Monthly Archives: May 2009

Hugely important new archæological technique not quite so important once actually published

I’ve been trying recently to work out the balance of my blogging responsibilities. Being added to the roll at Cliopatria has been flattering but confusing, as medieval traffic there looks very out of place and elicits little response. (On the other hand I get more comments here than the whole of Cliopatria often does, so thankyou to commentators!) I feel a bit odd taking up their bandwidth with stuff that would probably get more interested readers here. It seems that what I can best add there, therefore, is general pieces about the Academy or the discipline in general, or things from my field that have an impact on many fields. One of the latter has just come up, in the form of a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A whose press release generated several very interesting blog posts that suggested, by quoting the official notices, that there was a new technique out for dating ceramics that was going to revolutionise the whole of archæology. That seemed sufficiently broad as to make a Cliopatria post, one of which I am badly overdue for, and so I’ve got hold of the paper and assessed it as fully as I can over there. If I say that reading the actual paper is something that none of the other people who’ve noticed it had done, it may pique your interest enough to go and read…

History and Material Culture (book review)

For reasons explained previously, I want to put this book in front of you.1 I first became aware of this when teaching my class on material culture for historians a while back but it wasn’t then out, and the inspection copy didn’t turn up till some weeks later. I’ve now made time to read it and am glad I did, so I thought I’d explain why.

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

The book is one of a series Routledge are developing to try and make available some methodological textbooks for students that teach by example, without skimping on the theory.2 This is a hard balance to strike, and not all the authors that Karen Harvey gathers in this volume get it quite correct to this reviewer’s mind, but the overall success is remarkable and while a couple of the contributing papers serve mainly to make the Industrial Revolution period quite interesting, most of them make the objects with which they are primarily concerned make much large points not just about their periods but about how historians approach their evidence.

Harvey’s introduction is the place where these agendas are most clearly set out, and is a particularly pellucid explanation of the values of alternative evidence that cannot easily be summarised: honestly, I recommend that you read it.3 It ends with a short section on available resources for students and a rather simplistic breakdown by stages of an approach to a source, but the heavier section at the beginning is a challenge to all of us who are primarily occupied with texts as our evidence (though the construct, of a historian solely concerned with archive material to the exclusion of archæology or marginal and undocumented populations, may seem like a straw man to medievalists; more on that perspective later). The various papers drink more or less deeply of these methodological concerns but the best ones, in this reviewer’s opinion, are those that manage to bring the methodological dilemmas, questions and potential out of identifiable evidence.

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

The best example of this is perhaps Giorgio Riello‘s explication of an eighteenth-century stomacher.4 The unlikely Rosetta Stone was found in a house in Hampshire, UK, concealed with a waistcoat in the chimney-breast. Riello explains that this practice of hiding clothes or other personal belongings in entry-points to the house is actually not uncommon, but it is almost if not actually undocumented. There is a project in Winchester databasing all such finds (and they have the stomacher on the front page of their website), and basing himself on their work Riello shows how the stomacher can tell several stories and how the historian brings as much to the object as the object to the historian. The most obvious one is that of its concealment, and the beliefs and social practice implied by it; but the garment is also a source for enquiries about textile manufacture (it is almost the earliest British printed linen surviving) and fashion, about images of the body (and more specifically the idealised female body), about bio-dioversity (the whalebone in it is from a previously-unrecorded subspecies of the North Atlantic [right] whale, a species previously thought not to have any subspecies) and about commodification (it had been cut down from a corset and heavily re-used) and the transition to capitalism. When I add that the article goes from there to Chinese pottery found in Williamsburg Virginia and finishes with flying machines that never were, you can see that it covers a lot of ground, and never without losing the point of explaining to the reader what these things can tell us that, perhaps, other evidence could not.

William Samuel Hensons Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

William Samuel Henson's Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

For this writer Riello’s article is the star of the volume, but the others can be separated as, firstly, those which take particular sorts of evidence: Marina Moskowitz with landscape (which involves the junction between manmade and natural and opens not just the category of material culture but the timespan over which objects, so often used as snapshots of a culture or merely as illustrations, out a great deal); Beverly Lemire illustrating underside aspects of colonialism through dress; Anne Laurence on architecture of the stately home in Britain and Ireland; Helen Berry using Beilby glassware to pull the industrial north-east forward in the London- (and, I would add, Birmingham-)led historiography of the Industrial of Consumer Revolution; and Sara Pennell on cookware as a source for social prescription for women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.5 Perhaps more powerful are the essays that instead take a theme and develop it around several different sorts of object; this approach is distinguished from the other as ‘object-driven’ rather than ‘object-centred’ by Harvey in the introduction, indeed.6 It is epitomised by, as well as Riello’s paper already mentioned, Karin Dannehl explaining how object biographies and object life cycles can be used as complementary methodological frameworks since the two approaches distinguish themselves by approaching the object for what is unique about it and for what is generic; by Frank Dikötter writing of the uptake of foreign culture in modern China and the agency involved in its adaptation to Eastern and entirely novel uses; and by Glenn Adamson asking, apropos of an eighteenth-century footstool, what we can deduce from an object that does not appear to exist where we would expect it.7 Adamson’s conclusion, that the British distinguished themselves from their contemporary French opponents by not just politics but also by their sitting posture, is surprising but hard to challenge from his evidence, which nicely illustrates the power of the medium to bring up aspects of social history that could not otherwise be reached.

