Monthly Archives: March 2010

Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

In praise of the Liber sanctae fidis

I am of course primarily a charter geek, but it’s hard to form much attachment to individual charters. If I had to I’d pick the one that Adam Kosto opens his 2005 Speculum article with, because not only is it nuts, the fact that it still exists is nuts.1 But more on that another time, maybe. The point is that they’re small, so you can’t form much of an attachment to the author or the characters unless they also appear in other charters, so you don’t then get to have a favourite source so much as a favourite scribe.2 What then is my favourite source? Well, teaching reminded me of a very likely contender, so I’ll tell you about it.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

In 1013 a chap called Bernard of Angers made a pilgrimage to a place in the Languedoc called Conques, which he’d been hearing a lot about at Chartres, in whose famous school he was studying. He was determined to find out the truth of these stories, which marks him out as that most unusual of things, a medieval sceptic. And, when he arrived in the Languedoc, and first met its peculiar love of reliquary statues that were carried around like trophies on special occasions, his reactions were everything John Calvin could have wanted:

I also thought this practice seemed perverse and most contrary to Christian law when for the first time I examined the statute of Saint Gerald [presumably of Aurillac] placed above the altar, gloriously fashioned out of the purest gold and the most precious stones…. And soon, smiling at my companion, Bernier—to my shame—I burst forth in Latin with this opinion:
“Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?”
Bernier had already been guided in forming his judgement, so he mocked the statue ingeniously enough, and beneath his praise lay disparagement. And not at all undeservedly, for where the cult of the only high and true God must be practised correctly it seems an impious crime and an absurdity that a plaster or wooden and bronze statue is made, unless it is the crucifix of our Lord…. This incorrect practice has such influence in the places I mentioned earlier [Auvergne, Rouergue and the Toulousain] that, if I had said anything openly then against Saint Gerald’s image, I would probably have been punished as if I had committed a great crime.3

Despite this sceptical attitude, Bernard soon came to make at least one exception to his principles on this account, and he was persuaded to by a twelve-year-old girl with a childish love of jewellery. The specially odd thing about that is that she had been dead for about 600 years and her remains were in one of those statues, she being of course Saint Faith, Sainte Foi or her name in whatever other language you may wish to name her in. And this is the statue.

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Bernard had reason to be dubious, because the saint hadn’t been resident at Conques that long: she was martyred at Agen at the beginning of the fourth century, and her relics had rested there quite peacefully until the monks of Conques, which was a daughter house of a monastery at Figeac and seems to have lacked a saint of its own, stole them in 866. This action more or less had to be, could only be, justified by miracles indicating that the saint was happily channelling God’s will in her new home, but the profusion of these seems to have been enough to set Bernard’s mind a-twitch. After a few months at Conques, however, he was not only convinced, he decided to write them all up, something in which the monks appear to have been happy to entertain him, and the saint also since she carried out a miracle while he was there which he rushed to see (though it is sketchy as all get-out, I tell you, as he never saw the supposedly-blind girl before she was supposedly healed and didn’t know how bad her sight was before).4 Some time later, he came back and wrote up some more, and then there were two separate additions of further miracles by some of the monks, presumably after Bernard was no longer available. Sainte-Foi de Conques was a big pilgrimage church on the route to Santiago de Compostela so the throughput of potential curables was quite high. Like many of the churches on those routes, quite a lot of investment had been put into Conques to make it worth diverting to see, and it still is.

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

So why is this a great source, what makes it any better than the average collection of miracles? Well, a bunch of things, starting with the author.5 Bernard is exactly the guide we need into these cults, because he himself starts from a direction we recognise, that of not believing it (though he was plainly a devout and indeed reformist Christian). By the end he has not only drunk the Communion wine, but is actually the saint’s propagandist; all the same, he retains the outsider’s view of what’s strange and funny that we usually have to assume we’ve lost because the insider doesn’t see it like that. Of course, he travels with his own set of dogmatic and social assumptions, but they are ones that we have a reasonable handle on because of Chartres’s educational system producing quite a number of characterful writers. This means that we get a fascinating and useful account of an area where things were not necessarily like elsewhere in France, full of new castellans, prominent noblewomen and lively saints’ cults. It’s probably no wonder that I first met this source in the writings of Pierre Bonnassie.6

Secondly, it’s funny. Saint Faith seems to have had something of a local reputation for liking a laugh, indeed. In a bizarre picture of what was probably a Peace council to which the reliquary statues of various saints had been brought, Bernard makes it seem like a many-way football match in which his team is first to score when he writes as follows:

The most reverend Arnald, Bishop of Rodez, had convened a synod that was limited to the parishes of his diocese. To this synod the bodies of the saints were conveyed in reliquary boxes or in golden images by various communities of monks or canons. The ranks of saints were arranged in tents and pavilions in the meadow of Saint Felix, which is about a mile from Rodez….

A boy, blind and lame, deaf and mute from birth, had been carried there by his parents and placed close beneath the image [of Saint Faith], which been given an elevated and honourable position. After he had been left about an hour, he merited divine medicine. When he had received the grace of a complete cure, the boy stood up speaking, hearing, seeing, and even walking around happily, for he was no longer lame. And when the common people responded to such an amazing event with uproarious joy, the important people at the council, who were seated together a little farther off, began to ask each other: “Why are those people shouting?”

