Monthly Archives: November 2009

Links of concern

I don’t want to get unnecessarily doom-saying but there’s been a few seriously worrying ideas for the field propounded on the Interweb just lately. The first I noticed was a post at Livius, a blog I didn’t know before but which I was pointed at by this post at Glossographia, explaining that there is good basis to think that most of the misinformation in history and classics is created not by amateur pseudo-scholars but by we ourselves the experts, talking out of our field. Well, this is something I would have to admit to, and this paragraph gave me the guilt chills:

The second consequence of specialization is that no one is sufficiently trained to teach. For example, it can happen that someone who knows everything about the crisis of the third century, must introduce first-year students to the basic outline of ancient history. Because this teacher cannot know everything about every specialization, it is likely that he will offer an outdated account, say, of the Peloponnesian War. Many books written for the larger audience suffer from the same weakness.

More specifically, however, the author points out that while we hide genuine scholarly work behind pay-walls and everything else is flung on the Internet for free, we can’t be surprised if people read what’s there rather than what’s kept from them. Here I think there is a genuine issue, which lies somewhere between revenue protection and gatekeeping, both of which might be necessary (note the lack of indicative there) but neither of which are exactly noble in a discipline that prides itself on promoting free thought. So I would recommend a read of it.

Secondly, you may have seen the plea from Neville of the eponymous Combate for people to get on board a petition that he plugged here to protect the Asturian area of Carondio from development for wind-farms. Now, I recognise that wind-farms are probably most of what is going to be done about renewable energy for the next few years, more’s the pity, and that they therefore have to go somewhere, but, this is not the place. And I don’t just mean because, as Neville believes, there may be a political agenda slighting non-Roman pre-Asturian remains here; I don’t know about that though if the idea intrigues you, this is largely what Neville is combating. I mean because the country’s courts have already decided this development should not go ahead for reasons of the damage to the historical environment, and this verdict is not being enforced and the building work going ahead anyway. So if you feel like interfering in someone else’s country, you’re unlikely to get a more justifiable cause than this. Also, Neville’s choice of illustration for his post is absolutely bloody perfect. So go have a look: the petition text is in English, if that’s what bothering you.

Lastly, is it just me or has this guy’s quite compelling argument about what constitutes modernity just unhinged a good chunk of our commnest arguments about the so-called `relevance’ of the Middle Ages to the modern world? I keep telling people we have to concentrate on the interest value itself… This link via Cliopatria, where some day I’m sure I will have something to add once more.

Nelson & Nicholas I

There is no time for detail right now; I wrote this while trying to catch up after illness and having discovered, only just in time, that I never originally wrote the lecture I was planning to recycle for the week then upcoming. (I have three tight-spaced pages of structure notes that answer a different question to the one I’m now addressing. I don’t remember most of what it was I was getting at. I can’t help but wonder if I did on the day. And what the students understood. I honestly think I have got better at teaching. Anyway.)

So in lieu of actual content, let me register two observations: firstly, that Jinty Nelson’s “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” (in W. Sheils & Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History Vol. 27 (Oxford 1990), pp. 53-78, repr. in Nelson, The Frankish World 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 199-222) is brilliant and especially for successfully negotiating the line between unsustainable and sustainable generalisations, in this case about female literacy but it’s also worth looking at just as a methodological model.

Secondly, that I thought it was impossible that no-one had written anything since the 1890s about Pope Nicholas I, given how he seems to have been successful in almost every argument with kings in his pontificate and also the originator of a number of letters that show he was really interested in making his administration work (saying things that show there were problems, admittedly, like, “I hear you’ve had a letter from me appointing so-and-so archbishop but I didn’t send it so don’t, please send the case to me here and I’ll judge it in person”, but therefore that he is trying to address the problems).1 And, in fact, the learned Magistra et mater has done some digging and come up with a solid half-page of bibliography and more that I will probably never have time to follow up, but alone I could find almost nothing. Regesta Imperii records a book, but it is actually only a dissertation, written thirty years ago.2 (I searched in German too, but apparently I can’t spell ‘Nikolaus’…) However, I know those counter-facts because Google reveals that the author of that dissertation is now Lieutenant-Colonel Professor Jane Carol Bishop (and this is surely more dignities than most of us can ever aspire to have in one name) at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, and she hopes to publish the monographic revision of that thesis some time soon. Well, I hope she does, because as I say, I find it mind-boggling that there is so little work on this period of papal history even with Magistra’s finds, and I would buy this book and then read it, so I would.


