Monthly Archives: January 2009

Manuscript DNA: an addendum

A follow-up to this post in which I talked about a John Hopkins University project to use DNA matching from parchment to try and pin down the origins of medieval manuscripts: one commentator expressed surprise that this hadn’t already been thought of, and of course it turns out it has, by no less a figure than Professor Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak, who has now written as much there. It seems that I had forgotten his 2007 post about a project of his with very similar bases, which I rather regret. However, as Prof. Drout’s blog only allows comments from Google accounts, I can’t apologise there. Instead I will say, that if you were interested by this possibility, you should go and have a look at Prof. Drout’s new post because it goes into some details about the difficulties his team has encountered and explores the methodology a bit more clearly than the JHU press release, which largely discussed the theory. And, as he says, if it’s to work it will only work through large samples, so plural teams trying it is not necessarily a bad thing. All the same, I like to recognise claims to prior art.

Words that all look the same: a way to deal with evidence for social change

Once or twice here, I’ve written about one particular development in the way that Spanish medieval history is viewed and talked about by Spanish historians, which can be viewed as a battle of two schools. This is not just a question of old rivalries and forgotten debating positions, though, as both schools have remained influential and they still have a lot to tell us, not just about medieval Spanish history but about ways to approach our sources in general. I came freshly up against this just the other day and decided that, with a bit of luck, the themes would be close enough to universal to make it a suitable Cliopatria debut topic. So I’ve bitten my lip and posted it there, and you can go read it and agree with the person who thought it was too long if you like. There’s not usually a post at Cliopatria with nothing in to interest even me, despite its fairly modern US focus, so you may already be reading.

On the other hand, I want the search hits too, and you may not want to start tracking me across two blogs, so employing the famous device of the cut, I’ve stationed the rest of the post with minor tweaks underneath this one… Continue reading

My allies and I are taking over the Internet! Unless Google gets there first…

I don’t know why it should be this way, but it seems that whenever I have one or two things to announce of relevance on the Internet a whole lot of other things suddenly crop up that also need mentioning. I guess it’s just that my mind is in that frame already so I notice them. Anyway, it’s happened again so here I go with some self-aggrandising before turning your attention to some other news of digital matters.

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

First of all, I’m flattered to have been invited to join the team at Cliopatria, a group blog based at George Mason University in the USA that you may already be aware of. I’ve accepted (duh!) and will be adding some European medievalist perspectives to their already broad range of interests, with posts that will either be cross-posted or linked here. So there isn’t really any need to tell you this, as you’ll see the stuff anyway, but I wanted to boast.

Precept of immunity from King Charles the Simple to the canons of Paris, 911

Similarly boastful, but more useful to readers here, I gather that someone (at least two of you!) were kind enough to recommend my pair of posts on the creation of Carolingian royal charters to The Swain for his PEAA Awards (Præmium Ephemeridis Ætheriae Auctoribus, Award for Authors of Ethereal Diaries) at The Ruminate, meaning that I got that one for Best Blog Entry that Fueled Research. Wow. I wonder what I inspired you to research? Feel free to let us know. Anyway, I might revisit that topic with a bit more deliberation now that I know someone cares…

Masthead image for the 2009 IMC

Thirdly, I have been sent the latest newsletter for the International Medieval Congress for 2009, which means that I now know that the abstracts for the two sessions I’m running there, along with the much-valued colleagues who are making it happen by contributing, are now online and can be viewed. There is also lots of other exciting stuff scheduled, so feel free to have a look at the newsletter yourself. Also, as usual there are a few sessions without enough speakers, and there will be more as people refine their commitments or find that the paper they promised at a year’s distance can’t actually be written, so if you fancy the Leeds experience, you should probably keep an eye on this page. Of course you don’t have to present to go, but it’s a lot of money if you’re not also getting the exposure….


That already takes us into the Allies, doesn’t it? And just as well, I mean come on, enough about me already. Let me first announce, so as to clear all the medieval history out of the way, that it has been made public that none other than Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, is hosting the next Carnivalesque, which will be the ancient/medieval half, at the end of February, and she requests your nominations for this most celebrated of blog carnivals. I have never met Dr Notorious, alas, but any ally of Carnivalesque is an ally of mine.