Countess Bertha replied, “Why else should it be, unless Saint Faith is playing her jokes as usual?”

Then all of them were flooded with both wonder and joy because of the exquisite miracle. They called together the whole assembly to praise God, recalling frequently and with very great pleasures what the respectable lady had said—that Saint Faith was joking.7

Part of the fun here is lost to us, in that Bertha is quoted using a peasant word, joca, for the saint’s jokes, and this seems to have been some of the cause of delight, but of course the main part of the story here, beyond the cure itself, is that Faith’s fame is so widespread and her actions so frequent that when there is a popular clammer, the nobility’s natural assumption, even miles from Conques, is that Faith’s acting up. And she does seem to, and not always completely benevolently. Her main line in miracles as told by Bernard is cures of the sick, yes, but she also quite likes trinkets and jewellery. And if you had one she wanted, she would get it:

A young man called William, a native of Auvergne, was worried about a distressing situation and filled with unbearable anxiety, so he vowed to Saint Faith his best ring, which was set with a brilliant green jasper. Things turned out for him better than he had hoped in the matter, so William went to Conques because he was concerned to fulfil the vow he owed. But when he had approached the sacred majesty, William brought out and presented three gold coins, for he calculated that he should be able to redeem the promised gift with one that was larger even though it was different. When he was already about six miles from Conques on his return journey, William suddenly felt drowsy, so he stretched out on the ground and fell asleep for a little while. He soon awakened, but he didn’t see his ring, which until then he had worn on his finger. Then he searched his companions thoroughly and very closely but he didn’t find it anywhere, and he looked in his own clothing, and found nothing. He even proceeded to untie his belt once more, thinking that chance it might have slipped through an inner fold of his clothing, but there was nothing. What, then, should he do? Downcast and filled with confusion he turned his mount back toward Conques. He returned very quickly to the saint and prostrated himself at the foot of her image. There, in a tearful voice, he complained bitterly about the loss of his ring in this way:

“Oh Saint Faith, why have you taken my ring from me? Give it back to me, I implore you, and be satisfied with receiving the ring as a gift. I will give it to you and won’t think it lost, but rather safe. I have sinned, I confess, I have sinned before God and before you, but, Lady, do not look to my transgression but to the customary compassion of your kindness. Do not cast me, a sinner, into sadness, but forgive and make a gift return with joy.”

While William was constantly repeating these and other similar pleas, he looked to the side. Marvellous to report! but believable to the faithful, he saw his ring lying on the pavement. Immediately he snatched it up and returned it to the holy virgin, rejoicing greatly, and those who were standing there marvelled at the sight, for they saw Saint Faith’s power even in trivial matters.8

You’ll notice that she presumably also kept the money… And the reason her statue is quite so over the top is that when a gift like this was made, of jewellery, it was added to the reliquary, which is why the truly sharp-eyed will see that the left leg of her chair is adorned with, among other things, a nineteenth-century cameo. But this is the sort of personality that comes through, a kind of mostly-benevolent magpie poltergeist with a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of property combined with a compassionate care for the sick. And at this point, if you’re teaching this, you can remind the students that she was after all only a little girl, twelve says the literature, which fits with that relatively nicely, and you can probably get them to talk a little bit about how the saint’s character comes through in the stories. And then at some point you can pass some remark calculated to make them realise that, modern cynics though they may be, somewhere along here, about when they started taking seriously the character of a four-hundred-years-dead child as shown in the supposed supernatural events reported by her supposedly credulous and self-interested publicity merchants, they took the blue pill and briefly joined the saint’s cult, in as much as they believe in her enough to impute characteristics to her. Then, of course, they will likely shake themselves mentally and dismiss it all as fabrication and rationalise it, but for a little while they were travelling with Bernard, in his mindset of an initially-sceptical but finally-enthralled enquirer from outside, and that’s a teaching moment worth many lesser ones. I don’t know how many other sources there might be that can do this, but I am very fond of this one.


1. Referring to Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-96), doc. no. 549 of 990, in which one Ramio guarantees one Juli that he, Ramio, will not prosecute him, Juli, for all the bread and wine he stole from Ramio when they lived together. How this comes to be of any relevance at all to a cathedral archive is beyond my imagining, and Adam’s too, though it might, as I’ve had suggested to me, have had relevance for John Boswell.

2. My favourite scribe would undoubtedly be the judge Bonhom of Barcelona, who was not only legible, but learned, verbose, conscientious and inclined to over-share, so that he, for example, apologises in one signature for the document being a bit wonky because he was sleepy when he wrote it, or explains in another case that he wrote it on two occasions in two different inks. This is really useful to me, even though he was presumably only trying to prevent people suspecting his charters were fake. That, of course, tells us that people were checking such things… For more on Bonhom, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92.

