Monthly Archives: September 2010

On peer review and an alternative

There is but little time in my world right now: I’m moving cities and decluttering on a manic scale. Let me therefore point you at someone else’s stuff again. Every now and then I have a bit of a rumble about peer review here, because although it is like democracy probably the least worst system it has undeniable weaknesses, as it relies on a professional detachment that we can’t all always manage and on editors knowing who the ideal reviewer for any given work should be, which makes it vulnerable to whom-you-know network constriction. Now, I don’t have an alternative to this, but I did recently read this, linked to in comments to one of Ben Goldacre’s recent posts at Bad Science, which proposes one. Specifically:


When asked by physicsworld.com to offer an alternative to the current peer-review system, Thurner argues that science would benefit from the creation of a “market for scientific work”. He envisages a situation where journal editors and their “scouts” search preprint servers for the most innovative papers before approaching authors with an offer of publication. The best papers, he believes, would naturally be picked up by a number of editors leaving it up to authors to choose their journal. “Papers that no-one wants to publish remain on the server and are open to everyone – but without the ‘prestigious’ quality stamp of a journal,” Thurner explains.

Now, OK, he’s talking science, and the actual model-building the article’s mainly about strikes me as being uselessly simplistic and normalising, but this is still interesting. Aside from the presence of money in the system and the lead time to print there still isn’t that much difference at the publishing end between sciences and humanities, I think. I could imagine such a system in operation for history, although I can’t imagine us getting to a single clearing-house server: who would run it? (Don’t say Google! But how much would they love to do it? It might make Google Scholar useful!) We would have competing publishers or national academies for a long time. Who would control access, then? But if, for example, all research funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council were required to be submitted to such a server, then I bet scouting that server would be worth doing. And so on. The other question is that of judging articles etc. on saleability. Exciting and trendy topics would maybe reach a market more readily than grunt-work shifting data or editing. Of course, you could argue that they already do; that’s at least one meaning of trendy, isn’t it? I imagine that there would always be a market for journals that wanted to publish off the mainstream. But even that work would be easier to find this way. So I think the biggest question for me with such a system would be the same one I often ask: who keeps the gates? But if gatekeepers could be agreed upon to everyone’s advantage, do you think this would be better than what we have, or would it completely erode quality? Would we still need peer review behind it? Or could we rely on editor’s discretion? Would it open things up? Or dilute them uselessly? Your thoughts would be welcomed while I try and source more cardboard boxes and wonder if I really need all the books…

Eat like a Carolingian nun (but check with a doctor first)

The ruins of Notre-Dame de Soissons

The ruins of Notre-Dame de Soissons (perhaps betraying calcium deficiency?)

Taking in the last of those Jean Verdon articles I mentioned in my recent and apparently misjudged post about the range of female monasticism, I find a reference to an article by Michel Rouche about famine.1 In it he apparently refers to a forged charter of Charles the Bald for the nunnery of Notre-Dame de Soissons, which specified the food that the various estates it claimed should render and the size of the community.2 That size was 260 nuns and 200 servants and domestics of various kinds, which would have made the place far and away the largest Carolingian-period nunnery known and seems unlikely to be true.3 But, since the claims were presumably intended to be plausible whenever they date from, Rouche thought, and Verdon agreed, that they were reasonable evidence for the dietary allowances of an early medieval nun. So, dividing the daily allowance by the number of nuns, we get per inmate:

  • 1,440 g of bread
  • 1.38 l of wine
  • 70 g of cheese
  • 133 g of dry vegetables
  • 16 g of salt
  • 0.6 g of honey (which I guess was used in accumulated dollops)

Verdon (or perhaps Rouche) calculates that this is 4,727 calories and says that the required daily intake is 2,400. That was France in 1975, and a rapid websearch suggests that UK women are advised by the National Health Service to keep calories down to 2000 a day. Of course, there is a big difference in how many calories the nuns were burning in just not freezing for at least half the year, but Verdon is presumably still right when he observes that this diet was seriously lacking in protein and vitamins. I assume (without evidence) that they would have supplemented this with fruits and vegetables of the season when there were some, but it’s still not a rich diet despite the supposedly rich nunnery. All of this mainly leaves me wondering what the motives of the forgers were and how much information they had about food use from the house’s refectory, but since we like medieval factoids, there’s one for you, with suitable cautions about how the fields of both diplomatic and nutrition have moved on a bit since 1973 and how I haven’t checked in with at least one of them while writing this post.


