Monthly Archives: May 2010

Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

When the first e-mail on two successive days has to be an apology for something that went on the blog the day before, which you then have to edit, and you’re getting people’s names wrong in comments, many would advise that you should step away from the keyboard for a short while and get some sleep. I heard this advice “that I giv’ meself”, but I have so much stuff to write up… So let’s see if I can recover some generosity of spirit and discretion of approach with a seminar write-up, to wit, John Blair presenting to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title “Can we know anything about the beliefs of the laity in pre-Christian and early Christian England?” on 27th April just gone.

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Blair started by asking, as a framing question, whether we can say what was in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon convert to Christianity. There are of course Bede’s famous exempla, the sparrow flying through the hall and so forth, but Blair wanted to use archæological and anthropological evidence to put flesh on the bones, or in some cases add bones to the flesh I suppose. Starting with pre-Christian beliefs, he was suitably circumspect but pointed out the pronounced focus on animals in ritual and art from that period, especially animals fighting each other, birds and snakes, birds and fish, zoomorphs at each others’ necks, etc., which he suggested might be good and bad principles of violence locked in combat, and also their presence in ritual deposits.1 (This included a nice instance from the letters of Saint Boniface condemning interlace, the same sort of interlace perhaps that has been found carved into the portals at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, indicating that views differed.) The animal focus led him to parallels with shamanic religions still or recently recorded, though he stressed firstly that the parallels are inexact, and secondly that those religions are (as m’colleague T’anta Wawa would doubtless insist) much altered by exposure to modern society, his example being a Mongolian (I think) shaman woman photographed rolling up to a ritual in the 1960s in her chauffeur-driven car. All the same, the idea of mediating supernatural forces expressed as animals may provide a parallel.

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

He next spoke about shrines, of which we know very few, and which may have been solely vegetational in many cases, but he suggested that there was an increasing trend to monumentalisation by 600 or so, barrows, burials, cairns and so on, and also to development of complex sites, such as Yeavering, as well as the adaptation of older monuments like Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows.2 This, to me, sounded very much like what Martin Carver‘s been saying about Sutton Hoo since the early 1990s and it was odd not to hear him name-checked; certainly the same idea came up, that this might be a reaction to an incoming, coherent and monumentalising Christianity.3 Another change that Blair highlighted from this same sort of time was an increased manufacture of amulets (though this bothered me: surely the evidence is of increased survival, which isn’t the same thing) and a shift in the amulets’ cores from carnivore teeth to beaver teeth, especially in women’s graves.4 This struck me as really interesting, but mainly because while apparently demonstrable it seems almost inexplicable in any terms we can so far reach. It does illustrate that there is source material for beliefs in this kind of study, though. Some of these amulets are Christian, too, as demonstrated by Scriptural inscriptions in them, and here of course obvious parallels came from the Staffordshire Hoard’s gold strip.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

The next section of the talk focused on Viking evidence, for which Blair relied pretty much on Neil Price‘s book The Viking Way; this seems well-regarded, but I hadn’t heard of it before, I must fix this.5 From that Blair drew us a picture of women seers, women authoritative within the household; if this went for pagan Anglo-Saxon England too, Blair wondered, how does this affect convert-period monasticism? He mentioned double monasteries under women like Barking Abbey, but one could also think to Bede’s Letter to Egbert about family monasteries, and that would seem to support this picture less well.6 The possible rôle of some women as mediators with the supernatural however had a darker side, as revealed in burials that contained bodies bound up so as to be unable to walk, staked through the heart and so on.7 He drew a parallel between these bodies that, it was apparently feared, would not die properly, and the incorrupt bodies of some saints, in particular two roughly contemporary cases, none other than St Æthelthryth of Ely, found incorrupt at translation with great celebrations huzzah huzzah &c., and a 12-year-old girl put into a barrow at a cemetery of the same period just down the road, on the perimeter of whose attendant burials was a decapitated disjointed woman whose legs had been tied and who had been buried with a load of amulets, the disjuncture apparently having happened after she’d been in the grave some time.8 There is a reasonable if small literature about such ‘walking dead’, of course, to which Blair himself has just contributed, but the parallels with Audrey would never have struck me otherwise, and as he said, there would have been people in Ely who were aware of both exhumations.9