However, one can have too much history. This is one reason why every now and then input from or via a certain Ann Thropologist shows up here. Now, mirabile dictu, this very scholar has succumbed to the Internet and started her own blog, Karaspita. She is interested in popular movements and indigenous peoples in colonised countries, especially Bolivia, and I think a number of my readers would like what she is likely to write. And she’s linked to me so I link to her, it’s all very reciprocal. Please do have a look.

But, as heralded in the header, what are we against Google? The class action suit against Google Books has finally been settled, and the results have implications. Who better to discuss them for historians than Robert Darnton? And he has done so for the New York Review of Books, as pointed out by Ralph Luker at Cliopatria. This, seriously, is worth reading. As he points out, Google has now got about -> this <- close, firstly to establishing a digital library far in excess of any national library anywhere, but at the same time to copyrighting the digitizing of books in the USA. Tell me that’s not important if you dare.

Fun with numbers: theology and puns by that Bede chap

A slightly unusual departure from my usual fare of ‘light’ reading lately has been the Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians rendition of Bede’s On the Temple, translated by Seán Connolly.1 An acquaintance who worked on Bede gave it me because they had two copies somehow, and thought I might want it. I wasn’t at all sure I did, given how little I do of intellectual history, especially in England, but I thought I ought to at least skim-read it to see what was actually in it. As a result I’ve wound up firstly remembering more than I did about how early medieval scholars approached theology and holy knowledge generally (and why I have trouble with it at the same time as being fascinated), secondly being impressed anew with Bede’s personal connection to a wider world of learning, and thirdly catching him cracking a dry pun that the translation almost utterly defuses.

A scribe at work in a library or scriptorium, representing Ezra, from the Codex Amiatinus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A scribe at work in a library or scriptorium, probably a representation of Ezra, from the Codex Amiatinus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

De Templo is a Biblical commentary, which type of work forms I think the bulk of Bede’s prolific output and that of most scholars of his age. The basic premise behind it (and I know this is obvious to some of you but I keep finding that interested laypersons read this and sometimes I forget to address them) is that Scripture functions on two levels, the literal and the allegorical. In this set-up everything in the Bible has an obvious meaning and a deeper one that is hidden, and truer, because it’s about eternal things not passing ones like, you know, the world and that. This is especially true of the Old Testament because it’s an important exercise for Christians to show that, as the Gospel of John appears to claim, Jesus is referred to throughout it, because it prefigures the coming of the Messiah.2 So the Old Testament’s allegorical meanings are almost always references to Christ, at least as explicated by our theologians.

Depiction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem

Depiction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem

This is essentially a zero-sum game: the answer (“Christ”) to the question (“What is this about?”) is already known, so the task for the scholar is merely to successfully make the link between text and deeper truth. It doesn’t matter how strained or stretched the link is, as long as there is one, because the axiom is that there is a link to be discovered. Numerals are particularly fruitful, because they turn up everywhere and all the small ones are easily linked to something: one for the faith, two (here) for love of God and love of neighbour as an inseparable pair (because “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”3), three for the Trinity, Faith, Hope and Charity or the grades of continence, four for the Evangelists or Gospels, five for the senses, ten for the commandments, and so on. Since almost all numbers have one or more of these as factors, it’s a quick way to find significance without having to strain for obscure references. And with Solomon’s Temple, which is the subject of this commentary, the links are more obvious than usual: the Temple prefigures the Church, not the building but the community of the faithful, both those already saved (in the sanctuary within, the Holy of Holies which prefigures heaven) and those in the world now, stuck outside in the Courts. The Church is a living Temple, so everything known about the Temple can be paralleled in it, and of course it, the Church, is the whole human world and more so there’s plenty to use. And between III Kings and I Numbers there’s a wealth of detail about the architecture of the Temple, with lots of numbers. So you get things like this, an extract that pretty much exemplifies Bede at work in this text in a nutshell:

… It is properly recorded that both pillars are eighteen cubits high. For three sixes make eighteen. But the three refers to faith on account of the holy Trinity, and the six to works, because the fact that the world was made in that number of days is clearer than daylight. And three is multiplied by six when the righteous person who lives by faith acquires knowledge of pious belief by the performance of good works. For the pillar before the temple doors is eighteen cubits high when each eminent preacher openly intimates to all, that it is only through faith and the works of righteousness we can attain the joys of the heavenly life. Although this can also be understood in the more profound sense that the name of Jesus begins from the number among the Greeks. With them the first letter of this name means ten and the second eight. And fittingly are the pillars of the house of God eighteen cubits high because holy teachers, indeed all of the elect, pursue this objective by living well that they may merit to see their creator face to face, for they will have nothing further to seek when they reach him who is above all things.4

This may seem contrived to a modern secular brain, but it’s a powerful way into Bede’s thoughtworld, if you want one. Firstly, for him, the Bible, or at least the Old Testament, is a coded message which if rightly decoded gives the keys to a properly holy life through which one may be saved. The figures of Salvation are repeated throughout it, and, by extension, throughout Creation itself wherever threes, sixes, or whatever non-numerical parallel can be found in real buildings and nature. You and I know that the human brain is very good at finding patterns which don’t have any real existence, but for Bede and his contemporaries, they have every real existence, because Creation is an impression of the Creator and His mark can be found in everything if you can just crack the code. Compared to that, it’s really a no-brainer that He can be found in His own Scriptures! So the task is merely to make explicit what was hidden. Secondly, all answers are true. It doesn’t matter that he can think of two explanations for the figure eighteen, it doesn’t mean that one must be wrong; they can both be right because of the ineffable wonder of God, and because if it is possible then God can do it, and so almost certainly did do it, because it is very unlikely conceptually that man did something creative that God hadn’t already, seeing as He created everything. There is buried in this, of course, a basic departure from rational process, or a never having had truck with it, that is a key part of medieval faith, or perhaps any faith. You have to accept the axiom, but if you do, and therefore know that the world has a pattern, this is the kind of scintillating all-sense it can make, and when you get a writer who can really get his head into it, like Bede or Eriguena, it can really be quite giddying to soak in for a while before returning to twenty-first century empirical secularism in order to earn our daily bread (sorry).

Map of the World from a twelfth-century French manuscript of the <i>Etymologiae</i> of Isidore of Seville, one of Bede's sources

Map of the World from a twelfth-century French manuscript of the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, one of Bede's sources

Throughout this work Bede’s breadth of knowledge astounds me. Above he gives a Greek numerology; he probably got it from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, which was sort of what the early Middle ages had for an encyclopædia, but he has the knowledge handy. Because he knew that the Temple genuinely did exist, he was happy to fill out his explanation of its structure and its deeper meaning from non-Scriptural sources, including the Antiquities of Josephus, which he presumably knew in Latin if at all, and to borrow his intepretations widely, from Cassiodorus, Eusebius, Jerome, and once he quotes Virgil. But there’s also the scientific knowledge, as we know see it; he gives explanations based on weather, on heat and cold, really a lot of detailed architectural terms, and information on plants and animals that he can never have seen. Again, much must be coming from Isidore, but I was only being told a little while ago that Bede was not above correcting Isidore when he knew different. One of the things that also rings through all this is that although he uses many authorities and is always humble about it, Bede clearly considered himself an authority too; he had no problem with giving a new view if he thought it was founded. The impression of encyclopædism is so strong that it is weirdly incongruous to find him getting something wrong, for example giving an explanation of silk production that clearly originally related to cotton.5 So again, if you want a sense of what intellectuals in the early Middle Ages knew and understood about their world, this is a way in.

Inside the abandoned marble quarries of Paros

Inside the abandoned marble quarries of Paros

It may of course seem more than a bit dry, and even if it doesn’t, by the time you’ve seen the techniques in play for a few chapters, you may not really need to go through all 25 books of it to see the tropes repeated for the whole of III Kings 5-7 if technique is all you picked it up for. But if you do read it, at least get as far as 4.6 where I do believe his Venerable self (actually sanctified since 1935, but `Saint Bede’ is just less memorable) cracks a pun. He is talking about the Parian marble used to build the Temple, which is mentioned in 1 Numbers but which Bede tells us about from Virgil and Josephus too, and which as he tells it is brilliant white. He goes on, as Connolly translates, “Nor is the meaning of the mystery obscure…” at which point I went, internally, ‘no, neither is that pun you sly old fox’. It may not be obvious to you, but coming right after a passage about shining white stone I think the use of what would have been the Latin obscura, which means literally ‘dark’, even ‘black’, as well as its derived meaning of ‘hidden, difficult to perceive’, was 100% deliberate. I’m not saying Bede thought that was a belly laugh, just that when he saw the sentence forming up he’d have picked that word with a particularly amused satisfaction. Because Bede liked words, and I like words, and I would have done so, and I feel a bit closer to thinking and enjoying words as Bede did for coming across that. I might keep this book yet, you know.