1. Jean Verdon, “Notes sur le rôle économique des monastères féminins en France dans la seconde moitié du IXe et au début du Xe siècle” in Revue Mabillon Vol. 58 (Ligugé 1975), pp. 329-344, at p. 332 where he cites Michel Rouche, “La faim à l’époque carolingienne : essai sur quelques types de rations alimentaires” in Revue Historique no. 508 (Paris 1973), pp. 295-320 (some details supplied by me; non vidi).

2. The charter is †A. Giry, †M. Prou & G. Tessier (edd.), Recueil des Actes de Charles II Le Chauve, Roi de France (Paris 1927-1947), 3 vols, II no. 494, discussed by Rouche at “Faim”, p. 299 (cit. Verdon).

3. Comparators listed by Jean Verdon, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du nord aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Revue Mabillon Vol. 59 (Ligugé 1976), pp. 49-96 and idem, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du Sud aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Annales du Midi Vol. 88 (Toulouse 1976), pp. 117-138. The largest known to Verdon otherwise (though figures are rare) is Ste-Croix de Poitiers, which boasted a hundred nuns in the time of Louis the Pious (idem, “Monastères féminins dans la France du Sud”, pp. 133-134); congregations of 10 or 12 were much more usual (and in the former case, strictly speaking uncanonical).

Carnivalesque leftovers and other fine webnesses

Sorry, yes, actual content will return shortly, in the meantime may I distract you with some links? There are a few things I wanted to include in Carnivalesque just gone, and didn’t, because I’d already used content from that source or because it just didn’t fit or whatever, and then there are also a few things that have cropped up since. Here goes!

That’s it for now, back shortly I hope…

Domesday TV with Stephen Baxter

One strangeness of the whole Siena trip that I couldn’t really have anticipated was that I met someone who shared acquaintance with Dr Stephen Baxter, of KCL and reported here in the past, and then suddenly Stephen was news. I wouldn’t say I know Stephen well but we have exchanged draft work and argued a great deal about moneyers, and so on, and our interests overlap at the question of how aristocrats get into and maintain a position of control. Nothing too unusual. But when I returned from Siena it was to find that he was all over the Internet and being called “telegenic” by the Guardian, because of a programme he’d done for the BBC that was broadcast shortly after I returned, on Domesday Book.

Stephen Baxter with a replica of the Domesday Book at Kings College London

Stephen Baxter with a replica of the Domesday Book at Kings College London

The programme appears to have gone down well with those who saw it: I have no television and didn’t get around to checking the BBC’s Watch Again service until much too late, but a clip is still there (I can’t embed Flash video on WordPress, and the BBC appear to be wise to VodPod-equipped browsers, so you’ll have to watch it from their page) and they have a fairly extensive web-page up in support of it. The clip is good TV and makes splendid use of Cambridge’s Round Church, so I have to love it, but Stephen’s historical impact is rather greater here than it suggests, because he seems to have weighed in with his own take on a long-running controversy, one of early medieval history’s most guilty secrets: we don’t know what Domesday Book was actually for.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

It’s not that there are no theories, you understand. I’m not going to go into this in detail here, not least because I’m going to link to others doing so, but it’s been supposed to be a land survey, a tax-list, an inventory of feudal lordship and a few other things besides. All of these explanations, however, are hampered by the fact that the surviving manuscripts are recorded with several different levels of detail that show that each ‘circuit’ of inquisitors were working to different standards, and that substantial pieces of the kingdom, most especially London (which would, of course, have been incredibly difficult to survey and might have had some special tax provision via its Cnihtengild or similar… but, still) are not covered. Also, some precursor texts like the Inquisitio Eliensis include more information than any part of the ‘finished’ Book, so why collect that if it wasn’t going to be used? There’s too many sorts of information included for any one of the purposes that have been suggested and not enough of any one sort of information for it to have actually worked for any of these explanations. I used to think, therefore, that the best answer was probably that the text we have was written up only after William the Conqueror’s death, when the whole purpose was redundant anyway, and so simply doesn’t answer to it because it was never going to be used. And then, of course, it would have been impossible to use it for that anyway so we’d never know.