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

In what is a pleasantly slim and economical volume some omissions are inevitable, but two in particular struck this reader, the noting of which is not intended to diminish the great value of what has been included. In particular, the fact that certain sorts of object have not been addressed can hardly be held against the editor however important the reviewer may think they are. However, to a medievalist the chronological bias of the volume towards the Industrial Revolution is inescapable, albeit partly explained by Harvey’s account of the development of field out of the history of consumption, which is inevitably tied up with the development of consumerism.8 All the same, it would have been salutary to have had one paper from a period where archival sources are rare enough that historians have been embracing alternative sources for a while, not even necessarily the Middle Ages: Antiquity or even prehistory would have done. The conscious distinction of this field of enquiry from archaeology (seen by the authors as focussed on typology and chronology in the same way as history is seen rooted in the archive) may not help the breadth of the approaches here, and Harvey’s initial premise of inherent interdisciplinarity is somewhat belied by such careful definition of the boundaries of the field in question.9 As it is only Lemire and Riello venture as far back as early early modern, and Dikötter and Moskowitz surprise rather more by being the prinicipal contributors to come as far forward as the twentieth century. Dikötter is also notable for being the only person included working on a non-Western area, and even here his approach is to ask how the West impacted China. While, therefore, this book is easily the best of several now available for its purpose of waking up students to the possibilities of objects as sources for the historian, the reviewer feels that another and quite different one could also be written, and perhaps should be, to stand on the shelf next to it in the right-thinking historian’s library.


1. Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London 2009).

2. Also published in the series: Miriam Dobson & Benjamin Ziemann (edd.), Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from 19th and 20th Century History (London 2008), and Sarah Barber & Corinna Peniston-Bird (edd.), History Beyond the Text: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2008).

3. Karen Harvey, “Introduction: practical matters” in eadem, History and Material Culture, pp. 1-23.

4. Giorgio Riello, “Things that Shape History: material culture and historical narratives”, ibid. pp. 24-46, at pp. 26-32.

5. Marina Moskowitz, “Back Yards and Beyond: landscapes and history”, ibid. pp. 67-84; Beverly Lemire, “Draping the body and dressing the home. The material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500–1800″, ibid. pp. 85-102; Anne Laurence, “Using buildings to understand social history: Britain and Ireland in the seventeenth century”, ibid., pp. 103-122; Helen Berry, “Regional Identity and Material Culture”, ibid. pp. 139-157; Sara Pennell, “Mundane materiality, or, should small things still be forgotten? Material culture, micro-history and the problem of scale”, ibid. pp. 173-191.

6. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 2-3.

7. Karin Dannehl, “Object biographies. From production to consumption” in Harvey, History and Material Culture, pp. 123-138; Frank Dikötter, “Objects and agency. Material culture and modernity in China”, ibid. pp. 158-172; Glenn Adamson, “The case of the missing footstool. Reading the absent object”, ibid., pp. 192-207.

8. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 8-9.

9. Ibid. pp. 3 & 6-8, esp. p. 8 where: “While a discipline may have a core, it will also feature variety, interdisciplinarity and areas of work that are in some tension with one another. When scholars work on material culture, the variety within disciplines – and also the connections between them – becomes [sic] plain” but also there: “All the contributors to this volume are historians.”

Seminary XLIX: whose coin is it anyway?

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, by Eadhun at London, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, by Eadhun at London, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

I missed a week with the IHR seminars lately but had to ensure that I made it to London to hear my colleague Rory Naismith speaking to the title, “Kings, Moneyers and Currency in Southern England, c. 750-c. 865″. Rory was here in part trying to distill his Ph. D. for presentation and even with the IHR’s hour-long papers that’s never easy. The detailed background that what he was saying needed gave me, who by now knows something about coins, some trouble keeping up, and I did wonder how a non-numismatist would cope. Rory avoided getting too technical over the actual coins, but also avoided getting bogged down in explanations of the methods he was using (including the statistical ones based on the occurrence patterns of coin dies which I think of as Mr Esty’s Amazing Estimators).1 This is probably wise but meant that I’m not sure anyone but me really understood how he was getting his information at some points.

I suppose that leaves it to me to explain what he was saying, but that would be a long post because there was an awful lot of information. He was talking about what mints operated in Southern England, what coins they struck and who controlled them, and the basic fact that you need to make this significant is that over the period that Rory has chosen, between the reforms of King Offa that create the broad penny exemplified above, and the general collapse before the Vikings of 865, everywhere English south of the Humber, Mercia, Wessex, Kent, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia and Middle Anglia were using the same standard of coin. What Rory did next was show how patterns of issue changed over that period, an East Anglian mint that is probably Ipswich acquiring importance and London losing it (despite being Mercia’s only mint), and so on. He also showed that almost throughout the period, Canterbury is the mint whose coin was most widely used and that it’s more likely to turn up in any given find outside Kent than in Kent, and other such anomalies, and that actually this is true of most of the coinages in circulation except that of `Ipswich’, which did circulate outside East Anglia but predominated within it. There were also a lot of issues about the patterns of use and how far they match those of manufacture, something which we can to an extent get at by comparing finds with evidence from the dies and so on. For more than that, you’d have to go to him I think.2

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern twopence piece for scale

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern twopence piece for scale