3. The Latin text of one of the versions of the text—it seems to have circulated as booklets, which weren’t always assembled in the same order, which is just one more reason why it’s such a rich source—was printed in Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897), but I’m here using the translation of Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994), which adds various other materials and is much more than just a convenient Englishing. There this extract is cap. I.13. I’ve taken the liberty of converting her spellings to UK English, just because I find it hard not to auto-correct that, and also of leaving Saint Faith’s name in normalised English because otherwise it’s the only one that isn’t.

4. Ibid. I.9.

5. Well, here, starting in fact with the fact that apparently the people at large in Aurillac didn’t understand spoken Latin by 1013. Take that, Patrick Geary! But of course we wouldn’t know that without Bernard having been happy to write about himself and his doubts in this way.

6. P. Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148.

7. Sheingorn, Book of Sainte Foy, cap. I. 28.

8. Ibid., I.21.

Seminary LVIII: how to get carried away in early Frankish marriage

I’ve been out of action so long that Magistra et Mater‘s backlog of posts has begun to catch up on mine! This is often not a bad thing, especially when, as was the case at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 17 February, the matter is medieval marriage, and specifically marriage arising from abduction. The occasion was Sylvie Joye of the Université de Reims speaking to the title “Abduction and elopement in early medieval Europe” and Magistra has done a thorough write-up that I recommend you go and read.

Since Magistra has covered the subject better than I would have I only need to add a few particular things that struck me: firstly, the variety of strategies of which abduction might form part; that legislation over the sixth to tenth centuries about abduction tends to rise, sporadically, as part of a legislative interest in marriage, not independently; the idea that a monastery or nunnery might, in this respect, present themselves in a way analogous to a betrothed partner whose prior claim to the abductee had been infringed; and that the Carolingian period is where the idea that a marriage can be valid even if not consummated begins (and I guess those two things are connected). It also struck me, when Sylvie (who kindly gave me an offprint, full disclosure) answered a question about the disparity of approaches to the problem between Constantine and Justinian, that the rôle of personality does need to come in here. Constantine is not renowned as a family man; Justinian, by the few accounts we have, was devoted to his wife. Do an emperor’s attitudes have to be reflective of wider society, or can they form it? Well, this is a part of a much large question about normative sources and agency I guess, but it’s always useful to recognise it when it looms up I think. Anyway. This was a good paper and I enjoyed it, I shall look out for Sylvie’s work in future.

Links of coolness (mainly featuring death or actual cold, but some brighter)

Well, I’ve been busy for so long that quite a lot of exciting stuff has come out of the ground or otherwise appeared on the web. First and foremost, it would seem that some of the stuff presented at that Bristol conference that I said I wasn’t allowed to talk about has now been released.

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

At the conference they had video from a microcamera intruded into the coffin of this man, who was once Barbarossa’s Chancellor, but hadn’t yet opened it. Now they have, which I learn from this article on The Times‘s website, in case your German’s not up to that first one, and I found the Times one because of this post by Michelle Moran at her History Buff blog. In case you can’t see, he is holding a chalice and a book. Go and look at the pictures! Rarely is a dead body so amazing.

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

So, I said I’d tell you and so I have. But of course just lately most of the focus has been on another set of dead bodies, the fifty-one apparently-Vikings at Weybridge, Dorset. A quick sken at the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog reveals ten separate articles just on the front page and I seem to remember that there were more. Here I think I should give the palm of coverage to my colleague Rory Naismith who has covered it for the Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic’s blog here. If you want an expert’s take, there is one, albeit suitably cautious.

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

One more set of dead bodies with no images as yet, but in some ways more interesting, is a group of female burials that have been found at Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, in Devon. The archæologist in charge, Sam Turner, is saying that this suggests there was a nunnery on the site. I see the reasoning, but I wonder, because of the dating, which from the article in the South Devon Herald Express to which David Beard linked at Archaeology in Europe, which continues invaluable, they say only that the site is at least 1000 years old. I think, reading between the lines, that this is because they have found a church underlying the current ruins, which are Norman (and only this ruined because of a fire in 1992, worse luck), and since those are Norman these must be Saxon. What the relation of the burials to either church is not clear from the short notes in the papers, or whether the bodies themselves have yet been dated, and I’d very much appreciate any further information anyone might have. The reason I’m cautious is that in 1018 there was a monastery, Buckfast Abbey, founded just down the hill from this sight, and so the dating is kind of crucial to work out whether the abbey was replacing a nunnery, moving in alongside, or merely a resumption of monastic life in male reform style on a site where female religious observance had ceased long before. Or, whether they’ve just struck a bit of the graveyard where women were, as these are not the first burials recovered from the churchyard (as you’d expect). So, cart before the archæological horse? Or genuinely archæological evidence of a very late Saxon double monastery? Apart from anything else, I note that in 2005 Andrew Reynolds and Dr Turner published this site as a monastery, so I’d very much like to know what the earlier evidence was, and will keep my eyes and ears open.1 Hey Andrew, you’re not reading are you? (Worth a try…)

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Away from bodies, but back to Vikings, and also relating to arguments that have been had here about our favourite bone of contention, it should be noted if you didn’t—I got it from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe again—that a new temperature index for medieval Greenland has been compiled from sea-shells pulled out of sediment cores, and shows a fairly severe collapse in the temperature in that area in the decades after the settlement of Iceland in c. 890. Of course, I’m more interested in the bit where they say, “winter temperature variability increased between 990 and 1120, a time when written records suggest that crops occasionally failed. By 1250, things heated up again and summer temperatures reached 10 degrees Celsius, possibly the highest in three centuries. Within decades, though, temperatures began to plunge again”, but the reminder that all our temperature data (and this is still true now) is local data first and foremost is salutary, because this is not really what we see in mainland Europe.