1. Bede, On the Temple, transl. Seán Connolly with introduction by Jennifer Reilly, Translated Texts for Historians 21 (Liverpool 1995).

2. 1 Corinthians 10:11: “all these things happened… by way of example, and they were recorded in writing to be a lesson for us”, quoted by Bede in De templo, 2.1.

3. 1 John 4:20, quoted by Bede in De Templo 16.5.

4. Ibid., 18.6.

5. Ibid., 16.5: “Silk which is produced from a seed which springs green from the earth and which, as a result of a lengthy process applied by silk-workers, sheds its natural greenness and is given a bleached appearance…”. I’m sure this must be cotton in reality, but I’m open to any other opinions, since what I know about cotton preparation could be very rapidly summarised as: ‘less than that’.

Mad science and palæography that might work, this time

A while ago I mentioned, mainly because of amusement, a project here in Cambridge that was trying to liken manuscript transmission, and specifically the deterioration of texts through scribal errors, to DNA mutation in living organisms. There followed justifiable scepticism in the comments and we left the subject, reasonably sure that as yet science would not be putting palæographers out of a job. Mind you, since there is about one fellowship in palæography in the entire UK, that was never going to comfort a large number of people. Those few, those happy few, may however need to worry. There is something you can do with DNA and manuscript evidence, and I am currently mentally kicking myself for never having thought of it, as a press release reported on by Melissa Snell at has now made it clear to me.

Medieval parchment finer at work, at ORB

Medieval parchment finer at work, at ORB

Medieval manuscripts were made from animals. We all know this. Animals have DNA. This means, yes, it’s obvious now isn’t it, DNA can sometimes be recovered from medieval manuscripts. Professor Timothy Stinson of John Hopkins University has now had the bright idea of amassing enough of a sample to be able, hopefully, to localise manuscript origins where these are not securely known by comparing their DNA to that of the animals that went to make manuscripts whose origin is known. Of course this means that at first, at least, we’re still relying on the work of, well, mainly Bernhard Bischoff and Elias Avery Lowe really, but also their many fellows in the painstaking discipline of script analysis, for the compilation of the trusted dataset. But the prospect of having a hard, scientific check on what has up till now almost always been a subjective decision relying on an almost mystical expertise, is quite exciting. Sadly Professor Stinson’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007, or I might hope to hear more about it WordPress-wise, but I expect that publication will pass before me before very long, given how much faster the sciences like to move in this respect. Cool stuff.

Seminar schedules for upcoming term

I see by dutiful checking that this term’s schedule for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has now been put on the web. I also see from it that we are now trying to claim the Third Crusade as early medieval, which I think is pushing it a bit, but I have no objection generally to the Early Middle Ages taking over everything obviously, and the question will merely be whether or not I can go that week. Some very interesting stuff, however, though oddly little that isn’t Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman or Italian. Anyway, I bring it to your collective notice. The February 11th date which is still marked as TBA here, by the way, I can tell you from a subsequent e-mail will be given over to Celia Chazelle of Princeton presenting on ‘Why is this feast different from all other feasts? Eucharistic ritual and belief in early medieval societies’.

Also, for those nearer where I am, you might like to be reminded of the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar which is continuing to present its all-star program this term, details here. I shan’t go to the first of these as it looks very like the paper Alan Thacker gave at the Haskins Society Conference, but given that I might be the only person in the world to attend both if I went, I wouldn’t want that to stop anyone else. So yes! Perhaps see some of you there, for the others, rest assured I will report.