However, the key section of the paper and one of the two things that got people interested in the comments was the question of who controlled the coinage. It has been traditional for a while to see the uniformity of the coinage as showing royal power and especially that of Mercia, which means that almost no non-English coin is used in these kingdoms and the English stuff that is keeps a more or less fixed weight and standard (Northumbria’s debased copper stycas being an exception that probably demonstrate a higher monetisation around York that needed lower denominations). That the kings were involved is held to be self-evident from the fact that they appear on the coins, but Rory was attributing a much large rôle to the moneyers, who were not the actual workmen hammering out the coins but the metallurgically-knowledgeable master craftsmen who took the metal and organised its coining. To them he attributes the basic design, and also the general agreement to issue at such and such a standard (following royal orders at first, but essentially those of Offa over what became a long long time). This he takes from sharing of designs between mints in different kingdoms and so on, and it was persuasive, but much discussed afterwards because of the damage it does to the `maximum state’ view of those like James Campbell.3 I myself am quite happy to have a way to deal with that, because the evidence of law and politics for patchy and variable royal control to me sits uneasy with this highly-controlled coinage, and if we can detach the kings from its manufacture a bit that helps the disjunction. So that I think is the importance of Rory’s work that caught the audience.

Obverse of silver penny of William I the Conqueror, by Garwig at Lincoln, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.802-2001, William Conte Collection

Obverse of silver penny of William I the Conqueror, by Garwig at Lincoln, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.802-2001, William Conte Collection

The other question that came up was how much these coins are worth. This is not something that can easily be answered, because money use in the ninth and the twenty-first centuries simply doesn’t compare: there is, for example, much much more to buy nowadays which means that price markers like “how much is a loaf of bread” don’t really work. With those cautions, Rory’s estimate of a buying power of the order of £10-20 modern pounds sterling per silver penny is pretty canonical among numismatists, but was disputed by the Anglo-Normanists present, largely because of Domesday Book which considers a penny to be the appropriate tax for a hide, a measure of land supposed to contain enough resources to feed a household for a year. Stephen Baxter argued additionally that since in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a penny a day was considered a fair wage for a labourer, and those pennies were metallically worth much less, an Anglo-Saxon one should have been more like £200 not £20. Oh to be a lecturer, where a daily wage of £20 seems unthinkable, eh? There were other arguments too, but all related to a much later period. The problem is the year 1000, or rather the century-plus period of economic growth that preceded it. By 1086 there was, again, much more to buy than there was in 786 or 886. It is not as simple as there being more wealth driving prices down (or up); there were complex things going on that resulted simply from more people wanting to buy things and more money being made so that they can easily do so. An active economy doesn’t necessarily imply lots of coin, and lots of coin doesn’t necessarily imply a developed market because there are lots of other things coin is used for as well as trade.4 And there are market uses for high-value coin even when they’re too big to buy a loaf of bread with.5 The two economies really don’t compare and we have to privilege the contemporary evidence over the detailed evidence. I am myself inclined to trust the numismatists on this, especially while they continue to give me employment.


1. Okay, you don’t really want to know, but, because ancient and medieval coins were struck from hand-carved dies, the individual dies are recognisable from the coins. That means that in any given sample from a coinage, we can count how many dies were used, and then some people will try and reason up to how large the coinage probably was. This obviously has big implications for how common it was and therefore how it was being used. (See on this Philip Grierson, Numismatics, Opus 70 (Oxford 1975, many reprints), pp. 94-111.) This is really only safe to do in relative terms with high numbers of dies, but a while ago a statistician called Warren Esty tackled the question of whether and how this could in fact be done in quantitative terms, using a virtual sample against which to test various equations for estimating coinage sizes (W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185-215). His conclusion, that it was basically unsound, has been largely ignored in preference to relying on the estimators he thought were the best of the bad bunch. For a more forthright view about the possiblities of this method see the words of another of my colleagues, Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: Facts and Fantasies” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-51.

2. Some introduction to these issues for medievalists will shortly be available as Jonathan Jarrett, “Digitizing Numismatics: getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coins to the world-wide web” in The Heroic Age Vol. 12 (2009), but until then see Grierson, “Numismatics” in James M. M. Powell (ed.), Medieval Studies: an introduction (Syracuse 1976), pp. 103-36.

3. Referring to, especially, James Campbell, “The late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (Hambledon 2000), pp. 1-31, but also Mark A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Contacts in the North Atlantic during the Seventh to Mid-Tenth Centuries” in A. Mortensen & S. V. Arge, Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, 19-30 July 2001 (Tórshavn 2005), pp. 141-51.

4. Classically, of course, Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

5. Blackburn, “‘Productive’ Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180″ in Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003), pp. 20-36.

A percentage point

In a volume that is now safely back in Cambridge University Library, I read something that annoyed me slightly in what was otherwise a mildly interesting paper about the use of prepositions instead of declension in the letters of Braulio of Saragossa. I realise that sounds unlikely to be interesting, but it provides a useful way to assess the supposed decline of Classical Latin if you take one of the great minds of Visigothic Spain as the marker standard. (He was pretty solid but there are particular cases, especially the use of per + acc. for agency rather than ab + abl., where he shows that things had changed since Cicero, since you ask. Oh, didn’t you? Well, thank heavens I only gave one example then.) So anyway, what’s the problem, Jarrett? Well, the problem lies in this line about that very phenomenon:

Estos datos son, nos parece, pruebas del empleo creciente de per para introducir el agente, aunque domine con mucho (en un 87%, 53 citas) la construcción clásica con ab.1

I won’t blame you if you don’t see a problem there. They don’t teach historians statistics, and even when historians learn statistics it’s often apparently only so as to mislead and bamboozle. I remember when I had to be told this myself, in fact, and it wasn’t so long ago. But the thing is, in order to have a percentage that’s meaningful you need a hundred of something. If your 87% is made of fewer than 87 units you shouldn’t be using percentage at all.

