Monthly Archives: April 2009

Divination for sub-Romans and schoolchildren I

I’ve recently been reading something interesting. It’s an article by a guy who was then working on a Carolingian astronomical manuscript, made at Metz under Bishop Drogo and gathering various sources of knowledge on the calendar and the stars together. The manuscript is mainly famous for its illuminations, and you can see why below, but there are also a lot of other smaller texts added, and one of these, in the tenth century in a Caroline minuscule script, was a text of the sort of thing usually known as the sortes sanctorum, ‘lots of the saints’, which are a sort of divination device. The article goes into this in some detail, describing how they work in their different versions and where you can find manuscript examples.1

Depictions and descriptions of constellations in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307

Depictions and descriptions of constellations in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307

The way these things work is that you, as someone medieval with a burning question that’s preying on your mind, or at least something that is preying on your mind which you can frame as a plan: `shall I give my estate to Cluny or not’, `should I let her marry him or not’, `is he the right choice for bishop’, whatever, enlist divine advice in one of three ways. Either you take a sacred book and let it fall open and stab blindly at a page with your finger, and interpret whatever line you’re resting on as the advice, like a Biblical oracle expressed through cut-up, or else you write `yes’- or `no’-type advice on bits of wood or parchment scraps or whatever, your advice perhaps coming from Scripture, and pick one of them at random off an altar; or, and this is where our text comes in, you consult a list of answers by choosing one at random from a list of their numbers, or colour codes or whatever, and the later ones of these get quite elaborate in the selection procedures, including drawing parameters from other astrological texts about favourable days and so on.

The author here argues that the source text for this manuscript’s addition, which is guiltily split across two much-separated pages, appears to be one that was condemned in Church council at Vannes in the fifth century, but that the practices involved are much older, at least Hellenic Egyptian, and that they appear to continue in Egypt until at least the seventh century so could easily serve as models for early Christians. The Church don’t much care for this sort of thing: they have to admit that God does sometimes send guidance, and that the Apostles decided things by lot, and they have Augustine using the open-book technique to decide his conversion as a further example, but it’s all got decidedly pagan roots, and the whole lists-of-questions thing isn’t even very religious, which may explain why people copy these texts into sacred books, to give them some extra legitimacy perhaps. But they get condemned at the Council of Vannes in 452, and then Isidore of Seville tries to list the various sorts of augurers in his Etymologiae using those canons, and thereafter that’s the text of resort for any such condemnation, including in Hincmar of Reims’s De divortio Leutharii et Theuthbergae, which is of course being translated On The Interwebs but not yet this bit.2 All well and good and not uninteresting, or I thought so anyway.


But what it made me think of is this, which is something we used to use in my primary school to tell fortunes and so on, in very clumsy style. (I’m sure the cool kids were already summoning demons or faking ID cards, this was as close as we got to the occult in my circle though. Don’t think we thought of it like that though!) After two tries I managed to come up with this replica, which means I can tell you how it works. You need a square of paper, which you fold both ways down the diagonals and in half across and along. Then fold in the corners so that they all meet in the middle of the square, and squash the folds flat. Pull it forwards at the diagonal folds and push it back along the vertical and the horizontal. Now if you grip it by the sideways projections you’ve just created and separate the sides you can make it gawp like a baby bird’s beak. With cunning shift of grip you can open it the other way. Like so, and so:


Here, I have to acknowledge the help of my esteemed colleague Benedict Jarrett, who tells me that I am not the first to show him such a device, as he has met them being used in teaching to unpack dilemmas. To which I can only say: whoa. And also, I guess I’m not endangering his soul then, which is always good to know. Anyway.

So now lay it flat and write selection mechanisms in. In each half-quadrant goes, in this case, either a number or a colour. And, in its classic form, you then find a victim, tell them that you’ll read their mind or similar, ask them to choose any colour, open it alternate ways once each for each letter of that colour’s name, ask for a number and open and reopen it as per that number, and then ask for one of the four options you have open, and unfold the relevant flap and read it off. Of course, you have to have something written there, ideally underneath the fold so that it can’t be seen but folds into the same place as whatever they chose. For this one I was using one-side-printed paper so my answers are on the outside, which has the advantage that I can unfold it so you can see how it lays out.