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003; the webpage insists this isn't a deviant burial, and it's centuries too early, but by gosh it looks the part

Words like ‘witch’ and ‘vampire’ are of course hanging all round this, and shouldn’t really be used because they only get defined in the way we now understand them in the sixteenth century, and it’s not clear that we’re talking about any of the same complex of beliefs here, even if there is a clear relation. It is however clear in the evidence that most of these burials, not all but most of those where it can be checked, were young women. This, as with the beaver teeth, seems to me to be real evidence of something of which we haven’t yet got clear sight. The other thing, though, is that they increase in incidence at about the same period as the other changes Blair had focussed on, monumentalisation, ‘beaverisation’, and so on. Blair’s overall picture, then, was that in the conversion period disruption to earlier religious practice, most specifically burial, rises towards the end of the seventh century and reaches a peak, after which it almost disappears. A scholar called Dunn, whose work I don’t know, apparently suggests that this may be related to the plague of those decades,10 but Blair adduced parallels from anthropological work in Greece where the cause of upset was changes to family structure, because a lot of importance was placed on the flow of blood within families and that was now being constrained. In Anglo-Saxon England the result of this pressure, on whatever we choose to blame it, seems to have been manifested as fears about the dead, which could obviously be tied up with ideas of resurrection in the body and so on but might have equally been a crystallisation of non-Christian belief needing to make itself evident, if Carver be followed. Interesting stuff! And it will be really interesting to see how far Blair can make this stuff go, because after reading Nancy Caciola’s article I would have said there was little more that could be done. In fact, it would seem that, as I should maybe already have known from Andrew Reynolds’s new book that I haven’t yet had time to read,11 the answers may yet lie in the soil…

1. Blair’s cite for this, which I crib from his really useful bibliography handout, was Tania M. Dickinson, “Symbols of Protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 49 (London 2005), pp. 192-239.

2. Blair’s handout suggests that we should read J. Blair, “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and their Prototypes” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 8 (Oxford 1995), pp. 1-28. All I know about Yeavering, meanwhile, I got from the original excavation report, Brian Hope-Taylor’s Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), but a recent conversation at Heavenfield alerts me to the fact that there is more recent work, though I don’t know what to recommend from it. Michelle may be able to add more…

3. Most obviously in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998, repr. 2000, 2005), but there is a swathe more indexed here along with some classic pictures of the man himself through the ages.

4. Blair cited Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 96 (Oxford 1981).

5. Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford 2002), currently being revised after at least some critical adulation, or so it seems from this page.

6. Bede’s harangue about false monasteries does seem to include some that were occupied by members of both sexes, indeed by married couples, but there’s nothing in it that seems to me to justify any idea that women ruled these mixed communities; he sees them as entirely secular ventures of implicitly male landholders (Bede, Letter to Egbert, cc. 12-15).

7. Here Blair’s cite was himself, J. Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-559. I do wish Patrick could have seen some of this stuff.

8. Published by Sam Lucy, Richard Newman, Natasha Dodwell, Catherine Hills, Michiel Dekker, Tamsin O’Connell, Ian Riddler and Penelope Walton Rogers, “The Burial of a Princess? The Later Seventh-Century Cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 89 (London 2009), pp. 81-141, the ‘princess’ in the barrow pp. 84-91 and the teenage vampiredeviant pp. 91-94. Told you this bibliography was good!

9. I would first think, always, of Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here, but see now also Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, obviously. Caciola’s article also uses lots of juicy evidence from the Continent.

10. Blair’s bibliography gives this as M. Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons (2009), and full details appear to be Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. 597-c. 700: discourses of life, death and afterlife (London 2009), as you can see from this review by Barbara Yorke at Reviews in History, where the work is called “erudite, but sometimes controversial”.

11. Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford 2009), which is one of the few things not in the bibliography.