The Portal of the Judgement at the cathedral of Santa Maria de León

The Portal of the Judgement at the cathedral of Santa Maria de León

But surely Jonathan this is mere pedantry, I hear you cry. But it isn’t, it can matter. It’s an issue of significance and, in malicious cases, spin. Calling something a percentage implies reliability when compared to other things that are called percentages. Let me give you an example from my own work. One of the many papers currently being rallied between me and reviewers is one about persons with Arabic names in Christian León.2 In it I compare the presence of these people in the documents of three separate archives, this being a rough way to approximate a distinction by geography that would be hard to do by any more precise criterion. So, at one point I write:

At Oviedo, then, in the period of these charts 3 (out of 8 surviving) documents feature Arabic names; at Sahagún 81 out of 134 do (60%); and at León the proportion is 166 out of 226 (73%).

The reviewer that I have still to satisfy wanted to know at this point why I hadn’t given a percentage for Oviedo, and my response, not as expressed in e-mail but as shouted to an empty room when I read the comments, was roughly, “Because it wouldn’t mean anything!” Consider. The percentage, in the sense of ‘what you get if you divide 3 by 8 and multiply by 100′, is 37·5. Now. If I had a round two hundred documents that featured Arabic names from some fourth archive that I had included—and Celanova may even have that many—then if someone found one more, that would make a flybite of difference, half a percent, and my figures would be pretty safe.3 At León, one extra would make less difference even than that; my actual percentage to 2 significant figures would be the same. At Sahagún, 61%, a change but hardly a paper-destroying one. But if at Oviedo they opened a secret chamber and found some originals of documents that Bishop Pelayo altered, and one of them was from the relevant period and out of thirty witnesses at one hearing one, just one was called Zeiti or something, the ‘percentage’ that I’d given at Oviedo would be 44%, a leap of 7 percentage points, implying seven times as much shift as it would be at León or Sahagún. To put it another way, giving a percentage at Oviedo would be to imply that those three people in that tiny sample, years or decades apart from each other, are as significant to our understanding of this group as eighty-five people from León, whereas actually, because they are statistically so insignificant they probably don’t actually tell us anything. They’re so odd that each can probably be explained as a one-off: for example, two of them are frequently-appearing royal courtiers who also appear in the León documents… Whereas 85 people with such names at León do tell us something about what people were at court, perhaps where they’d come from and what it was fashionable to do or be there.

So, next time you’re tempted to use that pair of circles and a slash, well, consider if a fraction might not serve you better if a mathematician happens to be in the audience…


1. Maria Luisa García Sanchidrián, “Del sistema casual a las preposciones : una muestra en Braulio de Zaragoza” in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas, II Congreso Hispánico de latín medieval (Leon, 11-14 de Noviembre de 1997) vol. I (Leon 1998), pp. 483-491, quote at p. 491.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Arabic-named communities in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias and León, at court and at home” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 2 (London forthcoming).

3. And actually Celanova was the first of these groups to be studied, by Richard Hitchcock, ‘Arabic Proper Names in the Becerro de Celanova’ in David Hook & B. Taylor (edd.), Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: historical and literary essays presented to L. P. Harvey (London 1990), pp. 111-26, now much expanded in Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-68. The Celanova documents have also now been edited in José Miguel Andrade Cernadas (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova: estudio introductorio, edición e índices (ss. IX-XII) (Santiago de Compostela 1995), though lots of problems with this edition have been noted.

Seminary XLVIII: plus ça change, plus c’est la Rome chose

The penultimate (I almost typed punultimate, but I’m afraid I probably have more than one left) gathering in this year’s Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminars took place on the 12th May, and Chris Wickham drove direct from giving one paper in Oxford to give us a different one in Cambridge, in the course of things proving that Cambridge’s tidal one-way system is a form of gatekeeping the University would never have stooped as low as. Anyway, your humble correspondent may have had too little sleep and too much tea so I’ll try and stick to the reportage. The title of the paper was “Social Change (and Complexity) in Early Medieval Rome, 700-1000″.

The paper was divided into three parts, and the first of those went on ceremonial. The focus was on the elaborate adventus ceremonies that Rome mounted for incoming emperors, something which needed doing fairly rarely, and so was always exceptional, but nonetheless had a background going back to the late Empire, and which had been progressively updated to incorporate new social orders like the ex-Byzantine militia (whoever they actually were) in the old hierarchy.1 Rome was in this respect open to change as long as it could package it firstly as antique and secondly as unique; nowhere else went to the same level of elaboration over these things except perhaps Constantinople, one of the few cities bigger than Rome in any of the Empire, let alone the West where it was unrivalled. (This was really the only part of the paper which really went back to 700; most of the focus was on the tenth century, which was of course fine with me.)