So, in action it goes like this. For options I chose sources of charters I have read, and my question, which seemed safe to so submit to judgement, is, from which of these shall I produce a story to blog about? So I take up my device, close it in one dimension at random, choose, I don’t know, yellow. Y, E, L, L, O, W, three one way and three the other and we’re back where we were, then, hang on, let me complicate things by rolling two dice (D6, since you ask): 3. One, two, three, I now have a choice of 4, 6, 7 or 2. Roll again: 11, no good, 5, no good, 8, 6, OK, and that is Girona/CCV, which I’ll decode when I write the post.3 Very far from truly random but you see how it works. Not exactly high sorcery, and usually used to `prove’ someone `loved’ someone else who was embarrassing, as I recall. It’s not got a great deal to do with the sortes sanctorum either in form or in method, though it’s a device to the same purpose, you might say, perhaps that’s fair enough.

Thing is, we called these things `sorters‘, and I never knew why… Got it, at last, now.

I can imagine that there are questions you might want to ask about the text, which Montero edits as an appendix, so following his lead I’ll write an appendix about that as a separate post. Check back in a day or two…

1. Enrique Montero Cartelle, “Las sortes sanctorum. La adivinación del porvenir en la edad media” in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas, II Congreso Hispánico de latí medieval (Leon, 11-14 de Noviembre de 1997) vol. I (Leon 1998), pp. 111-132, the manuscript being Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307, which went from Metz to Prüm, from Prüm to Liège and then somehow from there to Spain by the eighteenth century.

2. Montero gives the cite, “Hincmaro de Reims, De divortio Lotharii et Tetbergae, 15-16; PL 125, 718-719″. That doesn’t seem to match any of the bits so far done by the Collaborative Hincmar Project, though the chapter scheme isn’t the same in their source edition as the Pat. Lat. I think. Still. Are you guys taking requests? :-)

3. Hmm, inauspicious. I haven’t actually spent much time with the Girona material, so have a choice of three stories: “A Boy in the Money”, “The Case of the Disappearing Abbot”, or “Where there’s a Will there’s a Rebellion”. Come on, roll up: whether the Hincmar crew are or not, I am taking requests…

Three sorts of priest, part 3: important men, as long as nobody’s looking

Time at long last for the third and final of these posts about the priesthood in my much-beloved subject area, tenth-century Catalonia. So far we’ve had priests posted to distant areas by enterprising cathedral chapters and loaned books with which to preach to the people, or something like that; and we’ve had priests in hilltop burial centres who look like collegiate and zealous preservers of very old jurisdictions right next to that same pushy cathedral, perhaps explaining why its own men are stationed so far from home. There’s an obvious sort of priest remaining, the little local guy who writes all the documents in his community and farms alongside his congregation, but I’m not going to study them, partly because it’s hard to establish that’s actually whom you’re seeing in the same way as it’s hard to be sure you’re looking at a peasant (have I explained this? Perhaps I should), but mainly because really Wendy Davies’s recent work on this level of pastoral care is much better than mine would be and is still developing, so I don’t want to risk writing something I’ll probably have to rethink a lot in a year’s time.1

View of Vallfogona, Ripollès, immediately to the south of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, from the Castell de Milany to the south

View of Vallfogona, Ripollès, immediately to the south of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, from the Castell de Milany to the south

So, instead, there is a fourth sort of priest we can cover, and these ones are even more mysterious than the last one. We have to start, once again, with a certain super-size hearing in the year 913, at Sant Joan de Ripoll as it then still was.2 One of the things one can do with that hearing is distinguish peasants, of course, but that’s not the point today.3 The point is that, as I’ve mentioned before, the document of that hearing was written, in two stages, and then updated twice, by the same guy, a priest called Garsies. I said in the last post I wrote about this document (which explains, you know, what it is) that I couldn’t `describe his status more fully’, and this is both true and false. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can parallel it. The problem is, you see, that Garsies doesn’t appear anywhere else. We now have almost all the charter evidence for these areas in print and indexed, so it’s possible to be reasonably definitive about this.4 The charter must have been written and updated over a period of months, if not years, for all of which, the unity of the hand even if not the ink, makes clear, Garsies was able to be found. The nunnery’s usual notary, Gentiles, signed as witness but didn’t himself trifle with this highly unusual document.5 Something about Garsies’s status made it important that he be involved in it, but we don’t know what that status was.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