David Roffe

David Roffe

A little while back, however, an independent scholar by the name of David Roffe started to put about an idea that the reason the texts and the apparent purposes of the inquiry that generated them don’t match up is that the texts we have were not generated by the inquiry. He argues that the inquiry of 1085 was very simply aimed at raising a huger-than-ever-before geld to pay the army that would be required to fend off an imminent Danish invasion. This all unrolled well enough, and the invasion never came—bonus! But Domesday Book is not, argues Roffe, [edit: and helpfully explains in a comment below after which I revised this paragraph] the text of that inquiry but a later piece of editing, probably for more local administrative purposes—he fingers Ranulf Flambard for Great Domesday, at least. Now, obviously this has not met with universal acceptance, and it doesn’t diminish the problem of what the much more detailed Little Domesday was for, but it can’t be denied that it would explain a few things. (His argument is set out in full on his webpage here and in his 2007 book Decoding Domesday.)

A page from the Exon Domesday

A page from the Exon Domesday, a separate survey of Devon and Cornwall that seems to have been part of the same project as the Domesay Book

Now, however, Stephen joins the fray, fresh from having superintended the addition of the huge amount of data on persons alive “tempus regis Gulielmi” to the equally huge Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database. This gives him perhaps as good a perspective as anyone has on what’s in the text, and his argument is now that the book was a political exercise making it clear to his baronage that, well, he Knew Where They Lived, a process of record that they were prepared to entertain because the record itself gave them security of tenure. He has a lengthy blog post on the BBC’s World History site here where he explains himself. This too is pretty convincing, to me at least. I wonder if in fact one couldn’t go further—indeed, if Stephen didn’t in the programme—and see it as a nationwide propaganda exercise, intended to demonstrate to all to what depth the king ruled his country by inquiring into every last detail of it, ensuring that nothing was hidden, making him akin to the Final Judge, the one in charge of, you know, Doomsday… and of course, creating governmentality. Too glib, perhaps. What is odd about this programme and blog post, though, is that this is a pretty major piece of scholarly development, and like Roffe’s, it is basically being carried out on broadcast media. I assume that print publication is also in the works but by the time it emerges, the debate will probably have moved on. This is, I think, something fairly new for early medieval studies. I have no idea how it and the TV programme will be scored in the Research Excellence Framework! but then, neither does anyone else… I think this is encouraging, anyway, not only that TV (and “telegenic” TV at that) can be made from fairly abstract historical debate, and then that historians of the full calibre are willing to do that kind of work in this kind of forum, where people can actually see what we do and get excited about it.

Part of the manuscript of the Inquisitio Eliensis

Part of the manuscript of the Inquisitio Eliensis

The only thing, the only thing that bothers me about this really, is that the BBC and other sources more widely appear to have picked up the idea that the whole of PASE is Stephen’s baby. I believe he is now its coordinator, and I don’t doubt that he did the bulk of the Domesday work, but it’s been going rather longer than he’s been at KCL, I know several of the other contributors and indeed did some of the technical mangling of data that means it contains moneyers’ names myself. I don’t blame this on Stephen at all, I’m sure it’s the Beeb being sloppy, but all the same I feel a little narked on behalf of the people who gave their working lives to this project for years. Databases don’t get you jobs, we have found. Of course, with this kind of coverage, maybe that’s set to change…

Still! Never mind that. While attempting to see if anyone had illegally loaded the Domesday program onto Youtube, I instead found this small extra chunk of Stephen visiting a traditional parchment maker and this may serve many of you and interest still others, although it would be slightly easier to watch had I not seen too much of the revived Dr Who, I’m sure some of you will know what I mean. I commend it to the house, anyway.

Name in Lights III

I am running out of content here: I shall soon have to revert to charter stories, which might be no bad thing as I’ve just promised a seminar paper on them… Anyway, one of the things I have not yet posted is an announcement of various things I have done that are visible on this here world-wide web, so here goes.

    Obverse of penny of King Edgar
  • First and foremost, and no small effort by all concerned, The Heroic Age Vol. 13 went online a little while ago, and I have a review in it, of Edgar, King of the English 959-975, edited by Donald Scragg. If, after my last review, you believe that I am incapable of being positive about others’ work, which would be understandable, here is some counter-evidence.
  • Antonio Rodriquez's New Zealand Cross

  • Secondly, here is something that isn’t medieval at all, but which I put a lot of work into and which I’m really quite proud of. Shortly after I arrived at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2006, we got a big collection of military medals among which was one of the twenty-three New Zealand Crosses ever issued, which had belonged to Antonio Rodriquez of the Taranaki Mounted Volunteers. We put this online and subsequently three separate branches of the recipient’s family got in touch with us about their ancestor’s exploits and history. Incredibly, none of them were aware of the existence of each other, but their various researches meant that we were able to get a very great deal more material on the man and his subsequent life. Using this, I put together a small virtual exhibition which is full of photos, illustrations and detail that really make the story a human-interest one, right down to the current generation. I would be really pleased if you’d have a look: it’s here.