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

This led to questions of how such a city supported itself, which are unusually complex because inside, say, 20 miles of the centre, there was no visible peasant landholding. This doesn’t preclude agriculture, of which there obviously was some even within the old city walls, but it must have been tenant farming because all, to an incredible degree of exclusion, of the land visible in the tenth-century charters was Church-owned and had been as far back as can be seen in the record. This doesn’t mean it was full of churchmen because almost all of it was leased out to aristocrats, including for example the Foro di Nerva above, on which in the ninth century private housing was built. Other previously-public spaces developed workshops, housing, gardens, and so on, apparently built for profit, but the land remained the church’s, and there was apparently no guarantee of heredity when the time came for the leases to be renewed, though since most of these leases were made for three lives, a certain amount of future planning was possible. Nonetheless, when laymen give land to the Church in these records, it is land that they had leased; land that they owned was all much further away. Yet they lived in Rome, and leased land to do so, land on which they tried to turn a profit but which they did not own. The rents were tiny, so what the Church got from this was something that Chris had yet to resolve; one assumes, protection and a clientèle but I got the impression that Chris would have preferred an economic rationale, and as he observed, since these arrangements last for generations and are often seen at renewal, they must have been economically viable because otherwise all the leasing churches would have gone bankrupt.

Anyway, Chris’s general point was that there is a lot of change in Rome, especially in the tenth century, a lot of it at the high political level but also a growing change in the development of the economy, artisanal titles becoming more and more visible in charters as the year 1000 approaches, various sorts of associations of clerics and laymen joining the existing ones (often seen through the ceremonial by which they articulated their links to the old and current orders). Despite this, the social structure of the city, most of all focussed on the pope but below him mediated through dozens of links between Church and churches and aristocrats of various grades, with a pre-eminent family (the Theophylacti, family of the Patrician Alberic) not diminishing that variety, stayed more or less the same. The long-term nature of the lease situation and its apparent inherent stability left the aristocrats, who were getting profit from the lands and the social capital of a Roman presence, and the churches who were getting, well, we don’t really know but they kept doing it so there must have been a reason, with no reason to alter things. In the end, Chris suggested, it was Henry IV and Gregory VII who spoiled this equilibrium by really really messing with the ability to maintain this lay-ecclesiastical property-sharing; reform undid Rome’s social networks.

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

That bit sounds a bit glib, but I’m fine with the implication that the tenth century is pretty stable. I’ve seen a few of the relevant charters, however, and the impression I got is that it’s not just the economy that’s elaborating.2 Or maybe it is, but landholders are transacting more, or being recorded more, scribes who used to only be seen working for the pope are seen doing private jobs, this is when at least one of the texts of the papal formulary and general order of practice known as the Liber Diurnus is probably created, and in general Rome is taking part in a much wider economic phenomenon visible all around the Western Mediterranean in which at least, after some hard centuries, the economy is beginning to kick out a genuine surplus.3 An awful lot of the change that’s supposed to happen around 1000 firstly comes from this new availability of surplus, and therefore the resources with which to do things differently, and secondly, is largely seen (because of the nature of our sources) in terms of elaboration and increased preservation of documents. That last makes it hard to tell what’s new and what was already there but just invisible, but as Chris said, in the few places where documents go back further than this period, they don’t show the same concerns and, although formulas changing can obscure or reveal a lot, they also represent a change in social practice that has made the old ones less useful. This is an old argument associated indelibly with the name Barthélemy, though it should as I’ve argued be associated instead with its resolution by Bedos-Rezak, and I won’t do it again here. But it did seem to me that Rome was here partaking of a wider pattern from which its indubitable distinctiveness shouldn’t be allowed to separate it. The wind was blowing on Rome and on, I don’t know, Aigüatèbia de Conflent alike.

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that I wanted to remark on was the behaviour of the `aristocrats’. For Chris’s purposes anyone not farming their own food is an aristocrat, and I thought that in a society as stratified as Rome that didn’t break things down enough. Some of these guys, the Theophylacti for example, were really important people who could make most of the city follow their bidding (no-one can make all of Rome follow their bidding, not since Octavian if then), and some were just struggling people we’d call knights anywhere else, and to imply that they’re all supported by the same system and that that doesn’t change, while acknowledging that they are also changing the face of Rome’s public spaces and embroiled, as we can tell from Liutprand of Cremona, in all kinds of power politics, seems like a disjunction to me. These are people involved in political change and economic agency, and I felt that the link between the fierce competition and change at that level, and the apparent stasis of the social structure, needed exploration. But then, we know so little about what these people did. It’s always amazed me how little work there is on Alberic. A guy starts calling himself Prince of Rome and ruling the city alongside the pope! Apparently no-one can oust him. He can almost ignore the kings! And yet somehow Pierre Toubert seems to be the only person who’s thought him worth writing about in the last century (and I confess, I haven’t read that writing).4 Am I missing something or is that badly out of synch with what people would find interesting anywhere else? So it’s easy to understand why such a story is not yet told, and the story that Chris was telling at system level was equally new to me and equally fascinating, but I did feel that there were these two halves to the story which will only make sense together, and now I’m hoping someone will do the other one.


1. Much of what Chris was saying will, I expect, emerge in his own work in the not-too-distant future, but two references of resort were Pierre Toubert’s Les structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle (Rome 1973) and Roberto Meneghini & Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Roma nell’Altomedioevo: topografia e urbanistica della città dal V al X secolo (Roma 2004).

2. The Roman charters with which I’m familiar are mainly edited in L. Allodi & G. Levi (edd.), Il Regesto Sublacense del Secolo XI, Bibliotheca della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria (Roma 1885) & L. M. Hartmann (ed.), Ecclesiae S. Mariae in Via Lata Tabularium. Partem vetustoriem quae complectitur chartas inde ab anno 921 usque ad a. 1045 (Wien 1895), both of which give a giddying impression of social complexity.