So we have this guy who turns up when a vast number of people are being sworn to lordship, and not otherwise. He is not a scribe of either of the counts who are present, nor is he a cleric of the nunnery whose lordship is at issue; in either of those cases, he surely ought to turn up again, but he doesn’t. He ought, also, given that he is presumably at least fairly local, to turn up in the nunnery’s documents as a neighbour or similar, but no. If he does hold property nearby, he does it somewhere where the nunnery has none and no-one will give or sell them any. But he is presumably not nobody: Gentiles should be doing this job, so if Garsies does it that means he is a better choice in some way that we can’t quite see. Now we have someone else like this, whom like Garsies I’ve mentioned before without expanding on this odd status. This second fellow’s name was Centuri son of Centuri, which is, yes, apparently a hereditary name derived from the Latin for `Centurion’. He was a judge (whatever exactly they mean by that), and he was also at this hearing, and at two others, in both of which, again, large areas were signed out of the fisc and into ecclesiastical hands. He doesn’t appear in any other context.6 But when you’re appropriating a lot of ex-fiscal property (and there are various reasons to suppose that what had once been the king’s properties was remembered in this area, though I’m never sure how far to believe them),7 apparently these guys have to be involved. I didn’t feel I could justify this in the book, but my feeling about these guys is that they own, somehow, a kind of stewardship of old fiscal lands, to which the claims of the counts, in a time when the kings whose they notionally are still exist but aren’t able to affect them, are dubious.8 So when the counts act as if they can alienate them, without consulting the king, Centuri or Garsies (or both!) have to turn up and show that it’s been seen and is happening with approval of those who ought to approve. That makes me wonder where Garsies might have been to oversee all this, and the best answer, I suspect, is the Castell de Milany, the closest castle to Sant Joan, looking at it from the south across the valley of Vallfogona up at the top of the post. There’s not much property held by the nunnery in that area, and I wonder if that’s not because it was owned of old by someone else. Not much to see there now, though.

Ruins of the Castell de Milany

Ruins of the Castell de Milany

Another possibility is the Castell de Mogrony, out to the north-west, which is a bit more problematic and would make for a blog post in itself. (If you’re interested I’ll write it.) Here early documents do suggest property owned by the nunnery, but I’ve argued that they’re all tampered with in order to claim this.9 There are also old stories of a Prince Quintilian who based himself there in the eighth century, but these rest on hearsay reports of documents which were probably also tampered with, since they came from the same house, and which can no longer be found to have the reading checked. But it was certainly there, and it also has a church which could have been a base for someone like Garsies. The current church is from the eleventh century, but the view down towards the abbey’s valley is still pretty dominating.

View from the interior of the hermitage of Sant Pere de Mogrony

View from the interior of the hermitage of Sant Pere de Mogrony

So that might be Garsies, although let’s be absolutely clear, there is no evidence for what I’ve just said at all, which is why it isn’t in the book. But he is not the only priest like this. Here we are helped by the fact that Abbess Emma was a very litigious woman, and as well as the big hearing over rights at the abbey itself that brought all these possible fiscal stewards out of the woodwork, there are five others of a smaller size.10 At one of them, the panel of those judging includes, not any judges, but two priests. Their names are Arià and Daguí, both of which are interesting, because one would not expect a priest to be named `Arian’ in this day and age really but hey, and because Daguí was the name of the abbot of Santa Maria de Ripoll up the road, and before Emma came of age and took over at Sant Joan it is thought that Daguí administered it for her. He is thought to have died in 902; this is 913 so it couldn’t really be him, but he was a priest right enough.11 And again, these two don’t appear anywhere else; this hearing has brought them to view, presumably because their authority and knowledge was respected by the men of the area, but they didn’t have any visible property or dealings with the nunnery and so don’t make it to record.12 More like Garsies? Harder to place if so, this isn’t a fiscal hearing in any sense. There is a church in Vallfogona, but it’s in an area where property is sold to the nunnery and they may well have founded the church, so we should see these guys again if they were there.13 But what they do share with Garsies is that they show us that local authority, in the informal sense, firstly could easily wear the guise of the priest, secondly was apparently affectively felt by the locality’s inhabitants who respected their judgements and were, presumably, swayed by their endorsements of others’ judgements, and thirdly, could almost entirely avoid interacting with the local `official’ power in any way that left any record of their existence for us…

1. Meaning mainly Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, church and community in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), pp. 36-65, but also forthcoming work due to be presented at Leeds this year.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 119 & 120, on which see J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), Chapter 2 part 1.