Mosaic floor from the Umayyad palace at al-Sinnabra

Likewise about things coming out of the ground, although in a very different area and of very different size (though possibly less significance: think on that, ye mighty…) is this summer palace of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya that Israeli archæologists have located at al-Sinnabra on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. I learn this from News for Medievalists, and I haven’t missed the recent controversy over their content, but this one links to the press release I’ve just linked, so I see no problem with tipping the hat here.2

Then, I’d also like to notice two things that are about texts rather than objects, firstly this excellent article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times about how to archive Salman Rushdie’s computer files, which taps into so much stuff I’ve written here before about digital decay and the need for truly long-term digital preservation strategies, which I was pointed at from Cliopatria, and which contemplates, among other things, preserving the hardware on which the files were used so as to replicate the author’s mise-en-page, which is a wonderful idea. They make mention of a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device at Stanford University, basically a really advanced data recovery machine, and I’m quite glad there is one of those but I think we’ll need more…

And of course, as has correctly been observed by Goblinpaladin at Opinions of a Reformed Dropout, this is approximately the most brilliant thing in the world, a chap called Jackson Crawford who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the story of Star Wars as Old Norse saga, Tattúínárdœla saga. My Old Norse is basically non-existent, and he has provided English translations only reluctantly, but the actual effort of reimagining the characters and storyline into a Viking Age setting is a considerable part of his achievement. I’d say go read it but since he speaks of having 8,000 visitors per day I’d guess you probably already are. Nevertheless, just in case… Ah me how I love the Internet.


1. Andrew Reynolds & Sam Turner, “Discovery of a late Anglo-Saxon monastic site in Devon: Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh” in Archaeology International Vol. 5 no. 8 (London 2005), pp. 22-25.

2. I confess to some slight bemusement at the extent of this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met its operators, but I never thought Medievalists.net was anything other than self-promoting journalism. The selection of articles and the coverage given to fiction has always left that impression on me, and the choice of digitised scholarly work they choose to host also seems to embrace availability rather than discrimination. At least they are now consistently giving links. The whole thing has made me think a lot more carefully about how I use hot-linking, though. It’s always seemed to me a way to pass traffic to a deserving site and notify them that I’d borrowed their image, and the bandwidth implications had never struck me. They probably don’t arise with the number of visitors I get here, but all the same, and because often hot-linked images disappear, I should rethink that. Any thoughts from people I’ve linked to?

Musical Catalan frontiersmen

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

One of the more important documents for what I work on is the 889 act of consecration of the church that underlies the one in this picture, which is Sant Andreu de Tona, on a big hill a few miles south of Vic in Catalonia. It’s important to me for a bunch of reasons, all of which are discussed in various print things I have forthcoming (he insists lamely),1 but which could be listed briefly as: the community was at that point outside the boundaries of regular authority, and though the bishop apparently came out to see them the area then disappears from the record for thirty or more years; the probably late-Antique tower that stands by the church appears to have guarded a late antique burial ground; Romanised titles and personal names are used in the charter of the consecration, which is a surviving original by a scribe who otherwise didn’t use those; a man called Centuri was present who appears to have been the father of a judge of the same name who later appears only at occasions when big fiscal estates were being passed into private or ecclesiastical hands by the counts; and, the people of the place also still remember this and a memorial stands on the hill which I have been and seen.

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

I’ve said all this before, of course, but recently re-reading the text of the document I was reminded that the document is also important for a whole separate branch of academia, early musicology. No, seriously, this charter is weird in more than one way. Head of the actors and the donors is another son of this Centuri guy, a priest by the name of Albaro, and he gave, I quote: “calicem et patenam, missalem, lectianarium et organum, casullam, alba et stola“, or in translation, “a chalice and paten, a Missal, a Lectionary and an organ, an alb and a stole”.2 To which, the reaction of the McKitterick-trained student that I am was roughly, “Hey, that’s a couple of expensive books there, these guys must be relatively rich, and all this way into the badlands, what on earth are they farming? Hmm. WAIT, DID THAT SAY AN ORGAN?” And I hope yours was similar. The trouble with this is that the scholars who are interested in early musical instruments are less interested in how much in the back of beyond little Tona was at this point, and how unlikely it is that they had something that’s otherwise not documented in the whole area for nearly a century.3 A more jaundiced and cynical viewpoint suggests that, given it’s part of a clause about books, what is probably meant is not organum but ordinem, so that it would be a liturgical Ordo, which would be paralleled from other consecrations in the area.4 But still, these are two words you would have thought were hard to confuse, Athanagild the scribe knew his Latin, it’s the original document and everyone who’s edited it agrees that’s what it says, so it is still odd. Especially since the music is not yet over…

Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

No indeed. Because the last clause of the document, not that you can really see it in this enlargement of a tiny illustration which is all I currently have of it, is a snatch of an antiphon, and it’s marked up in neumes for singing. Some of the more liturgically-minded scholars out there may recognise it: “Surgite, sancti, de abitationibus vestris, loca sanctificate et plebem benedicite et nos homines peccatores in pace custodite“, loosely translating as “Rise, o ye saints, from your dwellings, sanctify the place and bless the people and keep ye us sinful men in peace”. This document is apparently one of the earliest examples there is of ‘Catalano-narbonese’ neumes.5 There isn’t another consecration with stuff like this on it known from this area. And this brings to mind something that I only recently learnt, that the term organum later comes to mean polyphonic singing, as distinct from plainsong you see.6 But what would that mean in this context? A text containing pieces of music marked up for polyphonic singing? Or a manual of how to do it? In either case, I don’t think there’s any such manuscript now known, and it becomes very hard to explain that the antiphon on the charter is marked up only for plainsong if that was something in which the local singers, of whom there seem to have been at least one, were interested. And the next time the word turns up in the general area, at the 972 consecration of the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, it’s more clearly the instrument: “vociferant enim sacerdotes… organumque procul diffundebat sonus ab atrio laudantes et benedicentes Dominum”, ‘for the priests cried out loudly… and some way off the organ spread sound from the atrium, praising and blessing the Lord’.7 (I suppose there’s no reason why it couldn’t be two choirs operating simultaneously in different modes but firstly, that would sound horrid, and secondly if the organum was mobile, why would it not be moved closer to the priests?)

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

So. We know really very little about ninth-century Tona but every little thing there is makes me wonder who on earth they thought they were there and how they’d managed to develop that impression of themselves. And, of course, whether anyone else out there was just as supposedly precocious or backward-looking. And occasionally it makes me wonder whether maybe they really could actually have had an organ in their tiny stone church on top of that weird sticky-up hill in the middle of a plain miles into the terra de ningú.


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming); Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), on the pair of which this paragraph rests and where the references it implies can some day be found.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrica-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. 9, with references to earlier editions, of which Manuel Rovira i Solà, “L’acta de consagració i dotació de l’església del castell de Tona” in Quadern d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1980), pp. 25-29, has a facsimile.

3. Joaquim Garrigosa i Massona, “L’acta de consagració de l’església del castell de Tona i la seva importància musical” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Tona 889-1989. Mil cent anys de història (Tona 1989), and M. Carmen Gómez Muntané, “La Cataluña carolingia: de musica y liturgia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del rom´nico (siglos IX y X), pp. 135-138, transl. as “Carolingian Catalonia: music and liturgy”, ibid. pp. 487-489, both accept the text, uncritically or with a nod to the alternative mentioned below, respectively.

4. This alternative propounded in Rovira, “L’acta”, and Laura de Castellet, “Un orgue romànic a Sant Benet de Bages” in Butlletí dels Amics de l’Art Romànic del Bages no. 153 (Manresa 2008), pp. 3-9 at p. 4.

5. Gómez, “Cataluña carolingia”, pp. 136-137; facsimile here taken from p. 136.

6. So says R. N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Manchester 1999), p. 183 where he adds that the practice is known back to the ninth century. The source of this contention, to judge from the relevant part of his bibliography (ibid., pp. 224-225) is Leo Treitler, “Oral, Written, and Literate Process in the Transmission of Medieval Music” in Speculum Vol. 56 (Cambridge 1981), pp. 471-491, where the chronology is indeed thus set out at p. 474, though he is only really concerned with books. As far as I can see, however, he says nothing about polyphony, so I don’t know where Swanson had that from.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1127, an especially exaggerated and splendidly-phrased act with several embedded micro-narratives in it. It is quoted without reference to whatever earlier edition (there are several) she was using by Gómez, “Cataluña carolingia”, p. 137, whence quoted here. See there and also de Castellet, “Un orgue romànic”, for musicologists’ perspectives.

3756 more Chinese coins than before

Square-shoulder hollow-handled spade coin of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, between 650 and 400 BC, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.451-1999

Square-shoulder hollow-handled spade coin of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, between 650 and 400 BC, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.451-1999

We were working on this one so long that now it’s finally done I’m mentioning it almost everywhere: my Department just put the vast bulk of our collection of Chinese coins online. There are certainly better collections than ours out there, but as far as we know ours is the only one of this size available online. Most Chinese coins are, to the non-expert, all a bit of a muchness, being round with four pictograms disposed around a square hole on one side and two (or sometimes four) on the reverse. They’ve looked the same for centuries. But this collection also includes the weirder early stuff, some of the earliest money there is, tokens in the shape of knives or spades, copies of cowrie shells in jade, clay and bone, and also a continuous run of coins for two millennia. And some of them are even tenth-century! So I mention it in case this might be a thing you would be interested by. And your European medieval stuff will resume next post.