3. The Liber Diurnus is something of a controversy; its function, date and importance are all long disputed. The two most recent contributions to the debate I’ve seen are Hans Hubert Anton, “Der Liber Diurnus in angeblichen und verfälschten Papstprivilegien des früheren Mittelalters” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Teil III: diplomatische Fälschungen (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXIII.3 (Hannover 1988), pp. 115-142, and Hans-Henning Kortüm, Zur papstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 312-318, but I’m sure there’s more since I was up with this stuff. As for the economy, I don’t think the tenth-century growth is widely enough appreciated. It’s somewhat dwarfed by the economic take-off of the eleventh and twelfth centuries but this take-off run unleashes an awful lot of social development and change. The only decent comparative treatment I know arises in a conference volume, La Croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. Toubert, Latium, and idem, “Une révision : le principat d’Albéric de Rome (932-954)” in idem, Études sur l’Italie médiévale (IXe-XIVe s.), Collected Studies 46 (London: Variorum 1976), V.

A house really (allegoric)

Seventeenth-century brass skillet with feet to stand over a hearth, Bunratty Castle Medieval Collection 323a

Seventeenth-century brass skillet with feet to stand over a hearth, Bunratty Castle Medieval Collection 323a

It’s not even slightly medieval, but it is in something I am reading for review and teaching purposes, an instruction copy of a book I felt would have been nice for the material culture class I gave a while back had it not then been two weeks forthcoming. Those nice people at Routledge sent me a copy under stern injunctions to recommend it for purchase so that at least 12 students buy it. This isn’t how Cambridge works: I can probably ensure that two or three libraries buy it, and no more, but I’m hoping that that and a review will suffice to avoid me having to pay the fairly small amount they want if I keep it otherwise.

ANYWAY. That will come soon but for now I just wanted to mention this, in a brief reflection by Sara Pennell, who would appear to be very clever, on a late seventeenth century English skillet, not unlike the one at the top, that bears on its handle the inscription, “Ye wages of sin is death”, owned by the Bath Preservation Trust as part of the Hugh Roberts Collection. Dr Pennell explains this as part of a general invocation of moral and domestic order made by the use of good cookware and general proper housewifery; that is, getting the whole wife thing right is part of the whole moral order of the household and so this sort of admonition is proper to it, she argues. Well, maybe, but the important thing is the footnote she gives, out of pure amusement as far as I can see (and hurrah for that!), which quotes a letter of G. K. Chesterton to Frances Blogg, who would become his wife. You can see this in every line, it’s the sort of indulgent verbal peacocking only an infatuated man of letters and wit could manage and I can completely imagine how in love he must have been. It’s online so you can see for yourself. But it’s got in it this bit which allows Dr Pennell to justify its use:

I have sometimes thought it would be very fine to take an ordinary house, a very poor, commonplace house in West Kensington, say, and make it symbolic. Not artistic – Heaven, O Heaven forbid. My blood boils when I think of the affronts put by knock-kneed pictorial epicures on the strong, honest, ugly, patient shapes of necessary things: the brave old bones of life. There are aesthetic pattering prigs who can look on a saucepan without one tear of joy or sadness: mongrel decadents that can see no dignity in the honourable scars of a kettle. So they concentrate all their house decoration on coloured windows that nobody looks out of, and vases of lilies that everybody wishes out of the way. No: my idea (which is much cheaper) is to make a house really allegoric really explain its own essential meaning. Mystical or ancient sayings should be inscribed on every object, the more prosaic the object the better; and the more coarsely and rudely the inscription was traced the better. ‘Hast thou sent the Rain upon the Earth?’ should be inscribed on the Umbrella-Stand: perhaps on the Umbrella. ‘Even the Hairs of your Head are all numbered’ would give a tremendous significance to one’s hairbrushes: the words about ‘living water’ would reveal the music and sanctity of the sink: while ‘Our God is a consuming Fire’ might be written over the kitchen-grate, to assist the mystic musings of the cook.

If you didn’t already love G. K. Chesterton, there’s a reason to start. (Postscript: ooh! and here’s another one especially for the medievalists!)


Sara Pennell, “Mundane materiality, or, should small things still be forgotten? Material culture, micro-history and the problem of scale” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London 2009), pp. 173-191, ref. at p. 190 n. 35.

The Case of the Disappearing Abbot (sorter penance)

I had been holding off on writing this post because I knew that it would be probably be wrong unless I could check a few things in the recent edition of the the charters of Santa Maria de Serrateix, but on due inspection there’s one copy in the UK and it’s in Birmingham.1 (The IHR has had one on order since mid-2007 so I don’t think this is really the UK’s fault.) More relevantly, on overdue inspection, it’s not actually Serrateix I meant to write about, so the excuse is kind of gone. This is the Case of the Disappearing Abbot that I promised Ms Highly Eccentric after enlisting the dark arts to Choose my own Archive.