3. For that, see ibid.

4. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV; 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; P. Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXX (Barcelona 2006). We await the volumes for Urgell and Cerdanya, the latter of which remains a possibility, but its record is mostly comprised of the documents from the abbey of Cuixà, ed. R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals as “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1955), pp. 125-337, ap., and he isn’t there either.

5. All of these interpretations hang to a great extent on the palæographical notes made in the earlier edition of these documents by Federico udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), as doc. nos 38 & ap. II A; it is also he who identified the hand of Gentiles in various other documents.

6. J. 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 other documents are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV doc nos 182 & 420.

7. Property boundaries generally, Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000″ in Imma 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. 254-283, with English abstract pp. 285-286; on fiscal persistence specifically, see now Ramon Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval”, in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166.

8. On the persistence of the kings you will I hope some day be able to read a print version of Jonathan Jarrett, “Legends in Their Own Lifetime? The Late Carolingians and Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Legends of the Carolingians’, Haskins Society Conference, Georgetown University, 7 November 2008.

9. idem, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the Nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2004), pp. 229-258 at pp. 240-241.

10. The other hearings are Udina, Archivo Condal doc nos. 16, 35 & 53 & ap. II 14 & 58.

11. The two priests turn up ibid., doc. no. 35. On Abbot Daguí see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La fundació del monestir de Ripoll” in Miscel·lània Anselm M. Albareda vol. I, Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 9 (1955-56), pp. 187-97, repr. in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), I pp. 485-494, the suggestion of control of Sant Joan being at p. 487 of the reprint.

12. Here and with the claims that Garsies is not seen in other records, there is a big elephant in the room that ought to be identified: the archive of Santa Maria de Ripoll, which was perhaps the richest and most famous monastery in the Tarraconensis at this point, was lost in a fire in 1835. We have a surprising amount of it in regesta and even copies, but a great deal was lost, the regesta are by their nature partial and usually omit witnesses and neighbours, and if Arià, Daguí or Garsies had been based there, we might well have lost the evidence that would tell us so. All the same, I think someone with this importance ought to show up more widely if he was based there; the monks of Ripoll do get recorded elsewhere, e. g. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. 139 which lists them transacting with the count.

13. On the church, known only as ipsa ecclesia but probably on the site of the tenth-century Sant Julià, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, Chapter 2 parts 1 & 2.

New post at Cliopatria (“a bit political, I suppose”)

I dithered over whether to put my latest venting of spleen here or at Cliopatria; here, because it’s not really got anything to do with history (not that that usually stops my colleagues at Cliopatria); there, because it’s not tenth-century or medieval but about the state of the global Academy and how we feel safe from censure or the police. But dammit. A lot of stuff has gone down lately that should make us all angry. So I got angry and wrote something and in the end I put it over there at Cliopatria, maybe you would like to read it.

Unmillennial issues

Despite the day-job, it’s been a while since I put any numismatic content here apart from that exhibition notice. I don’t usually have much dealing with the medieval parts of the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but this record had a mistake in it that needed fixing and the coin just struck me.

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192

Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

Quite apart from the fact that it’s rather splendid (though in its 22mm-wide, 4 gram actual size maybe less so than it looks here), this coin is an unwitting anchor point for a whole range of historical changes. For us, perhaps, the first thing that sticks out is the date: it’s a coin of the Millennium, about which we are sometimes asked to believe most of Western Christianity was in a ferment at the time when this coin was struck. But that piece of chronology is of course only a Christian fixation and this is a Muslim coin, struck in the name of one of the various claimants of the time to the succession to Muhammad’s leadership of all Muslims. Nonetheless, that claimant, Hishām ibn al-Hakām al-Mucayad, is something of a millennial figure in the colloquial sense, because it was under him that the Caliphate of al-Andalus, in whose name the coin is struck (al-Andalus, Spain itself, which we believe to have been the signature of the Córdoba mint but which may have been used in several places), shattered, never to recover.