This is not a terribly good day for medieval studies


There was a post here, to which some people had already responded, about the results of the consultation process over cutbacks in the Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, discussed here before. I’ve since been informed that my information was incomplete and I’ve thought it best to take the post down. As Bede had it, “quid de his scribi debeat, quemve habiturum sint finem singula, necdum sciri valeat” (HEGA V.23), a maxim that I ought to hold to more often. My apologies to the commentators.

This blog has teetered too close to gossip and unpleasantness at several points this last few weeks. I ought to know better than to put content up that I can’t safely footnote. I am going to aim for more strictly academic content from here on and leave that stuff to other places.

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

This is how we keep the gates, keep the gates, keep the gates

I don’t want to attempt to diagnose the processes behind this, but you will able to guess from my comment what I think is wrong with it, if that remains. Mind you, the worst instance of this I ever heard of was another institution in Cambridge that shall remain nameless whose entire application instructions for a research fellowship were, in totality and without omission: “To apply, send the usual materials to [address] by [date],” which is a gem I’m sure you’ll agree. I tend to blame these things on thoughtless insularity rather than malice aforethought, but they are more common than they should be, i. e. they exist.

[Edit: I should add, as I have been reminded, that the Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic Department actually has a commendable and demonstrable track record in hiring from outside Cambridge and non-traditional backgrounds, and clarify that this post was solely meant to call out an administrative infelicity, not to attack the blogger's personal attitudes to it.]

Occasionally I work with manuscripts

I realise that all the cool kids are writing their Kalamazoo reports, and I will also get on to that some day soon. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t put six hours in today, on jetlag amounts of sleep, on the notes of the book whilst being harassed by editors who’ve missed their deadlines. No, sorry: nothing beats the book at this stage. Except perhaps some blog. I had about seven posts I wanted to write as well as the K’zoo report and now as a result of web-crawling for footnotes I have another. So I will do the first, which is, coincidentally, about where chasing a footnote can take you.

Portrait of Pope John X

Pope John X, from Wikimedia Commons (though where before that, I have no clue)

In the early Middle Ages, or indeed any of the other Middle Ages, communications were less than instant. Sometimes we have letters left to us that testify to this problem, reporting that information has reached the writer too late and now they want to change whatever they just said. Pope John X has one of my favourites, because it directly touches something I recently finished working on. I’ll translate:

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to Reginald of Béziers, Ariman of Toulouse, Riculf of Elna, Guimarà of Carcassonne, Guiu of Girona, Gerard of Agde, Teuderic of Lodève, Hubert of Nîmes, another Teuderic, of Barcelona, Jordi of Osona, Radulf of Urgell, most reverend and holy bishops of the Church of Christ. Receiving letters from your sanctity about your metropolitan, Agius, and the insidious frauds against him by the most nefarious Gerald, and acknowledging them we grieved greatly, and we faltered as if we felt the news in our body. Wherefore, we wished it to be known to your sanctity that the aforesaid falsehood-spinner Gerald, coming to this holy Roman and Apostolic Church that by God’s design we serve to rob us like an innocent, wanted the bishopric, and we, not recognising the cunning of his surpassing iniquity, wished to accommodate him, if there might be no canonical censure therefrom. He indeed, we have now found out from the truthful report of many, proferring under false pretences I know not what spurious letters purporting to bear our name, came and raided the bishopric of Narbonne in armed force on this basis, having captured the venerable metropolitan Agius by his fraud, and previously we had come to know very many other things about him through your letters. On account of which, we have sent to you through Archbishop Ermino our Apostolic letters, so that you shall not receive the selfsame oft-named Gerald, held a liar by all, among the bishops, and now moreover that we have discovered from your fraternity and fully recognise the malice and deceptions of his iniquity, we wish and we order by Apostolic authority that, just as we have already written to you and the sacred canons testify, you shall not have him among the bishops, as he was not requested by the clerics and the people of the city, nor was he ordained in the customary manner by you, his coprovincials. We have sent, as your concern sought, a privilege, a pallium and the use of the pallium to your metropolitan Agius so that we deny to no Church this that he justly sought. BENE VALETE!

[Edit: adjustments to the translation here after the typically learned suggestions of Clemens Radl in comments; anyone wanting to pick up this text for their own purposes should also check that comment for a bunch of useful references.]