Fifteenth-century depiction of Count Guifré the Hairy

Fifteenth-century depiction of Count Guifré the Hairy

Before I can explain this, some kind of background is necessary. If you remember Count Guifré the Hairy, we can start there. Guifré, who ruled Barcelona, among other places in the area, from 878 to 898, died leaving a brother, a cousin, four sons and a daughter in charge in his various counties and foundations, the sons including the eldest, Guifré II Borrell (898-911) and the youngest, Sunyer (911-947) who succeeded in turn in the three counties of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, and the middle one, Miró II el Jove (898-927), who ruled Cerdanya, and perhaps Besalú in succession to his uncle Radulf (878-924). With me so far? Miró II died and left four sons, looked after by his widow their mum, Ava. Sunyer didn’t make things easy for them, but by the 940s they were ruling in their own right, Guifré (927-957) (yes, they love those old names in this family) and little bro Oliba Cabreta (927-990) in Besalú and Sunifred in Cerdanya (927-967), with the other little bro Miró III Bonfill (967-984) going into holy orders and spending his early adult years as a deacon learning to Latinise impossible Greek words.2 Nonetheless, and despite being older, these brother counts (and the deacon) were at a territorial disadvantage compared to Sunyer’s sons, Borrell II and Miró III (yes, I know, they’re in different counties so we’re supposed to be able to tell them apart, OK?), who succeeded him in 947.3 The reasons were firstly that the big conjunction of Girona, Barcelona and Osona, and Urgell which Borrell ruled alone, contained the two biggest cities and almost all the coastline, and secondly that it contained almost all of the frontier, a small salient in the pagus of Berguedà bordering Cerdanya being the Besalú brothers’ only access to the riches of al-Andalus. Worse: the Barcelona brothers also had three of the area’s four bishoprics, including two of the three whose territories lay in Besalú and Cerdanya, and the third wasn’t under the Besalú family’s control either.

Control of the Church was important in this area and the elder cousins went various ways about getting some. Eventually, in 970, Miró Bonfill became bishop of Girona, which is a long story for another time, but before that the brothers had done quite a lot to push the independent nunnery of Sant Joan de Ripoll, on their borders, under their thumbs, nicking its lands and exchanging others back on bad terms, and eventually setting up a rival monastery right next door across the border. This was a two-handed operation: Oliba Cabreta and Sunifred took lands off the nunnery which were in their territory and gave them to the rival, and Miró Bonfill gave the victims extra lands elsewhere to soothe them, lands that, interestingly, were mostly close along the border and recently acquired from Borrell II, another story for another time.4 They pulled exactly the same double on the Girona border, donating heavily to Sant Esteve de Banyoles but also building a rival house, and that was Santa Maria de Serrateix, which is why I got confused. But the one we want is Sant Pere de Camprodon, whose documents have only very recently been entirely published.5 I’m not sure that Camprodon was built with that purpose in mind, in fact, as the donations of scammed land there are all rather after the story that I’m about to tell, but it certainly wound up as a counterweight to Sant Joan.

Church of the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon as it now stands, from Wikimedia Commons

Church of the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon as it now stands, from Wikimedia Commons

A church at Camprodon was consecrated in 904, which is the first we see of it.6 By 946 it seems that it was a monastery, though that document is only known from a register, and the compiler of the register, for whom Camprodon would obviously have been a monastery, may have updated his source.7 Either way, it seems to have belonged in some sense to the bishop of Girona, because in 948 the eldest brother of the Besaluú comital family, Guifré of Besalú gave Bishop Godmar II some land elsewhere in exchange for the church and its land. We know this because in 952, when Guifré made a trip north to meet King Louis IV (936-954) at Rheims for a variety of reasons, one of the things he came back with was a royal precept of immunity for what was now apparently a monastery.8 That precept names Guifré as the founder, so we have to think of him as being personally connected with this place even if it seems like a whole-family investment. It also explains the exchange by which Guifré acquired the place. That exchange also survives, or at least a document that claims to be that exchange does, but it’s been hailed as a forgery not least because it adds a quite incredible price-tag of 1000 solidi from count to bishop. Someone added this in superscript to the precept as well, and on the whole I think it can be discarded though why one would add it—one could hardly claim it had never been paid or something—I don’t know.9

The precept also mentions gifts to the new monastery from the counts’ mother Ava, which we have, and several from its first abbot, Laufred, which we don’t.10 That’s important. All of this Louis placed under immunity:

establishing all of the which above-mentioned things with the integrity of all the properties under our mundeburdus, as it is called, by royal authority most intactly against the disturbances of all men, and we order that no public judge or any judicial power whatever shall dare to trespass over the churches or the places of the aforesaid monastery for the hearing of cases by judicial custom or the exacting of tolls or preparing of works or any renders or taxing the vassals or their followers or requiring any written demands, but shall presume to exact neither road-tax nor gate-tax or pasturage or toll or any unlisted exaction… 

(This is only a standard formula but I still love it. No possibility uncovered.)

Now, Laufred is the missing abbot. We don’t see him in person, except maybe once in 948 at a hearing where, if it is he, he attests as Lamfredus abbas et diaconus. I’m not convinced this is the same man; this Abbot Lanfred doesn’t turn up anywhere else either but that doesn’t mean they have to be the same guy.11 So maybe calling him the disappearing abbot is unfair, because actually he may never appear, but we know he was in charge at Camprodon because Count Guifré told Louis so, and because he is named in another document, which is the consecration of his successor Teuderic.12 And Teuderic was being appointed because Laufred had disappeared. To be more precise, he went on pilgrimage ‘because of his sins’, or so it says, but he apparently never came back. Whither he went we don’t know, though Rome would have been a popular choice at this time and also more than slightly dangerous, not least because of the danger of malaria. Anyway, there’s nothing too mysterious about that, but it seems that Camprodon never got word. The consecration of Teuderic says that they waited seven years for Laufred’s return before plucking up the courage to ask the counts if they could have a new abbot. Now, they didn’t ask Guifré, because he had been killed in a revolt at Besalú which would have been one of the other stories I could have told you.13 That happened in 957, so in 962 they asked his brother Sunifred Count of Cerdanya, who was very busy at exactly this time cutting deals with Abbess Fredeburga of Sant Joan de Ripoll by which the nunnery got only a bit of its lands back in exchange for other lands which went, guess where, Camprodon.