From the sources V: Bede’s letter to Egbert

Apropos of putting together a lecture on medieval monasticism I was reminded of something that has before struck me as surprising, that there is not very obviously a translation online of Bede’s letter to Bishop Egbert of York. If you only know Bede by the fairly serene and edificatory Ecclesiastical History (though that is, you should be aware, only a fraction of his work) you might be surprised by the realist and angry moraliser that seems to have written this text, and it’s a really useful source for things that can get deformed in a convert Church, and, therefore, for what those who later wished to reform might be upset about. It’s quite odd that it’s not on dozens of sites already. Now, it’s in the Collins & McClure translation of the Ecclesiastical History as an appendix, and when you search the web for the text that’s what you get, lots of places trying to sell you the book. Many people have probably met it there, but it’s not online, at least not wholly, and the fact that that translation is very much in copyright (and also the fact that Professor Collins lives on his publishing revenue so I’ve no wish to diminish it) means I don’t want to snag that. Instead, after a bit of digging around for older editions, I discovered that the translation, and indeed the edition should you want it, of J. A. Giles is in the Internet Archive (which is, let’s remember, your open-access Google Books alternative, which many people think we need). But, it’s a quality old book with explanatory notes in the margins and repeated headwords and so on, and these things have badly confused the Internet Archive’s OCR (though the PDF versions are fine). In any case, it’s not coming up very high in the searches, so I’ve grabbed the translation of the letter and cleaned it up for HTML, and I post it below the cut.1 It’s not exactly modern English (words like ‘Israelitish’ and ‘laics’ may delight me more than you) but it’s there and gives you the idea.

Pen portrait of Bede from a manuscript of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Pen portrait of Bede from a manuscript of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

I use a cut because it goes on for a bit and maybe some of you don’t immediately feel an interest. For those who want more reason to read it, I offer you one of those coincidences that blogging seems to make more frequent, I mean obvious. Having just loaded the bit in Bede’s letter about how these darn false monasteries are sapping the kingdom’s military strength into the week’s handout, I turned to a book I was reading for something else entirely, but by coincidence the relevant paper was also about early monasticism, this time in Bética in Spain under the ægis of Fructuosus of Braga. And the author I was reading, José Orlandis, notes that Fructuosus’s hagiographer claims that Fructuosus converted some many people in Bética to the monastic life, “that the duces of the army were given over to fear that the crowds of monks forming were so formidable, that there was a consequent danger to military recruitment —non esset qui in expeditione publica profisceretur.”4

For Orlandis, this was an example of the hagiographer’s style, “tal vez hiperbólico”, but if you’ve looked under the cut you’ll see that Bede thought it was a genuine concern. I know Bede used Isidore but I don’t know of any sign that he knew of the Vita Sancti Fructuosi—others reading may know better of course— and in any case it seems an odd thing for him to have done, to invoke a literary allusion in a letter which purports to be about an immediate political problem. If Egbert knew this wasn’t really some kind of issue the rest of the advice would be weakened by it. So I tend to think that Bede might confirm this issue in Bética, rather than derive from it. It’s interesting either way, though, isn’t it? Well, I think so anyway. It seems to suggest a very small military group in these kingdoms, and that they might be as tempted by a monastic lifestyle as a military one. I’m reminded of the bit in Gesta Tancredi where Ralph of Caen depicts Tancred, before hearing about the First Crusade, as being faced with only these two alternatives. How old is that choice, do you reckon? Perhaps, as with many things, not just new after the year 1000… ? (Here: that doesn’t seem to be online, either. I’m sure I’ve seen that online. Well, maybe that’s next then… )

I should also say that, because this series is in danger of being lost in the wash of the blog, I’ve started another index page for these posts where I transcribe source material, and you can see it listed at the top I hope. Anyway, here is the actual source for this one: Continue reading

I want to use this for all my teaching from now on

The Hoernersburg LEGO Castle

The Hoernersburg LEGO Castle

The only problem is that I would fear for future students starting to cite it. But seriously, I was trying to websearch up an illustration of a monastic refectory and could find nothing more illustrative on the web than this:

Refectory of the Augustinian monastery of the Nativity, Hoernersburg

Refectory of the Augustinian monastery of the Nativity, Hoernersburg

Because actually that is quite good, albeit not strictly contemporary I grant you. The whole site is very much worth a look; they’ve got a castle, a cathedral, a monastery and a small town and the detail (as well the scale of conception) is incredible. We might, mildly, wonder whether we can wholly endorse a castle that includes an alchemist’s laboratory (I mean, shurely it would be called a workshop or studio…) but since it also includes a LEGO cesspit I think that, really, we can. And really there is hours’ worth of boggling at determination and detail to be done here if you’re so minded. I still might not direct the students here (though I gather that some are reading, hi there) but as far as fun with medievalism goes this is top-notch.