Then, in less scholarly and more self-publicising manner, it is probably worth mentioning that I have recently been persuaded onto Academia.edu. I’m not really there very much but will try and keep my pages there up to date and answer any messages. This made me wonder if it was really worth maintaining separate web-pages, especially given that I haven’t really touched my static ones since 2009. I decided, however, that it was and is, and that since the institutional page that has had my most up-to-date academic record on for some time is about to leave my control, I really ought to get my own pages in order.

Pencil sketch of Jonathan Jarrett by 'Bobby'

I was going to use this for my new picture till I shaved

So far I’ve only updated the front page and publications list, in the former cases including putting a new photo on to replace the old one that made me look, in the words of a dear dear friend, “like a teenage vampire who needs a shave”. I dunno, I thought that was a good look (and it’s still serving as my Academia.edu profile photo) but it may not have been sending quite the right message, so it’s gone and a light refresh of the text is done too. The thing still looks as if it was written in 1998 (which is roughly when I learnt HTML, coincidence? I think not) but it will serve. I still want to update the “what I’m interested in page” and rebuild the mostly-dead resources page out of the random clutter I’ve amassed in the sidebar here, but it’s a start made. So now it is announced.


This involved being incredibly careful not to overstep any boundaries when talking about the Maori Land Wars, which is not easy for an Englishman to do mostly from secondary sources. If it seems to you I failed I would welcome a warning as soon as possible; I won’t have very long to change it now…

Cesari of Montserrat, tenth-century weirdo

Medieval religiosity can often seem very strange to the modern viewer, not least because decrying the Middle Ages as superstitious has been a major trade since the Renaissance, as Eamon Duffy and Kathleen Davis would in their very different ways contend. Monasticism, I think, we usually just about get, although we perhaps see it too much as the retreat from the world that we most of us sometimes want and too little as voluntary self-imprisonment under continual surveillance, which would be just as true. The cult of relics, on the other hand, is often beyond our sympathy. This runs us into another problem with studying other societies, now or then, which is that of normality. What seems odd to us may be or have been normal to them. This makes it difficult to recognise when something genuinely unusual is or was being done. But I think this one is a fair cop.

The hermitage of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The hermitage of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

I’ve spoken of Abbot Cesari of Santa Cecília de Montserrat here before, because of his having been one of the four archbishops of Tarragona that tenth-century Catalonia didn’t have. I actually think the case for Cesari’s having been given some kind of uncanonical episcopate is all right, but if so it’s clear that no-one gave it any credit except in the immediate environs of the house he’d founded out on the wild frontier with several other companions from deep-south Hispania in 947. Now, that makes him odd for a start: it isn’t just everyone who wants to be a monk, and still fewer of those wander hundreds of miles north to an occasional warzone and beg land from a potentate with whom they have never before had contact in order to start their monastery. When, having done all that, such a person then starts getting himself called Archbishop, and claiming a synod in León made him so, I think it is fair enough to speculate that his contemporaries did not think this was perfectly regular practice or one of some set of competing norms…

The actual politics behind this episode are extremely tangly and if you want to know what I think in more detail than I’ve given it here before, you can see my upcoming article about the four fake archbishops.1 But when I first looked at the episode, it wasn’t just circumstantial evidence that made me think Cesari was a nutter. In 970, you see, he seems to have written to Pope John XIII asking for support in claiming his archiepiscopal rights. The document survives in Vic, and it is a star piece of diplomatic oddity both intrinsically and extrinsically.2 Quite apart from the actual claims it makes,

The document itself only adds to the impression of strangeness: its orthography is peculiar, phrases that the redactor presumably felt to be important are written in uncials, the florid and almost-incomprehensible arenga appears to be unconnected to the subject matter, and there is a peculiar and repetitive emphasis laid on the personal beauty of the Leonese bishops.