1. On which, Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica München, 16.-19. September 1986, III: diplomatische Fälschungen I, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33.iii, pp. 69-113.

2. Jane Carol Bishop, “Pope Nicholas I and the First Age of Papal Independence”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Columbia 1980. (The RI-Opac link given above claims a printing Michigan 1981, but I can’t find any evidence for this elsewhere and the author’s own CV doesn’t say so, so I think it’s pretty OK to disbelieve it.)

If Dr No can think then, dammit, so can I

Cover of Plow Science

Dr No at Acadamnit had a moment of blogular navel-gazing a short while back and encouraged others to join in, and being as I rather enjoy Acadamnit and also have something of a shortage of material just now, I figured I’d bite and do some trumpeting of this blog’s dubious moments of glory. Not least, I thought I owed Dr No some kind of penance for not realising the above image was their own work. So then, the categories.

  • Most Liked Post (by me)
    This is quite tricky. I enjoy most of my writing, but I think if I have to pick one it would be this one. It was occasioned by the publication, without warning, proofs or any chance to update the content, of what might have been my first paper had the relevant journal not sat on it for literally eight years. And they spelt my name wrong, but a friend pointed out that at least that offered the chance of writing a rebuttal to myself. It seemed like too much fun not to try…
  • Most Liked Post (by readers, based on comments or hits)
    As has been complained about before, hits don’t really tell me what they should, because a couple of things I wrote seem to get clobbered by automated queries and image searches to the extent that I really can’t tell if they’re being read or not, but they far exceed anything else on hit count. It’s a pity, because I was really quite proud of the former of them, it was definitely the sort of writing I’d like to produce more often. After them, top post by hits is my little First Crusaders essay, which is good but not really a blog post, and after that we’re into the porn searches (that link goes to me complaining about it, not an example…). Comments isn’t a perfect metric either, because of course I try to reply to everyone, so I make the numbers myself in part, but since no better metric comes to mind, somewhat to my surprise the most commented post so far is this one.
  • Most Memorable Post
    I think it might, for me at least, be this one. This was the first time I’d really tried to set out my stall as someone who could explain scientific work to historians, and I was really proud of the dialogue that developed, and especially that I was just about humble enough to learn from the kind attempts of the authors of the study in question to educate me about maths. I was fairly pleased with having done as well as I had, and felt like I’d done something actually impressive. I don’t know how true that now is, but it sticks.
  • Post Most Indicative of Your Blog Identity?
    I admit that I’m not sure how this one was meant to be read. I think it’s a “does my real-life identity look big in this?” question, but of course whereas Dr No is secretly hidden in an ivory tower defended with sarcasm, cheerleaders and Tesla coils, I never kept my identity secret in the first place. So I guess it’s the one where my presentation as a serious adult broke down most, and that is pretty obviously this one and will, I hope, ever remain so.
  • Most Humorous Post
    Damn, that’s the same one isn’t it? Well, in that case, have a runner-up. This isn’t even mine, really, and the person who let me borrow it was only quoting a medieval source anyway, but it’s still true dammit.
  • Most Regrettable Post?
    This is, to an extent, still to be settled: one day one of my many rants will come back and bite me, and I have many times pulled something back from the brink, and in one case beyond it, because of thinking how I’d deal with meeting its target after they’d found out I wrote that about them. However, there’s still no problem deciding which one I have dithered over most, and though it remains up now I do often wonder whether I ever should have given this much away about myself, especially given how my life subsequently changed to make it largely irrelevant. If that’s a dead link, I chickened out.
  • Most Misunderstood Post
    That’s probably one of the same ones again, but in terms of one where I genuinely had to work hard to avoid a misunderstanding that would have been regrettable, I guess it’s this one.
  • Most Satisfying to Write Post?
    Oh, this one, no contest. I may burn in Hell for it, but it was such a relief to find I could actually articulate the counter-argument rather than just froth uselessly. Fighting language with language, yeah, etc.
  • Most Likely To Never Be Posted Post?
    Well, there have been a bunch of these, and one of the great advantages of the backlog with which this blog usually runs is that if something seems like a bad idea after a week, it’s probably still not reached the ether so I can delete it. But because I do delete the rejects, I can’t remember what they were. More rants, obviously. However, there is a post you can’t see which has been sitting in my drafts folder since a particularly disillusioned point back in August this year. I was out of material and motivation both, the page view figures were slowly but determinedly declining and I was about to say that the blog was going on hold till I felt like a human being with something to contribute to the world again. Within about a week I had some six drafts part-written because I started reading again and suddenly found stuff out, and within a fortnight one of them had been linked by a big blog in the USA and given this little Corner its highest-ever view figures, so I decided that really, a hiatus wasn’t necessary or even likely, and so it has proven. But that draft is still there, containing all my misgivings about blogging, and I hope it’ll never be wanted.
  • Most Important Post?
    Well, it’s a bit cheeky to suggest that anything here is important, but if I have to pick one then I’m going to pick two, a pair that long-term readers will remember because by this time I actually had an audience: a pair of arguments about what historians are actually for in social terms and how we can meet that need.
  • Most *Adjective of Your Choice* Post?
    Well, there’s a bunch I’d like to draw people’s attention to because they show me being properly academic with actual sources and stuff, so I guess the adjective of my choice is “demonstratively scholarly”, which I realise, yes, is far from being one word, let’s move on. Of such posts here the crown is indubitably this one. That, there, is what I want to do with my life, if anyone will let me.