Boat travelling up river at Hoernersburg

Boat travelling up river at Hoernersburg

Sometimes the patriarchal equilibrium was soluble in money

The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet, Catalonia

The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet, Catalonia, from Spanish Wikipedia

Another wry example from the work of José Orlandis, which it may be simplest just to translate as it’s already quite brief. It comes from a lengthy article—I would guess his thesis—about most aspects of how laypersons in Christian medieval Spain related to monasteries as shown by the pacts of familiaritas they made with them, where he observed that this almost always assured the pacting layperson of burial within the monastic grounds, unless, sometimes, that pacting layperson were a woman:

The normal case was, by and large, that sex did not influence these effects at all and that female familiars of male communities would find a place of burial in their houses. But exceptions present themselves. On the 1st December 1187 there were received as familiars of the [Cistercian] monastery of Poblet Bonet Cerdan and his wife Adelaide;1 the document displays the ordinary characteristics, except in the matters relative to the burial of the woman. On this point there was established an exception, which, however, was apparently presented as usual practice among the Cistercians: the woman would participate, like the husband, in all the spiritual benefits, in life, and of the accustomed supports, at her death; but only the husband would be able to be buried in Poblet, quia prohibetur in ordine nostro mulieres ad sepulturam non recipere 165. This seems strange, in view of this, that twelve years later, in 1199, and in an analogous case, the abbot of the same monastery of Poblet conceded burial, without alluding either to difficulties or impediments, to A. de Prades and his wife: te et uxorem tuam ad sepulturam iuxta formam ordinis recepimus 166. The contradiction is patent and it may be that it is best explained by a change of criterion or, indeed, because the spouses to whom the second document refers would have merited a better reception because of being great benefactors of the house, as is indicated by the importance – a thousand sueldos – of the donation that they made.2


165.    Poblet, p. 42, doc. no. 76…3
166.    Poblet, p. 94, doc. no. 161, of 30 November 1199…3

If ever there were a case of one Rule for the rich, one Rule for the rest, this would seem to be it…


1. There are in fact some medieval Catalan women recorded who weren’t called Adelaide, but I realise that this isn’t often obvious from this blog’s pages.

2. J. Orlandis Rovira, “Traditio corporis et animae: la familiaritas en las iglesias y monasterios españoles en la alta edad media” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 24 (Madrid 1954), pp. 95-280, repr. in J. Orlandis, Estudios sobre instituciones monásticas medievales (Pamplona 1971), pp. 216-378, at pp. 293-294 of the reprint.

3. The edition that Orlandis was referring to was Joan Pons i Marqués (ed.), Cartulari de Poblet: edició del manuscrit de Tarragona (Barcelona 1938), though you wouldn’t be able to find it from his citation without the aid of previous knowledge or the Internet (of which I had both); Orlandis reprinted full texts from there but I haven’t, partly because you can almost certainly get Orlandis if you need these, and mostly because I don’t want to type them out just now. Note that Agustí Altisent i Altisent’s new edition of the Poblet documents never got this far so Orlandis’s text is the most recent publication.

The worst kind of interruption

This is not an automatic post, this is as the title describes. A woman I knew died today. She was one of the ones we didn’t want to lose. She never published the below as far as I know—where on earth would you? I don’t know if it was even finished—and I think that was a shame. I think she’d probably have forgiven me for doing it for her, and if she might take offence, quod absit, I would tell her that it is because I want other people to recognise that we’re the poorer without her now, if I only could tell her.

It’s long. I don’t care and I hope you won’t.

Historica irreverentia

Like all things that live, languages evolve.
Words are born, reworked, remade, and dissolve.
Sing, Savage! harsh fire forged words clumsy
Und archaic, complex because unrefined:
Thick tongued scald in rough furs; rotten teeth:
He who sang song when Hengest sailed Swan’s Way,
Broke with magic British blades at fated Mons,
The bear wolf’s legacy: Britannia delenda.
Saxons, gray Woden’s sons, rule the ruins
In Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Mercia.
A rough roll like oars they speak: Sea rhythm.
Then angle angels urged the Latin north,
Crude Kings convert; the cross, Christ, reign restored.
Written word undermines original form.
Gloriam en excelsis Deo Roma.
Alfred, sweet Alfred, St. Alfred: He reigns.
(And it rains, it rains, it rains, oh it rains)
The kingdom unites, fights, thwarts pagan Danes.
Then Christian Dane, Confession, a last lone herald.
When Northman of France, surly brute barons his host,
Hastening after the doomed herald,
Takes the land, makes himself lord.
Writes up for taxes a domesday book.
Le roi: Je ne parle pas anglais.
Je deteste la lingua de l’angletterre.
E por um cen anos, anglais e fim.
Ivanhoe, who can know, robbing who’d dare
Cross the Saxon forest, merry made fair
In the sheer wood for rest, robin’s gay song.

Then troubadours, then April shoots.
Songs and midterm unrestrained.
Ballyoke end brickhaven forswore
Brooch ballybeg shitten nos hauses flur.
Lo Malory, lo frog, lo cult, lo sooth, forsooth,
Choose her to forceth the way, they write, aye,
nat und die, nat und die, hey nonny nonny.
Roi frogs are Throne, queer Lyon; Fool
John ‘lows “bar bar” barons t’cart him
Off the throne: No more French, “bar bars” the sound!
Christ’s swounds, Black Prince a tuppence, sack
Heaved forth from Poitiers vincas: Rank smells.
Brook bally beg shitten hon hauses flur.
A sheerer shooteth forth fresh arrows in a reel:
Coz he wins his suite agin en cort,
La guerra, Prince Hal on honeymoon
Rides a french phile, gallops her right good.