Hishām, though the grandson of perhaps the most powerful Spanish Muslim ruler of all, ruled as a puppet, the real government being in the hands of his hājib (roughly, first minister), Abu Āmir Muhammad ibn Abdullah Ibn Abi Āmir, better known as al-Mansur. For twenty years or more al-Mansur had most of Northern Spain cowering in fear of his armies, and of course it was in Hishām’s name that Barcelona was sacked by those armies in 985, but by the time this coin was struck he was facing an alliance of the northern principalities under King García Sanches II of Navarre, and by 1002 he was dead. His son cAbd al-Malik proved less able, and anyway died in 1008. He managed before that to get Hishām, who had no children (having never been provided with a wife), to make his son cAbd al-Rahmān (‘Sanchuelo’, because he was son of García Sanches’s sister Sancha) the recognised heir. So recognised, however, Sanchuelo mounted a coup and took over, having his father killed; the populace of Córdoba then rose against him and the caliph under one Muhammad II al-Mahdi, who was not only of the blood royal but as you can see from his byname claimed to be the Mahdi, the mythical figure who is prophesied to redeem Islam. Muhammad was not the first person to make such a claim by any means, and he will surely not be the last, but it’s that Millennial theme again all the same.

By then, al-Andalus was in full-scale civil war between military commanders of slave troops or mercenary contingents, with the old nobility and their private, dare I say, feudal, levies getting involved in various ways too. So despite his Messianic claims al-Mahdi was deposed within the year by Sulaiman V al-Mustacīn, another royal claimant backed by the Berber factions. Al-Mahdi therefore got fled to Toledo and got help, from none other than Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona and his brother Count Ermengol I of Urgell, the two sons of my pet count Borrell II, and they gathered a very large army, negotiated a very large pay contract and marched on Córdoba itself. Sulaiman had meanwhile enlisted help from Castile (why no, the Catalans weren’t part of that Northern alliance I mentioned, now that you ask) and the two armies met outside the Andalusi capital, at the time perhaps the largest city in Europe, and although the Catalans took very heavy losses (including Ermengol and two bishops, another dying on the way back) Sulaiman broke first, leaving the Catalans to plunder the city in pursuit of their defaulted pay (and simple looting of course). Almost as soon as they were gone however the Slavic troops of the Caliphate broke good old Hishām out of prison in what was left of Córdoba and put him back on the throne again, perhaps eager for his first real chance at power albeit under the protection of the Slav general al-Wahdid. Sulaiman didn’t give in, however, and in 1013 his Berber troops followed the Catalan suit and plundered the capital; Hishām was killed in the sack, and Sulaiman succeeded again, but to a state whose integrity was already ruined, the various leaders having been joined by a host of local princes setting up on their own, to become what we now call the Taifas, the `party’ kings. So ended mighty al-Andalus.

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, during the rule of Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', during the rule of 'Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

The coin doesn’t really have much of all that in it. When it was struck Hishām was a respected if powerless figure, and his coinage would continue to circulate through not just Islamic but Christian Spain; from the 970s onwards Barcelona documents are increasingly full of mentions of “mancuses” which are nothing more than Arabic dinars substituting in high-value transactions for the low-value silver deniers of the day. This is one of those coins, and it’s entirely traditional in design, weight and fabric. Coins like this had been being made in Spain for probably forty years and in the Middle East, to a slightly heavier and older weight standard, for centuries. Islamic Spain, now plugged into Saharan Africa and its gold trade, was an economic powerhouse, not least because of having one of the few functional tax systems of early medieval Europe which made these coins and their silver counterparts a necessity. It was a military power greatly to be feared, too, but it was also a state where top-down power was crystallised around a very few people and large armies served them as they saw fit. whether its fall was inevitable or really can be blamed on a few bad rulers, or somewhere between the two, is a question for someone else; I just like the way that the date on this splendid gold coin unwittingly prefigures the collapse soon to follow it, but only to a Western Christian (yet Arabic-reading) mind. It’s little straws of paradox like this that make the human disaster implicit in such events navigable don’t you think?