So there you have it. Now, this may look to you like a meme, but it is not, because there was no tagging involved; I just volunteered out of vanity. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone else picking up the idea but there is absolutely no obligation implied by this post. OK? Though I do have one obligation left to discharge: in the comment where I promised Dr No a response, I also promised them an image, an image which struck me on seeing its source as the perfect summary of their blog: so here it is. If you click through you will doubtless see what I mean…

Contains intelligent and well-chosen profanity

Ferdinand Gregorovius: the man on the spot, still?

A conversation with its originator revealed that I had at least slightly misunderstood the intended slant of the lecture for which I was running through stuff on the early medieval papacy a little while ago, which is just as well given how much I managed to find. I assume that the situation is better in non-English languages, not least Italian I suppose, but really, for the tenth and early eleventh century one does struggle a bit. I mean, there’s no separate coverage of the Papacy in the 900-1024 volume of the New Cambridge Medieval History; it’s subsumed into Rosamond McKitterick’s chapter on the Church, but the papacy is also a state, you know?1 There’s Ullmann’s Short History of the Papacy of course, but it is, well, short, basically institutional and far from recent.2 I was at something of a loss and so a learned colleague offered me a strange kind of rescue in the form of a loan of the relevant volumes of Gregorovius’s City of Rome.3

Volumes III and IV.1 of Gregorovius's History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages

Volumes III and IV.1 of Gregorovius's History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages

Now, you will see that though this is longer it is not newer. I didn’t even know it existed in translation, I knew of it merely by repute as the pavement on which subsequent histories have been based. And it is, in translation at least, an easy and entertaining as well as, for the standards of its time, highly erudite, read. (There are a few ambiguous points that make me suspect that in the German it is probably even clearer, as they seem like problems caused by the loss of the ability to inflect.) But oh lor’, it is of its time. Every successful king is brave and chivalrous (yes yes I know we barely have knights yet, maybe this was the translator’s choice), every losing one craven and malign, every woman who features is either meek and pious (if religious and ineffective) or beautiful, cruel, headstrong and ungovernable (if politically active, though all of those except the beauty were, to be fair, probably entry-level requirements for anyone in Roman politics in this era). There are no in-betweens and everything is straight out of a time of heroes and villains in a struggle between civilisation and barbarism. And of course, sometimes there was some truth in that, but with passages like:

Italy [after the death of King Berengar] sank into chaotic anarchy. Throughout the country we see nothing but smoking cities, upon whose ruins the savage Hungarians hold their wild Bacchanalia, the inhabitants flying for refuge to the mountains. We see kings, vassals and bishops struggling for the blood-stained shreds of power, and beautiful laughing women who, like Furies, seem to head the wild procession. Contemporary chronicles or records of immediately succeeding times are so confused as to present but a labyrinth to the student…

you will readily see what I mean.4 This is Old History Writ Large (very large, in fact, the full set is eight volumes in translation, and some of those volumes are in separate parts), and criticism of the sources, rather than of their subjects, is largely lacking. Gregorovius did insert a fair few footnotes where he dealt with conflicting readings of sources by scholars, or with conflicts between the sources themselves, but they never touch the whole “why is the author saying that anyway?” question we try and get through to our students so much: the closest he comes is a short reflection on whether or not Liutprand of Cremona can be trusted for anything.5 It’s that whole paradigm of ‘reliability’, which is a character judgement and not a judgement of information available to the writer or of his motives, about which I could write a whole separate post.

So, why on earth am I bothering? Well, partly because it is to hand and, however dated, fun. But also because as he says, the sources for this period are a labyrinth. And the big virtue of this old book is that Gregorovius sorted them out. At the end of this you feel like you have a chronology, and a grasp on what actually happened. Now, half of what he reports may be made up, because his method was basically to slot things into a chronology like a jigsaw until everything that was known and found `reliable’ was slotted in somewhere. But it’s from there that critique can start. So I see why this has been the foundation of later work. But I think we could really use building a bit more round these parts, by now.


1. Rosamond McKitterick, “The Church” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. III: c. 900-c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 130-162; look in vain for any help in Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy”, ibid. pp. 346-371, though on what it does cover it is a masterpiece of concision and analysis. The previous volume, which was some years prior, did cover the Papacy separately (Thomas F. X. Noble, “The Papacy in the Eight and Ninth Centuries” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 563-586) and I don’t know how they felt that didn’t need doing again, but then, the contents of that volume are one of the very few areas where the late Professor Reuter’s judgement has been called into question.

2. Walter Ullmann, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London 1972, repr. 2003 with introduction by George Garnett).

3. Ferdinand Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter vom V. bis zum XVI. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart 1854-74, repr. Berlin 1889-1903), 4 vols, rev. edn. (München 1978-88); transl. Annie Hamilton as History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages (London 1894-1902), 8 vols in 14, repr. with introduction by David Chambers (New York 2003), 8 vols in 13. Citations here from the original translation, but the new reprint retains the pagination.

4. Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome, III pp. 273-274.

5. Ibid., III p. 249 n. 1; he’s agin’ him. Cf. III p. 250 n. 1: “The Invectiva in Romam relates that John [tenth Pope of that name] usurped the bishopric of Bologna, and reviles him as a Lucifer. The Invective is a production of John’s time, and its words in spite of being inspired by party hate, are not without weight.” Which of course makes it OK! But, in fairness, this is only in a footnote.