Been to Barcelona (In Marca Hispanica X)

The portal of Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

The portal of Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

I was planning a study trip and it didn’t really work out that way. There was going to be some basic difficulty because of not having the chauffeuse I had last trip, and because of the country largely being shut for a national holiday, but I had done my research on the web and technically it should have been possible to get places. However, the day I was really meaning to get going places, we woke up to this view:


And given as I was staying some way up a hill, that pretty much ruled any distant tourism out, as even if we could have got out, it was pretty unlikely we’d be doing any hill-climbing that didn’t involve off-road vehicles. However, as we had one of those, and a mountain nearby taller than Ben Nevis, we did at least see how far we could get…


In the end I was forced to, you know, actually have a holiday. And though I did at least get into Barcelona, it wasn’t really for study purposes, but to visit some museums. Now, that was actually pretty good, bexcause I’d been told to go to the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, and now that I have I can say, firstly it is huge, secondly if you ever wondered where that national separatist sentiment I’ve talked about here before was getting its grudges from, well, it’s all here. Currently Catalonia is about as independent of Spain as Wales is of the UK: it has its own national assembly and preferential use of the native language on its signs, a rather healthier state of the native language indeed, but unlike for example, Scotland, doesn’t have its own laws (which is a bit poor given that Charlemagne let it keep them). On the other hand it does have its own police force, and various controls over education that Scotland has but Wales doesn’t, so as with so many things it’s not a linear progression. Anyway, the basic situation is that although this time they’ve been autonomous for longer than ever before, this is approximately the fourth try and that’s not even counting the period I know about when the area was never one political unit because of having plural counts. Also, they have much older occasions in mind than me or probably you when they use phrases like “the Great War” (1793-96) or “September 11st” (1714, when the city was sacked by the armies of Philip V after a thirteen-months siege). Anyway, I understand much better now, and as they had a few charters in facsimile as part of the displays, now so do I.

Old photo of the Barcelona convent of Sant Pere de les Puelles

Old photo of the Barcelona convent of Sant Pere de les Puelles

In fact, I know that at least one reader will be interested to know that there was a temporary exhibition on the nunnery of Sant Pere de les Puelles. It had more pictures of the current nuns than of the old monastery, and although it had a genuine lump of cloister too, it was generally quite badly set up, difficult to navigate and without much real thread. All the same, it was there, and gave me joy on two academic counts. Firstly, the list of abbesses they had there included Filmera, daughter of the Vicar Sal·la (and sister of Unifred, whose love life I once speculated on here), whom I recently told someone probably shouldn’t be put in the list because it was only my hypothesis. Well, it seems that someone else has done that maths too so now I think she can be counted, and this pleases me.

1176 copy of the 945 foundation charter of Sant Pere de les Puelles

1176 copy of the 945 foundation charter of Sant Pere de les Puelles

Also, they had a picture of the 945 foundation charter, which although it only exists in an 1169 transcript, from who knows what copy given that the whole place and its archive were supposedly razed in 985 (so though we don’t know when poor Filmera died, we can guess. Though, you know, maybe she discovered a new life as some rich Muslim noble’s new favourite wife, who can say? On the whole though, I suspect her end was not a pleasant one), is still nice to see. Accordingly, for the one or two for whom such things matter, there’s a full-size version of this sneaky facsimile-facsimile under the version here. I’m afraid it’s not very legible, but maybe it’s nice to have.

Replica of Ictineo II, first successful submarine

Replica of Ictineo II, first successful submarine

And lastly, we also went to the Museu Marítim. Barcelona of course has a very proud maritime heritage, but I hadn’t realised that it included the original of this thing, which rejoices in the name Ictineo II. What is it, you ask? It’s a steam-powered wooden submarine, I answer. It successfully navigated the Barcelona harbour and won its inventor a prize in 1862, and is considered the first genuinely sea-going submarine. Next time you want to know who invented the submarine, ask a Catalan… His name was Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol, and he was a nutter, but apparently a successful one in this respect at least. I realise that this isn’t at all medieval but it’s pretty damn steampunk and that means it attracts at least part of the same readership, right?

Anyway, I plan to return in better weather and do the castles thing properly. To do this, though, I really need a tame driver (I don’t drive, because I’ve lived all my adult life in Cambridge where no vehicle wider than three feet is really at all practical and until recently it hasn’t seemed necessary to change this) and a laptop. I don’t know which of these things will be easier to get, given current finances. I’m open to all offers of course :-) But for now, this is what I have, and proper academic blogging with live response and so on will now resume.