There isn’t really reading you can do that would cover this all in one go. Not the smallest reason for this is that the Catalan-Castilian battle at Córdoba gets elided from one side or the other in almost all historical writing about it, the Catalans omitting the Castilians and the Castilians the Catalans so as to better preserve their own myth of triumphant reconquest from the rather sordid tang of mercenary fratricide. This in turn affects English-language writing about it, which tends to have been raised in one or other school; for example, Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51, omits the Catalans, and you won’t find any mentions of the Castilians in any of the places where Paul Freedman’s work touches 1010 as far as I know. You also get pro-Muslim work from the Arabists that tries to miss out the sack entirely. It’s crazy. On the coin, however, some day you’ll be able to see Anna M. Balaguer & Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 3, and given the partisan state of the historical discourse, that may even be the best guide in English to these events outside of Wikipedia. Sometimes we historians could really do better…

Peer review reviewed by its peers (Interdisciplinary Conversation IV)

I wouldn’t be the first person to say there were a few things wrong with peer review as a process, if I said that. I mean, for example, I’ve before now linked to two bitterly humorous takes on how to respond to peer review, and I tend to be able to guess who’s reviewed my work because three of the four or five English-writing academics who know anything about early medieval Catalonia have very distinctive styles. At a broader level, editors don’t ask people they don’t know to review things, by and large, do they, and so peer review is also as with so much else in academic life mediated through personal contacts and who-you-know. But it has to be, because the process relies on trust in others’ expertise, and it’s like Churchill’s democracy, a least worst way to do what needs doing.

Because of this tension, I was very interested in this recent study in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports on a study of what other academics think of the peer review process and themselves, or rather, each other, as reviewers. This is not just because the position of the author, Michèle Lamont, closely matches my own: “I don’t think any other process for assessing quality – for example, quantitative rankings on questionnaires – works as well. But we could do it better.” It’s more because of the rather unscientific comparisons she encouraged her respondents to make about other kindred disciplines and their idea of excellence. So, for example, this seems to speak directly to a dispute I’ve been part of before:

In history there is a high degree of consensus among scholars about what is good. But it is not based so much on a common theory, or method, or whether people think the discipline is part of the humanities or social sciences. It’s a shared sense of craftsmanship. People care about whether the work is careful. They believe they can identify careful work. And that they can convince others about it. The degree of consensus has varied over the years. In the 1960s, for example, the discipline was polarized politically. But it has found consensus in the practice of scholarship. Historians believe that contrasts sharply with English literature.

Then from the other side of the divide that historians (and I include myself whole-heartedly here) are perhaps over-zealous in constructing:

Panelists who are in English literature perceive that their discipline has a “legitimization crisis.” Perhaps because of the influence of poststructuralism in the discipline, literary scholars are particularly aware that the standards of evaluation are intersubjective, resulting from the interaction of panelists. They’re ambivalent about how successful a peer-review panel can be. Asked whether “the cream rises to the top,” they emphasize that doesn’t necessarily happen. Some are unsure whether “quality” exists.

There are also summaries for philosophy, anthropology and economics, but the overall conclusions I get from this are, firstly, that those who shout loudest on the Internet are not necessarily a majority, and second, that even the belief that one has empirical standards helps with the strength of the discipline generally. Contrariwise, even if it be true that reality is subjective, there are times when this perspective mostly serves to undermine the ability to make necessary judgements. How far can we after all afford to question our own reality? I think the characterisation of history certainly fits within the discipline as I experience it: there is certainly a sense that caution is a sine qua non, but also a sense that there is such a thing as quality. I wonder if people reading from other disciplines think they get a fair press from this study?

The unbearable emptiness of being post-Roman: Aragonese depopulation and the rest of the field (Feudal Transformations XII)

The latter part of a conference volume that I was recently reading, so as to make watertight the final revision of a forthcoming paper, has set me thinking about the whole transformation argument one more time.1 (Still not ready to write that paper yet.) However, because that conference was concentrating mainly on late Antiquity and was largely attended by archæologists and historians who travel with them, it’s left me looking at it from an unusual point of view, and one that I have some trouble articulating (though that may just be shortage of sleep or coffee). So here is a slightly wandering review which may help me clear my thoughts. It’s a long long post, so it mostly lies behind a cut; you’ll be able to tell, I hope, from what lies above that whether you need to read either the post or the book.