Non-medieval exhibition plug

Unused exhibition poster design for A Lifetime of Connoisseurship: Graham Pollard and the Study of the Medal

Unused exhibition poster design for A Lifetime of Connoisseurship: Graham Pollard and the Study of the Medal

My Department have just recently opened a new exhibition commemorating the boss-before-the-boss-before-my-boss, Graham Pollard, who was a connoisseur of and expert in medallic art of the Renaissance. He sadly died two years ago, and his medal collection subsequently came to the Fitzwilliam Museum to join the hundreds of pieces he’d acquired for the museum while he was in charge there. He had started as a Gallery Assistant aged 17 and worked up to become a Keeper, so his really was a museum life and we were all very sad when he died. This has given us an excellent excuse to put out some of the most beautiful things that we hold on display, and if you happen to be in our neighbourhood it’s well worth a look. I’m afraid there’s no online component, nor are most of the pieces in question on our online catalogue as yet, though I hope this will come in due course. But Graham was a really lovely guy and I wish he’d been able to see this; the next best thing would be that lots of other people do.

Brain like an undocumented sponge

More reflections from sanding down the rust patches. Do you ever find, when you come back to re-read something for some purpose or other, that when you read that thing years ago it sank so deep that you basically internalised it and what it taught you is now how you think? The effect of this for me is a disconcerting dejà vu, of suddenly being made to remember that I didn’t figure that out by myself but had to learn, however basic it now seems. Some of these I know. There is, for example, a note in the prelims of the book (how long it seems since I heard anything about that… ) to the effect that I know that I should have cited Wendy Davies’s Small Worlds and Matthew Innes’s State and Society on almost every page, because the one basically built my methodology and the latter my interpretations, but it’s not only impractical to footnote every second thing with “cf. Davies, Small Worlds, passim“, it’s actually very hard to realise when you’re using that particular piece of structure, so well-trodden has it become.1

Cover of Burns (ed.), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought

Cover of Burns (ed.), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought

So a few days ago I was trying to get a grip on the history of the papacy between the Carolingians and the Gregorian Reforms. Being limited to what I had on the shelves at home, because it was the weekend and I was child-minding, I thought the best choice was probably J. H. Burns (ed.), The Cambridge History of Political Thought c. 350-c. 1450 (Cambridge 1988), in which I remembered there being a good article by Jinty Nelson and a piece by Ian Robinson, who has become the spokesman in English for this sort of thing almost by sheer quantity of output.2 And the piece by Jinty is another of those, “Oh! I didn’t realise I’d absorbed this” ones for me, lots of nuancing about Carolingian use of the Church and the ministry of kings that I must, presumably, have read here when I first looked at this as an undergraduate, but which I by now just knew. So all praise to Jinty on that score for this is one mark of a truly effective piece of scholarly writing, I reckon.

Pope Gregory VII deposes King Henry IV of the Germans

Pope Gregory VII deposes King Henry IV of the Germans

The Robinson piece is more problematic for me. It seems to me that it is teleological, not in the logical sense but just in that every subsection (it is masterfully divided) leads to Rome. Several sections my notes almost repeat themselves with a phrase like, “mostly used of bishops (and once of Charlemagne by Alcuin) but of course most of all later by reform papacy”. Which is fine, except that once the reform papacy enters each section there’s no going back. I would like some opposition: Henry IV had no problem raising churchmen who argued against the papal claims using Scripture and political thought, but they’re not accounted for here. And places where I know these answers, the Carolingian arguments, are only sketchily discussed. Jinty has of course already covered some of them but neither of them deal with the divorce of Lothar II, which must be considered in any account of papal-imperial relations surely, if only to emphasise that something did change about how seriously the papacy was taken over the period 750-1150. Also, once you start looking it’s amazing how many of his references are, “Cf….”; it’s as if no-one out there agrees with him so he has to cite his opposition (rather than, too often, the source) and I don’t find it encouraging that he is basically our teaching text. Thank heavens for Ute-Renate Blumenthal, but she can’t save them all by herself.3