In short, Gerald comes to Rome asking to be made Bishop of Narbonne; John is prepared to hear him kindly but the next thing he knows, he’s getting letters from the bishops of the Narbonensis saying that Gerald’s got letters from the pope that he’s using to throw Agius, whom they’ve already got, in jail and demand election and quite frankly Pope, WTS etc. John therefore expresses his frustration and distress via a mutually-trusted intermediary and sends Agius documentary and vestimentary confirmation of John’s backing for the rightful candidate, though you’ll notice that John apparently didn’t know this rightful candidate was in place before. This is in 914, should you be wondering.

A tenth-century illustration of Pope Gregory the Great wearing a pallium

A tenth-century illustration of Pope Gregory the Great wearing a pallium, from the Antiphonary of Hartker of St-Gall via Wikimedia Commons

This text is not new or unknown, but it’s only known from a fairly late preservation. Narbonne, which was once an incredible archive for all things historical and Pyrenean, lost its early documents only in the last few centuries, so the edition of this text with which I’m familiar was done from a 1664 edition from what we suppose to have been the original.1 However, there is also a manuscript copy of it in the British Library. Now, that copy was made in the eighteenth century, so it’s actually more recent than the oldest editions, but all the same, I thought I’d like to go and look, because it bothered me that the text should only be known via Narbonne and I wondered if this might be a different version. I don’t have a picture, because the BL doesn’t like cameras, and in any case it’s an eighteenth-century manuscript, it doesn’t look that old.2 But I have been and looked, and what do you know, it is different.

We are talking about here

It’s tempting to transcribe, but this is long enough already. Suffice to say that most of the personal names are spelt differently, Riculpho not Riculfo, Gimara for Guimara and so on, and that although some of its variants are tending to gibberish (“acknowledging in the side”) some actually make more sense (“wept greatly” instead of “faltered”, defleuimus not defecimus). At the very least it becomes clear that Catel, who edited the 1664 text, modernised the spelling in a fair few places, and may have misread it in others, though the copyist here also mangled a few things. Anyway, up to this point they could be working from the same text. But actually the manuscript omits the “Bene Valete” and goes off on a whole new tangent. There is in fact a better edition that used this manuscript too, and it registers the variants that I noticed and agrees that some of them are good;3 but even that doesn’t include the following bit, which is to my mind almost as interesting, because it tells us what Agius did next. The copyist doesn’t seem to been following his text, at some remove or other, because with no break it just runs straight on as follows:

Venerabilis Agamberto, nec non et Elefonso Epsicopis. Agio Narbonæ sedis Episcopus multimodas orationes. Audiuimus quod vos curtim pergere his diebus debetis. Idcirco ad deprecandum comites nostros perreximus. Ermengaudem et Raymundum quatinus vos deprecarent, ut præceptum apud Regem impetrare nobis non dedignemini. Itaque nos præcamur et supplicamus, ut relatum quod superius scriptum est sic apud Regem impetrare non vos pigeat, bene valete [ruche]

Or, in English, more or less:

To the venerable bishops Agambert and also Eldefonsus, Agius bishop of the see of Narbonne, many sorts of prayer. We have heard that you ought some day soon to be attending court. On that account we have managed to beg our counts Ermengaud and Raymond that they would beseech you so that you will not decline to get a precept from the king for us. We therefore pray and beg that it may fail you not to obtain the account that is written above thus from the king, go you well [signature]

So look, if this is a copy of what Catel was using, that wasn’t a papal document, it’s not John’s letter, even though that’s what he represented it as. The whole thing is actually a letter from Agius, asking his colleagues with business at court to get a letter to this effect from the king, and enclosing the text of a papal letter to explain what’s been going down in Narbonne and to serve as template. This is important for two reasons at least, and maybe more. Firstly, it means that we have no good proof that this actually came from the pope, though it would be a bit cheeky for a false letter from the pope itself to reference the possibility of people bearing false letters from the pope, and it doesn’t reflect well on anyone telling this story so I’m not that worried about it. All the same, this is the sort of thing I was wondering when I realised that the preservation was all via Narbonne. We have some evidence for this rival Gerald elsewhere at least, but all that really tells us is that there’s a dispute into which a papal bull, especially one that could be used to get a royal precept, would fit nicely.