That’s from an earlier version of my article, but the final one says the same thing only shorter.3 But at the time I put this down to Cesari being old, possibly not very well and basically arguably no longer right in the head, or you would think that the various ways in which the content is barking would have been trapped also.4 Now, continuing the trawl through Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I find a longer perspective forming. The text in this case is the act of consecration of Santa Cecília, from 947 as I say, and as soon as I saw it I recognised the style: rambling verbose sentences of pious diction that don’t necessarily make sense, and amid all the pious formulae about why monasteries are great and necessary and deserving of princes’ favour, this:5

Eo videlicet ut isti neophyti quibus ita res a Domino fuit revelata et neofiter rehedificata, sic incomvulsi et absque terrore et sine infestatione malignorum ibidem maneant et sub regimine monastico Domino deserviant…

Now, stop me if I’m wrong—I know you will, which is part of why I put this stuff up here indeed—but I think that can be Englished as:

In such a way, namely, so that those neophytes to whom the property was revealed thus by God and rebuilt in neophytes’ manner, may thus stay there undisturbed and without terror or the infestation of evil men and serve the Lord under a monastic régime…

So, stop me, but is he not claiming that he’s establishing a college of visionaries? I realise that he could just be being metaphorical about the revelation but it sounds a lot more structured than that to me, what with the emphasis on their uneducated status (especially since two of them are actually priests); I think he’s stressing their holy innocence and purity as vessels for the Lord’s will. So, I had the natural thought of a medievalist in these circumstances, to wit: “that’s weird. I wonder if it’s Augustine?” But I hit up the Patrologia Latina database and it seems to be original, at least I can’t get ‘neophyti’ and ‘revelata’ out of it in the same sentence. So, I don’t really know whether this gives us valuable insight into the mind of a monastic founder, or if it just confirms my general feeling that the man was a fringe mystic who doesn’t really represent anything. I suppose it does help explain, in conjunction with work like Peter Brown’s on the charisma of holy men, how he managed to get his locality calling him archbishop and indeed how he persuaded Countess Riquilda to persuade her husband to give him so much of the locality in the first place.6 I mean, I imagine his preaching was pretty powerful, if a bit disorganised and frothing. Even that just goes to show how much of a journey it is for me to try and get anywhere near this man’s mind when I’m sat so firmly in a secular early twenty-first century, though. Maybe if I can get to Santa Cecília I’ll have a better grip on him and his like, if there were in fact any others like him…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona. False metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming), pp. 1-42.

2. Edition of resort Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 404, with partial facsimile ed. Miquel dels Sants Gros i Pujol, “Lámines”, ibid. pp. 681-890, lám 90; more convenient, however, is perhaps Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arquelògica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1080, which reprints that text.

3. Jarrett, “Ató”, pp. 13-14.

4. They are listed in vituperative style by José María Martí Bonet, “Las pretensiones metropolitanas de Cesáreo, abad de Santa Cecilia de Montserrat” in Anthologica Annua Vol. 21 (Roma 1974) pp. 157–182, where he decried the letter as a forgery, although in “Entre dues obediènces. Roma i Compostela” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 67 (1994) pp. 387–397, he seems to have changed his mind.

5. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 543.

6. I suppose I think here mainly of Peter R. L. Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity, Haskell Lectures on the History of Religion (Chicago 1981), which is the one that bit me particularly, though idem, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” in The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 61 (London 1971), pp. 80-101, repr. in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley 1982, repr. 1989), pp. 103-152, is more usually referred to.

Things that are (relatively) newly online

A quick post to point out some things I recently discovered before they go off, most of which are things I shall have to try and go to. First up, what looks like a really interesting weekend conference at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, entitled “Local Churches and Lordship in the European Middle Ages”. I’m not presenting or anything, but the range of speakers is such, including three Iberian papers, that I am really going to have to make all efforts to go. Full details here.

Next up, the new term’s schedule for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar is now published, and again, everything on it looks unmissable, so I really hope I can continue to make it to these. If not, however, I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who feels they might be able to write stuff up for inclusion here, with full credit of course. The schedule is online here, and a shiny PDF version for sticking on noticeboards has also been circulated, though it isn’t yet there: I shall therefore stash it here for you all for the time being.

I’m particularly interested by the seminar for the 13th October, because it is described thus:

Leslie Webster, Guy Halsall

Staffordshire hoard round table

Now, Guy Halsall has views on the Staffordshire Hoard, views with which I can only partially agree but no news there really, and I know this because I recently became aware that Guy Halsall hath a blog, which he has set up to help with his current project, The Transformations of the Year 600. Dammit, why wasn’t I notified, etc. So far it seems largely to be texts of his seminar papers and so on, all very interesting of course (the one about the Hoard is here). There’s a wealth of stuff there, and he says in the first post, “I hope too that it might bring about some useful and helpful discussions and sharing of ideas and information.” As far as I can see, however, this is a well-kept secret so far and no-one has actually commented. I’m not sure I want to be the first, since I don’t know enough to argue with Guy or contribute to a perspective so early, but I expect some reading may be less bothered by the idea, and I thought you might want to know. Here’s hoping he adds more soon.