The coronation of Emperor Otto III, 999, from a Gospel book made for him

The coronation of Emperor Otto III, 999, from a Gospel book made for him

However, it’s not just Robinson. (Though one of the problems with this theme is that in English, since Cowdrey, it has pretty much been just Robinson. Or am I missing someone obvious?) It sometimes seems that Western medievalists only study the papacy when it’s interfering with or being interfered with by other interests. When the papacy isn’t doing much outside Rome no-one cares, even when, as I’ve remarked, Rome is busy raising its own secular ruler in defiance of an emperor or so on. And there’s so much work on Rome that this is bizarre, but still this strange gap in the tenth century where the entire history of the papacy as far as the textbooks are concerned is basically `what the Ottonians did on their holidays’, even though the papacy is actually becoming more and more of an international focus without even doing very much. If anyone knows what I should be looking at to remedy this, in English or otherwise, I’d be grateful for suggestions.4


1. Referring to W. Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1988) and M. J. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

2. Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and empire” in J. H. Burns (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350-c. 1450 (Cambridge 1988), pp. 211-251, and Ian S. Robinson, “Church and papacy”, ibid. pp. 252-305.

3. Referring to U.-R. Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century , transl. eadem (Philadelphia 1988, repr. 1995).

4. Searching for images has already led me to David A. Warner, “Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 25 (Amsterdam 1999), pp. 1-19, and an entire Spoleto conference, Il Secolo di ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), so I suppose I may have an answer to this already. More still good though!

Recent interdisciplinary symposium and bone churches

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

An impromptu affair occasioned by the presence of the good Dr Rundkvist in the UK for purposes of being amazing, or amazed, or both! And like all proper academics we gathered in a pub to moan about the field and enthuse about each other’s projects. There was also a resolve that this would be properly documented on all three blogs, which will at least make TW post something :-) Martin is way ahead of me though.

Also, while I’ve attracted both of your attentions via pingbacks, you two, and also indeed Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery if I may, what about this article about ‘houses of bones’ in the Czech Republic, which I found via Archaeology in Europe? I mean, this would cause NAGPRA campaigners to choke on their own incredulous disgust, but it’s even a good long way off contemporary practice in Western Europe too innit? All the current debates about the scholarly and artistic use of bodies, from the furore over Gunther Hagens’s Bodyworlds exhibitions to arguments over the reburial of the Anglo-Saxon bodies from that cemetery at Barton-on-Humber a few years back, I don’t think any of them considered anything like this:

The ossuary at Mělník (open daily except Mondays; cost 30 Kč) contains the bones of up to 15,000 people, arranged along the walls of an old crypt beneath the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Skulls are used to create patterns and spell out words – including large letters reading “Ecce Mors,” or “Behold Death.”

I mean, the first ‘teaching point’ I get out of this is that it’s no use talking about Christian attitudes to the dead as if they’re all the same or laid down in Scripture, but I also wonder what we think an appropriate reaction for us as spokespersons for our various ideas of best practice. This seems to me a very alien way of ‘living with the dead‘, but (except for the artwork constructions! and that’s a fairly big ‘except’) it’s also a pragmatic and Roman one, isn’t it? Only this isn’t a Roman zone and the prevailing culture arrived after the collapse of the Empire in the West. They were Christianised from both West and East, but in Germany or in Byzantium burial practices were not like this, were they? I just don’t know whose peculiarity this is and what frame to use to look at it through. But am I just being the naïf Western medievalist here? Because this, this is nothing I recognise:

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

History and hagiography (short book plaudit)

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

A luxury that we don’t often get with the early Middle Ages is being able to contrast two opposing sources. It is kind of the key of how we try to teach students, or at least I would like it to be, but nonetheless it’s rather rare in any situation from our period to be able to clearly define two or more sides to a question and then find sources from those sides. However, sanding down my mental rust patches for the QMUL teaching led me to take a rapid run through Paul Fouracre’s and Richard Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France and somewhat to my surprise that is one of the things it can offer, in the form of two saints lives, that of Leudegar and that of Præjectus, who almost through no fault of their own wound up as leaders of opposing factions at the same royal court in 675, a court which saw the arrest and blinding of one and the murder of his chief ally, a murder for which the other was then blamed and murdered by his opponents when he got home.1 This, when sewn together by the cunning of the editors’ commentary, makes quite a good thing to learn with. I am more convinced than ever that Roger Collins might have been right when, at a legendary seminar held shortly after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, he told us all that that proved what he’d known all along, that the real money was with the Merovingians.