A Romantic depiction of Charles the Simple borrowed from Wikipedia

And that’s the other thing. What does a bishop of Narbonne do in strife, even in 915? He writes to the king! Yes, the pope, all very well, but Agius didn’t write to him, his suffragans did; Agius wants a document from the king. This whole area of the West Frankish kingdom is supposed to have fallen off by now, you realise, no Carolingian king has been this far south for seventy years, and Charles the Simple (for it is he on the throne in 915) is, as we’ve said although I now realise that others would argue otherwise, the king under whom it all really goes to pot for the Carolingians. But in time of trouble, who rules and protects the Church? It’s not the pope… (That said, it’s worth noting that Charles actually appointed one of the bishops who write to the pope, Guiu of Girona, so Agius’s sense of the political weather is obviously not universally shared.) And since all of this work ultimately comes to nothing more than a footnote in a paper of which the final copy went off just before I flew America-wards, and which ought to be out in December,4 I thought it could go here in case anyone else can use it. I have reason to suspect there are those reading who can…

1. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 139.

2. London, British Library, MS Harley 3570 (1), “Bulls relating to the Archbishopric of Narbonne etc.”, fos 12v-13v (N. B. the document is part of a separate binding within the manuscript and with far older parchment covers I didn’t have time to parse, Gothic; this section is also independently foliated and in its own terms the foliation of this document is fos 7v-8v.)

3. Harald Zimmermann (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046. Erster Band: 896-996, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse, Denkschriften 174, Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission III (Wien 1984), doc. no. 39.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming).

Skirting Vulcan’s cough I return to the forge

Ash cloud tinged sunset over the River Severn

Ash cloud tinged sunset over the River Severn, 15 April 2010

I promised you a post, but this is not that post. This is just a warning to say that that post may be delayed. I have had a lovely time in the USA, meeting many great people and many useful people and a fair number who were both, being guided through the experience by generous bloggers and others, swearing at early-morning geese and thankfully discovering a source of decent tea, buying books and flirting with publishers, and maybe having the odd drink here and there. All this will be fully recounted, I promise, at least those bits of it fit for publication here. And I am even fairly functional after the experience of transatlantic flying, having managed I think to convince my body simply that I have a had a series of long nights short on sleep, which is true, without it much caring when that sleep was.

However, I return to find harassment from my book’s editor, two more sets of proofs in my INBOX with an e-mail apologising for their ineluctable urgency, a job to apply for and, worst of all in several ways, the need to mobilise resources in aid and recognition of an important academic who has been a huge help to many many people including me, and who has now been diagnosed with a fatal health condition. (I can’t give more details about this; those who need to know do, and this sort of thing doesn’t belong on the open Internet.) I also have a swathe of people I need to e-mail and of course, a load more things to blog about… It will all happen, but please bear with me if it doesn’t happen promptly. And thankyou to all the people who had kind words to say about the blog and my work (even to the one who told me they’d downloaded my thesis and been surprised how good it was, given the blog…) and who helped make the conference so much fun. Ye shall have your write-up! Just, not straight away, sorry…

AFK, transatlantic edition

Sarcophagus lid of the Mayan ruler K'inich Janaab' Pakal of Palenque

Sarcophagus lid of the Mayan ruler K'inich Janaab' Pakal of Palenque, 'well-known' to show an early medieval-era transatlantic flying machine

If I schedule this correctly, by the time you read this I will hopefully be airborne, and thus away from the blog. I return on Monday 17th very tired. I may well see many of the readers in the intermediate time, in fact for all I know I’ll be on a plane with some of them but the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies seems like a better bet. In the interim, if I log in to answer comments or even write a new post, I’ll clearly be failing to have enough fun, so I aim not to do that. Ordinarily I’d have some buffered posts ready but this last month has just been… well, you know. So I’ll hopefully be back to read on the Monday and maybe have new content (about a pope losing the plot, indeed) by the Wednesday; till then, play nice, have fun, see some of you soon, the rest of you back here before very long.