E Henri e Henri e Henri end
Henry Und Henry and Henry and
End Henry: To dare through perlous Roses ran,
son bulloxing a primate. At last. Rebirth.

Reaction: Construction like court ritual bound
The words, that’s the way, we PROTEST!
Marchon, iamb angry in my ire,
Papists, Puritans, art punks: Give
Me a muse to fire the brands, the blades:
Bloody Mary, not quite a drink, dungeons loves.
Faery Queen, Virgin Mean, Elizabeth, dodges loves.
Shake spears against the damned balladeers
Dragon sea men, armed ah mite moor, the
Damned diego drive by petulant wind
Making safe the nation of shopkeepers,
And preserves in violence, love, lovely,
Our beloved bard: Belittles the law courts
A bugger, shylock, o is he, fixer
Of the tongue, his pen a soldier’s nail, like
An impious wretch publicly punished.
And James, damned James, witch crazed
Scotsman, poser, posits a new Bible,
The King James edition, confusion:
“Aye, but no mur Romish confession.”
Bad translations, tis all; damned Puritans
Making for a crazy britches broil, boil.

On Johnson: On Donne: Then Royal Victims.
Ship tax! Shit tax! Parles Parliament.
Long hairs beware, frog infected chevalier!
Draw muskets, crack cannon: Barroom! Brawl!
Ironsides, horse’s ass, he taketh all.
O Charles, you jest last yer bloomin’ hed!
Bloody right – Write on – Come Cromwell:
Bloody hell: Well. Rape our land, ire: Suggest:
Make those damned Scotsmen our unwelcome guests.
Restore amor, the petty bard, the lecher pard:
Jacobites, Jackasses, Mary men, all.
And oh geez, oh geez, come: Whose on their knees?
Und nein, und nein, we’ll then hector George
After that wooden shooed bitch of Orange
Und Hanover the throne to beer bellies,
A flatulent Konig de Grosser, nein!

Und Jorg und Jorge and George -
Sharp, sharp, the King, the King.
Through popes swift de nasty runs over,
Novel monarch absolute, “de foe,” overcomes;
de massa ez her – de slaves, slaves afar
Porch nickers and tae makers, Jimstown boys.
Hellfire and Brimstone: John Edwards bitches abroad
While the Prince wails a new booty: wine bottles
To keep count of conquests, our noble knight,
Planting the Royal Standard, England’s Pride,
In virgin dark territories: Empire!
Impale: that vaunted club of great nations.
‘Tis a lecherous age: Sin the reward
And the wage: the new capitalist age.
Whigs and damned torries scream, shout –
Billy Pitt, bully pit – they sing right loud:
Damn war, injuns, hindoos, frogs, paddies, shit!
Charlie pissed in the paddie, but not
The Apocalpyse Now paddie, crikey!
Wrong country, wrong century, wrong Charlie.
Lie down, croppies, lie down, damned papist pigs!

And in Nord Amerigo, planters,
Puritans, rednecks, roughnecks, denial boones,
Revolt, rebirth, 1760’s spirit.
Ma monees ma own, niggaz stoln far en
Squar – they cotton rail fast, so says
The cracker Carolina don…
Right so, says the merchantman cross clasper,
Rum dealers, rum deal: England Raw!
Raw makes war, the Rock (Plymouth) would shore know!
And those vagabond shoes start walkin’ tall,
Frozen Bluecher’s bastards, blue coats valley,
Forge on a nation, niggers redmen beddammed.
Frankly: Fuck off, for all Congress would care.
Makin’ ‘Mericans, no niggers need apply…
To spite a Mad German’s royal eye.
Washing done: Ah do declare, ma teeth done
Went and rot out on mae. Gawdammit.
Guess ah’ll be pater por ma new cunt tree.
Constitutional games are the rage,
Strange Speakers and Misters strut the new stage.
Ogle on the dollar, the seal, no cross.
To think it might have been a dammed turkey.
Oh imperial clucker, gobble all
And well this new amerigo round,
From sure to shining sure, complacent
In the many fast destinies of
A swindling crew who never knew dolors
That they might not take or screw.

Interlude

And here the parle’s parse, divide, separate
Across the green Atlantic Divide
Which Melville’s Great White Dick will fiercley ride,
Chasing after Hawthorne’s Puritan hide.
While Nelson and Napoleon get cross.
Coleridge, Wordsworth, smoke opium with pride,
Kooky khans all, romans, prudence, condemned.
Emerson! emerson! The water’s fine!
Po’ man in the south, raven rabies mad.
There’s more to go, trans zen dance; the wide world.

Amerigo Round

And Loose Anne, Jeff bought her sweet valleys cheap,
Though he dunks “denuts en dark coffee” with sweet
Sassy Sally Hemings, hemming, hoing:
Ain’t no thing but the chickenwing.
No more grits, no more chittlins for her an
Them creme kolor chilluns, they had good food,
For Sally learned to eat some lean white meat.

(Elise White, 5 March 2001. RIP.)