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d\'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t realised how political these saints’ lives could get. I rather like hagiography as a source but I’m too used to Celtic vitae which are most fun because of how crazy their miracles are. With the saints’ lives that Fouracre and Gerberding pick, though, the miracles are almost an afterthought; though the protagonists lead holy lives, they are known as saints mainly because of miracles after their deaths, and their ‘martyrdom’ is not so much explained by their faith but by their being obdurate in the face of entirely worldly opposition. This makes the texts less cult promotion and more efforts of community reconciliation, and they have lots of spiky bits that couldn’t yet be forgotten when they were written. The grit and argument is very well brought out by the editors and the things that they feel the sources show clearly explained. These sources also include a chunk (but not all, as I had somehow come to believe) of the Liber Historiae Francorum, one of the few narrative histories of the pre-royal Carolingians that actually predates their becoming royal, and a largish swathe of the Annales Mettenses priores for contrast, plus Lives of SS Balthild, Audoin, Aunemund, Leudegar, Præjectus, Geretrud and Foillan, all of whose stories touch at points, mostly through the court (e. g. Aunemund is supposedly killed by order of Balthild, Geretrud is daughter of Pippin II). These are largely sympathetically translated—Merovingian Latin is apparently less ornate than Carolingian stuff, which is partly shown by the later Annales included here—and only a few modern idioms jar. The single defect is that the book is plagued with typoes, almost all of which seem to be omitted letters; I don’t know if there was some botched transfer from hard to electronic copy that stripped line ends or something, but it seems to have been something like that. These do not, however, stop this being one of the most interesting and well-presented source volumes I’ve ever used and I only wish it covered more years.2


1. Full citation: Paul Fouracre & Richard A. Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1996); the Passio Leudegarii and Passio Præjecti are pp. 193-300.

2. I think my favourite source-book remains Paul Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1 (Peterborough ON 1994, repr. 2002), because of the huge range of stuff it has in it and the erudite translations, but I realise that this isn’t much use if you’re not studying the Carolingians. Well, you know, why not start?

Bad history done better

Still short on time to generate actual content here, I hope you’ll forgive a second post in a row instead directing you to look at something else; it is good, I assure you. You are, I hope, aware of a column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper by Dr Ben Goldacre called Bad Science, in which he more or less single-handedly tries to take on misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the natural sciences, especially medicine, drugs and clinical trialing, in the media and advertising. (Aha! He is also posting it as a blog. So blogrolled.) It’s a valuable and under-rewarded service, because really I would like there to be a publicly-funded blog or website doing this, a kind of scientific Snopes.com debunking that which needs debunking,* to which people could go and get the, er, straight dope.

Now every now and then I’ve been part of conversations among historians in which someone has said, “We should,” or even, “You should,” with my copious free time no doubt, “start a Bad History site to do the same thing when someone talks rubbish about our stuff!” And well, you know, we do what we can. But, I’m very happy to say (and to thank Bavardess for writing the post by which I learnt it) that rival newspaper The Times has in fact stepped up to this mark with a piece in its Higher Education Supplement by Matthew Reisz, who lately proved so helpful to Terence Kealy in making an ass of himself, in which he gets numerous historians, including some medievalists, to pick a particular mistake they’d like to correct and to ‘get medieval’ on it.** It’s good. Go have a look, and encourage them to do another. Then, if you like (and you should) go have a look at this commentary by Gesta at On Boundaries, who is equally pleased by this turn of events. And meanwhile I must contact Dr Goldacre and see if we can put together a funding bid for the UK Office For Correcting Mistaken Claptrap…


* Hey, Latin? Can I borrow some gerundives of obligation? Yours are so much nicer than ours.