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), <u>De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Because of the late antique focus, the book’s input is much less about the feudal transformation concept we know and, well, know, and more about what Chris Wickham has called ‘the other transition’, the end of the Roman system of trade and land ownership and the development of successor kingdoms. He, and some others, have argued that those kingdoms are ultimately based on a system of service-for-land that is later formalised as what the « mutationnistes » call feudalism and that others have wished that they wouldn’t.2 Okay so far?

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

Because, also, the book is mainly about the old Tarraconensis, the Roman and later Visigothic province of North-West Spain and the northern side of the Pyrenees, the contributors also have to deal with two other historical or historiographical complexes. First and less disputable is the effect of Islam on this furthest reach of Islamic Spain, though there is debate here about how strong that effect was. Second is the supposed Reconquest and its attached depopulation-and-repopulation historiography, which holds or held that the frontier zones between the new Islamic polity and the surviving or following Christian principalities along the Northern edge of Iberia became almost empty and were then settled by an aggressive movement from those kingdoms that culminated in the demolition of the fragmenting Islamic Caliphate and the recovery of Toledo, Tarragona, Lisbon or whatever your favourite important Iberian capital is. This historiography has, as we have seen before, come under less attack for Aragón than for elsewhere, and since that was definitely in the conference area opinions here varied quite widely. However I still have a sense of some consensus that the historians of the transformation who approach it mainly from documents are missing a number of important tricks, and am therefore trying to get my head round what these suggestions do to that historiography. Continue reading

A Gothic murder mystery instead: the bodies of Cueva Foradada

Simon Keynes gave us a well-known murder mystery, here’s an almost completely unknown one. If I were really in shape for this, instead of being completely worn out after a weekend of travel and something like a holiday, I might try and do this in film noir private eye style, or worse, gothic horror. It’s tempting, but as it is you’ll have to make do with just the facts. (Ma’am.) At least, such facts as there are, because this one really is a mystery.

The valley of the Rio Alto, Huesca, Aragón

The valley of the Rio Alto, Huesca, Aragón

This is the hillside of a valley which is now the location of a major hydro-electric project, but that isn’t what I came to tell you about. The story is up on the hillside, not down in the valley. Before the dam, in 1968, a Basque archæologist by the name of Ignacio Barandiaran was working on a survey in this general area with a more senior chap named Antonio Beltrán Martínez, looking for evidence of the Bronze Age settlements in the area. They heard tell of a cave in the area whence ancient bodies had apparently occasionally been taken in the past, and suspecting a necropolis, got their stuff up there as quickly as they could. But they did not find a Bronze Age necropolis.

One entrance to the Cueva Foradada, where the bodies were buried

One entrance to the Cueva Foradada, where the bodies were buried

Here is one of the two entrances to the cave. They meet a short distance in, and then the tunnel runs back, and kinks sharply to the right a certain way back. Here the diggers found the way blocked with rocks, but no longer so that ingress was impossible. Here it is, as photographed by Dr Bandarian:

Stones piled in the Cueva de Foradad to block off the inner chamber (lines at top right show-through from sketch on next page)

Stones piled in the Cueva de Foradada to block off the inner chamber (lines at top right show-through from sketch on next page)

And behind there there is a hammerhead-like chamber, about six metres by one and a half by one and a half, with a crevice at the back that might perhaps lead to a lower gallery; there was no scope to investigate. When they dug in the chamber, though, they rapidly found bones. There were quite a lot of them, mostly broken and very disturbed. A few animal ones among them, and some fossilised droppings suggested that as well as the looting that the local stories implied, the cave had for a while been the dwelling place of wolves. The archaeologists rapidly gave up trying to establish any kind of stratification, they’d arrived years too late, possibly centuries. They just got the remains out and tried to work out what they had and how they’d come there. Interestingly, they came with a certain amount of metalwork and tableware, but it was very hard to imagine any settlement in such a confined space.