Gratuitous picture of Besalú as it now stands behind its fourteenth-century bridge

Gratuitous picture of Besalú as it now stands behind its fourteenth-century bridge

So are you seeing a stitch-up here or am I just being over-suspicious? The place is a monastery by 948, but the consecration of Teuderic claims that Laufred wasn’t appointed till after the trip to the king. And that’s odd because the king’s scribes were told he was abbot. Or at least, an abbot: this and the 948 hearing could be reconciled if he were abbot of somewhere else and parachuted into Camprodon after it got its immunity. That might explain why we don’t see him here much; but it doesn’t explain why the first thing he did was head off on pilgrimage never to return. Either way, after he left until 962, and possibly before, Camprodon was running with no abbot. And they couldn’t get a new one under Guifré they had to wait a long time before they could get one even from Sunifred, and then it seems to mesh with other schemes of his. It looks as if the counts didn’t want an active abbot here, and Teuderic doesn’t last long either, as Abbot Audà first appears in 965.14

But, having appointed one at all, why not replace him once he’d gone? Well, there could be any number of reasons for that: if you’re hard-nosed you might want to think that the counts were taking the revenues, and if you were in the middle you might note that Laufred appears to have been fairly wealthy and that Guifré’s relationships with his nobility were apparently strained and so perhaps he was determined not to risk offending an apparent ally gone missing, or perhaps more importantly the remaining family, by handing Laufred’s rights over to someone else. I confess that when I first read this document my sentimental conclusion was that Guifré didn’t want to admit that his friend was dead. This is probably too soft, and I would now opine that the middle road probably makes more sense. But it’s odd. I suppose that the key lesson is that a monastery can be a very short- to mid-term political tool and that, while I’m sure the counts didn’t mind having their souls prayed for, they weren’t really bothered about keeping this place running to rule. The important thing was that it was where it was, a thorn in the side of the independent and wealthy convent at Ripoll, and for that they were willing to invest.


1. Jordi Bolòs i Masclans (ed.), Diplomatari del monestir de Santa Maria de Serrateix (segles X-XV), Diplomataris 42 (Barcelona 2006).

2. The family is covered as background in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 1948; 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), II pp. 141-277. On Miró especially there is also Josep María Salrach i Marès, “El bisbe-comte Miró Bonfill i la seva obra de fundació i dotació de monestirs” in Eufèmia Fort i Cogul (ed.), II Col·loqui d’Història del Monaquisme Català, Sant Joan de les Abadesses 1970 II, Scriptorium Populeti 9 (Poblet 1974), pp. 57-81, with English summary pp. 422-423, and Salrach, “El comte-bisbe Miró Bonfill i l’acta de consagració de Ripoll de l’any 977″ in Estudis de llengua i literatura catalanes oferts a R. Aramon i Serra en el seu setanté aniversari IV, Estudis Universitaris Catalans Vol. 26 (3a època Vol. 4) (Barcelona 1984), pp. 303-318.

3. There is actually one recent article on these two I haven’t yet got hold of, Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études Roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162.

4. A story told, indeed, in Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

5. 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, docs 116, 257, 268bis, 296, 301, 304, 317, 319, 328, 337, 346, 351, 360, 365, 374, 375, 384, 395, 400, 415, 425, 428, 446, 453, 512, 528, 529, 531, 568, I, III & V, and 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), 2 vols, docs 278, 437 & 623. In hunting through all these briefly I found a late purchase by Abbess Emma I didn’t know about so I shall have to update that post now as well. I’ll refer to the charter volumes as either CC5 or CC6 in what follows.

6. CC5 116. On Camprodon’s history see Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Antoni Pladevall i Font, N. Peirís i Pujolar & Xavier Barral i Altet, “Sant Pere de Camprodon” in Pladevall, Catalunya Romànica X: el Ripollès (Barcelona 1987), pp. 85-95, where a lot of the relevant documents are also edited. There is also Miquel Sants Gros i Pujol, “Sant Pere de Camprodon, un monestir de Besalú” in Art i cultura als monestirs del Ripollès (Montserrat 1995), pp. 69-87, which apparently contains a number of things I should have been aware of a while ago but which, I confess, I haven’t seen.

7. CC5 268bis.

8. The precept is edited as, and my translation quoted below is made from, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis per a Catalunya, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-52), 2 vols, Camprodon I.

9. CC5 III.

10. Ava’s gift is CC6 278.

11. CC5 288. This is a good hearing, this one: let me jog your memory… However, it is also a seventeenth-century copy and the copyist doesn’t appear to have been very clear what the names were.

12. CC5 351. This is the point to admit that this is a very odd, and perhaps suspicious document, even before someone added that price: the scribe seems to have deliberately chosen odd vocabulary (that would however be more common in the twelfth century) and it calls Louis IV imperator, all of which seem to me like signs of a later fabrication. The surviving document appears palæographically and physically to be an original, however. It’s good enough for a story at least, but if I were using this for proper publishable work I would be a lot more careful about its narrative.

13. On which see Salrach “El comte Guifré de Besalú i la revolta de 957. Contribució a l’estudi de la noblesa catalana del segle X” in Amics de Besalú i del seu Comtat (edd.), II Assemblea d’Estudis sobre el Comtat de Besalú, pp. 3-36.

14. CC5 365.