** Yes, that’s right, they assemble a huge council, debate on it in two chambers, one for the laymen and one for the ecclesiastics, submit their findings to the presiding ruler and he issues a proclamation banning all such work from the kingdom.***

*** No, okay, what really happens is, they organise the opening of an IKEA store and then stampede people to death at its doors.****

**** Look, seriously, by now you could have found out the truth for yourself, and Dr Pyrdum wants his footnote style back so I can’t tell you any more.

Can I see it in the daylight? New visualisation technology

[I'm sorry for the blank few days: there was some marking, I was ill, then there was a man wanting something written fast, then another, then a lecture to plan and write and oh yeah, paid work too. However, I am briefly caught up with blogs and this one has already had to be updated once in its draft state, so, have ye at it and more will shortly follow...]

Obviously, with my main job, I do a lot of squinting at inscriptions. We love digital images because they can be enlarged but the problem with them is that you’re stuck with the same image and lighting unless you redo it. The surfaces are always revealed or shadowed in the same way per image, even if you rotate it. So often as not the first thing I do when trying to read a coin is to take it over to the window of our room and look at it under natural light, turning and tipping it to catch different angles. You can’t do that artificially. Until now.

One of the Aramaic tablets from the Persepolis Fort Archive

One of the Aramaic tablets from the Persepolis Fort Archive

A new technique called Polynomial Texture Mapping that’s been pioneered at the Oriental Institute of the University of Southern California is being used there to examine an under-exploited cache of Aramaic tablets from about 500 B. C. E., found at the Persian fortress of Persepolis in 1933. They’re using a variety of techniques to look at these things, including UV and IR imaging, and learning a great deal, as you can see in this article on the University of Chicago website to which I was directed by this post at Michelle Moran’s History Buff, but I was most struck by the possibilities of this scanning technique, which they are justly proud of:

The Polynomial Texture Mapping apparatus looks a bit like a small astronomical observatory, with a cylindrical based topped by a hemispherical dome. The camera takes a set of 32 pictures of each side of the tablet, with each shot lit with a different combination of 32 lights set in the dome. After post-processing, the PTM software application knits these images to allow a viewer sitting at a computer to manipulate the apparent direction, angle and intensity of the light on the object, and to introduce various effects to help with visualization of the surface.

“This means that the scholar isn’t completely dependent on the photographer for what he sees anymore,” said Bruce Zuckerman, Director of the West Semitic Research Project and its online presence, InscriptiFact. “The scholar can pull up an image on the screen and relight an object exactly as he wants to see it. He can look at different parts of the image with different lighting, to cast light and shadow across even the faintest, shallowest marks of a stylus or pen on the surface, and across every detail of a seal impression.”

I mean, obviously, if one’s actually got the object, there will still be some things you can best do by human eye, but if you haven’t, this might reduce that set of things to a very small number. I guess the files would be huge and the software rare, but I hope they try and tackle that as well as using it to deepen readings of things on site, however important that may be. This is a tool to make sources more accessible as well as everything else, if they want. And it looks as if they do:

By 2010, the collaborating teams expect to have high-quality images of 5,000 to 6,000 Persepolis tablets and fragments, and to supplement these with conventional digital images of another 7,000 to 8,000 tablets and fragments. The images will be distributed online as they are processed, along with cataloging and editorial information.

“Thanks to electronic media, we don’t have to cut the parts of the archive up and distribute the pieces among academic specialties,” said Stolper. “We can combine the work of specialists in a way that lets us see the archive as it really was, in its original complexity, as one big thing with many distinct parts.”

Bravo you guys! Vindolanda tablets next? Tablettes Albertini? Visigothic slates? Come on, you know you want to…

Addendum: Michelle also now links to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate talking about a few of the actual things that have been learnt by applying this technique to obscure inscriptions. Some of it sounds marvellous material…