This became even more odd once the bones were analysed. They came from a total of probably thirty-eight different bodies, thirteen adults or adolescents (of whom four were men and seven women, 2 unidentifiable), ten older children, five of less than ten years, seven of less than five, 2 babies and a newborn. One of the older children was a girl. They also found, in the order they’re given in the report:

  1. a single gold tremissis from the Girona mint struck in the name of King Witiza, between 702 and 710
  2. a bronze belt buckle in two parts with an iron hinge, illustrated below (note the interlace) and probably of seventh-century date
  3. four bronze jetons, all decorated on one face only except one which carried degenerate lettering on the underside, and four finger-rings of which the jetons were probably once the decorations
  4. a holed bone disc
  5. six glass beads, holed for suspension
  6. remains from probably four glass vessels, including two clear ones, of Visigothic style and sixth- to eighth-century date
  7. various bits of iron including what seemed to be the tooth from a harrow or similar agricultural tool and a lot of pieces not identifiable
  8. and sherds from four pottery vessels, two of them similar globular jars and two differing ones with handles, one tall and one not

The coin found in the Cueva de Foradada

The coin found in the Cueva de Foradada

Photograph, line-drawing and silhouette side elevation of the brooch found in the Cueva de Foradada

Photograph, line-drawing and silhouette side elevation of the brooch found in the Cueva de Foradada

All the material goods that could be dated piled up to this late Visigothic date, in as much as none of them couldn’t have been in use at the same period as the coin. Since there was no evidence of any other period of habitation, the archæologists were pretty sure all the bodies came from the same time. But that had some disturbing implications. This was no usual burial ground. Apart from anything else, the population distribution is all wrong: no old people, far too many grown children. Also, just the impracticality of it; it’s a long way up a hill, down a passage that’s no cinch to get down if you’re alive and vertical; manhandling thirty-eight inanimate bodies in there, even horribly small ones, would be a very strange way to bury in a culture and an area that favoured open hill-top sites for that sort of thing. Likewise, it’s a very small habitation for so many people all at once, and one would hardly move in once one set of inhabitants had died without moving their bodies out, would one? And there just isn’t enough stuff for a prolonged occupation, anyway; eight vessels total, and those partly high-quality?

No, these people weren’t able to pick and choose their belongings, it seems reasonable to say. They were presumably hiding with what they could carry. How long were they there? Who knows? It would partly depend on the rather macabre criterion of whether the blockage in the passage was put in before or after they died, which can’t be told. And there we reach the end of the facts. The article that put me on to this suggested, somewhat romantically and straining the absolute most out of the coin’s date, that these were Visigothic nobles fleeing the incoming Muslim armies around Girona, running for the hills and not, finally, making it. I don’t buy it, myself: were the Muslims really hunting down Visigothic fugitives and walling them up in mountain caves? It seems very very unlikely, and at odds with the way that many Gothic nobles found new careers with the new rulers in the early stages of al-Andalus. This must be more local. But what local circumstances could lead a small group of families, most likely from a deserted settlement at Selva de Paúles two miles up the valley, to grab a tiny bag of belongings from their homes and run, presumably pursued to their final retreat and then die there, either behind a wall that their enemies had erected to trap them in or else, to be walled in after their death rather than taken out and buried? I don’t have an answer, but then I didn’t promise you one. They can’t all be happy stories; the Middle Ages had bad times aplenty, after all. But one doesn’t usually get such unedifying and, well, horrid, stories as this, that seem to belong in a modern horror film rather than the imaginary tapestry of medieval life.

I was originally set onto this story by a mention in Philippe Sénac, “Stratigraphie du peuplement musulmane au nord de l’Ebre (VIIIe-XIe siècles)” in idem, De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 61-73 at p. 63, whence the association with fleeing nobles, but the full report from which the messy details and the last three illustrations come is Ignacio Barandarian, “Restos visigodos en la Cueva Foradada (Sarsa de Surta, Huesca)” in Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 9, Estudios XLIII, Publicaciones de la sección de Zaragoza 13 (Zaragoza 1973), pp. 9-48, illus. at pp. 7, 12 & 14 resp. Sénac says that the people in the cave died by violence, but this is only implied by the implication of hostility in the circumstances set out in the report, and the only actual cause of death suggested there is starvation. If Dr Sénac has extra information, he doesn’t say what it is. For the Gothic accommodation to the incoming Muslim régime, at least for the first few years, you could do worse than see Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1979), pp. 207-213.