquent some of these non-speaking objects can get: they are intimately associated with the written word and are probably gifts of a king trying to get his officials to read more; they may even be associated with office, which might explain why they don’t seem to occur in wills (this was the neatest answer to an awkward question I’ve ever seen anyone give in a seminar). Every time you pick one up that message is implicit in it, and if you were given one by the king, then anyone who sees it knows you’re one of a new kind of élite with a special badge. This was an aspect of the political policies of Alfred the Great where Jinty confessed herself indebted to David Pratt, not least because he was there,2 but it all fitted very nicely into the theme: messages in the metalwork, for those with ears to hear.


1. Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1991).

2. David Pratt, The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series no. 67 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 189-192.

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3 responses to “Seminary XXXVII: small pieces of metal from the ninth century

  1. Larry Swain asked, in a different thread:

    I do have a couple questions. Did Jinty say anything about the figure in the jewel? How does it compare to the other examples (since I’ve not seen them or even photos)?

    The Alfred Jewel is by far the largest and prettiest, but the others are also pretty impressive: this post that I linked to has images of another and links to more, though at the time I looked and couldn’t, and still can’t, find any picture of the Lofoten Islands find.

    Jinty didn’t speak about the figure, but I’ve heard others do so and opinions vary very widely; some say it’s the king himself, others say it’s an allegorical representation of sight, and many that it’s Christ. The easiest place to find chapter and verse, and a picture on the cover indeed, is Simon Keynes’s and Michael Lapidge’s Penguin translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred, Alfred the Great (Harmondsworth 1983), where there is an appendix pp. 203-206 dedicated to the Jewel. Of course, when that was written half the others hadn’t yet been found; but none of them are really like the Jewel except in apparent function.

  2. Sorry about that….got lost in my browser windows! I was hoping that there’d be more word on it since 1983, but apparently not.

  3. Well, I can’t turn up anything terribly significant through Regesta Imperii but playing a bit with the website of Winchester Discovery Centre, where all seven of the æstela were displayed earlier this year, leads me to David A. Hinton, The Alfred Jewel and Other Late Anglo-Saxon Metalwork (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum 2008), which I guess is as up-to-date as there is, and pretty cheap for a 100-page-plus paperback. It’s marvellous what you can find out with a web browser, innit.

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