Monthly Archives: October 2010

Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

I am falling behind with blogging generally and with seminars particularly, though I’ve also started falling behind with going to the things so this may yet balance out. I am also in two minds about whether to blog the Oxford Medieval History seminars, as while they’re looking likely to continue being interesting, some of the people presenting are quite junior and at least one of the papers (mine) has been somewhat rapidly-prepared. I think I can safely get away however with talking about the first one of the term, because Chris Wickham has featured here before and knows this, and so when on the 11th October he attracted an audience of eighty people to hear him talk to the title, “The Financing of Roman Politics, 1050-1150″, he probably expected that fact to end up here.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

The tenth- and eleventh-century papal court is famous for two things, really, isn’t it? Gregorian reform and at the other extreme, corruption on a massive scale. Chris was talking about the latter, and trying to take a non-judgmental look at the systems that were operating that left this impression on our sources. Certainly, as he admitted and found many examples to prove, money was vital to political campaigning in Rome and deployed in huge amounts, while candidates for papal office or other high dignity who ran out of money also ran out of backing very quickly. This is clear in the sources and deplored by many across Europe, perhaps most noticeably John of Salisbury, who said as much in a letter to a pope, indeed, Hadrian IV, a fellow Englishman. Hadrian refused to take offence but preferred to point out how much good the money could achieve when correctly directed. It’s tempting just to stop the judgement there, but Chris, as an economic historian, wanted to know how this all actually worked. What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play. The popes were big landowners in Rome and thereabouts but they weren’t big on an international scale; much of what they claimed was also sometimes claimed by the Empire and a great deal of it (as I’d heard from Chris before) was tied up in fairly binding leases to the nobility. On the other hand, their cash income was huge, from pilgrim gifts especially but also the rents from those leases, various other ground-rents in the city, international token payments from far-off monasteries that mounted up all together… This means that money was the primary available form of patronage. None of our sources have a problem with gifts of land in exchange for support, after all, so what’s the problem with cash? Well, it gets spent. Land is permanent, and can’t really be used up, which makes obligations pertaining to it long-term things, but not so with money. This means that people don’t stay bought; also, people don’t stay wealthy, whereas a lot of land keeps you that way rather better. That’s not available in this game, and so the players at the top of the table rotate a lot more. The result is something that our sources feel is corrupt, and which even the participants sometimes did, but which is explicable in its own terms at least, and when there are strong morals in play in our sources of course it’s very necessary to carry out this kind of enquiry.

Interior of St Peter's, Rome

Interior of St Peter's, Rome; must have cost a bit...

Mark Whittow raised in questions an obvious parallel to the court of Constantinople, which also ran on money a great deal and about which Liutprand of Cremona has similar things to say, though only on the embassy when he couldn’t persuade the emperor to include him in the handouts… Other interesting questions were raised about the exchange rate of money for favours—plenty of rulers offer precious goods for support as well, in various places (not least Heorot!) but these are often worth more than what they eventually buy, for the sources at least, a complication that is yet to be explored. It also seemed to Chris that this money did not, except in, well, exceptional cases, serve to recreate this kind of politics at a lower level; there was a super-rich threshold that the popes were, and would-be popes had to be, above, and below that one was too vulnerable to the actions of the super-rich to amass the same sort of patronage clout on a smaller scale. That sounded as if it could also use some testing, to me, but the big system view still makes a lot more sense to me at least than writing the whole thing off as corruption; even if that’s what it was, it was also a working system that needs to be understood as such, and that’s what Chris gave us.

Finding buried treasure and keeping it (quiet)

There is, as you probably know, no agreed position between various nations on what is a reasonable level of metal detecting to allow. I have argued about this on Martin Rundkvist’s Aardvarchaeology about this, and he has recently posted on the issue again, provoking quite an argument elsewhere; while Sweden is being forced by the European Commission to come up with ways to allow metal detecting, however, in other countries they are trying to ban it entirely. I only really know about the situation in the UK, where the law only demands that precious-metal objects of 300 years age or more be handed in. Importantly, single finds of coins are excepted from this and don’t currently count as treasure. As long as you only find one, and no reason to suppose it was deliberately concealed, you can legally claim it yourself, saving certain rights of the landowner. The government and the world of archaeology would like you to report it, and structures exist for you to do so, but there is no sanction if you don’t. Of course, even it were declared treasure, you’d be compensated, but the Treasure process can take as much as three years to pay out and most people who care about the money would rather see it quicker, we have found. Martin thinks the situation needs some tuning to include copper alloy as treasure and others, lamenting the loss of the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet to a private bidder precisely because, being made of copper, it didn’t qualify for crown protection, would presumably agree that some changes need to be made.

The counter-arguments, such as they are, are that the more difficult and expensive we make the process for detectorists, the less will actually be reported and the more will be sold on the black market. Yes, the force of the law will be against these people, but when did you last read of someone being prosecuted for night-hawking? It’s not much of a disincentive. So any restriction is a potential threat to what data we do get reported, which experienced detectorists visiting the museum where I used to work estimated (and there is no way to know) is perhaps ten per cent of all finds. That implies a lot just going straight into pockets.

Now I learn from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe that, in response to The Crosby Garrett Affair (surely the name of an indie group’s side project), the Council for British Archaeology, which has been generally pro-detectorist in the past, is arguing for a reform of the Treasure Act,

to incorporate Roman base metal hoards and single finds of Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins made of precious metal.

Now, back where I used to work, there is a database (put together by none other than Sean Miller) that records precisely those data, saving the hoards, and sources a publication of the results every year in the British Numismatic Journal as a thing called “Coin Register”. (I wrote the query that generates that bit, in fact; a small thing but my own). We—they, now—get about as much information as we have the spare man-hours to process, but I don’t think we’d like to see it go, for all that. Because I see here two outcomes, probably simultaneous: firstly, this will cause much more stuff not to be reported, because people don’t like going through the slow Treasure process (even, to our surprise and annoyance, when it would garner them more money ultimately to do so). Secondly, it will mean that much more of what is reported will have to go through the Treasure process, thus slowing it (and the other work of the Crown courts!) down even more and loading much more work onto the Finds Liaison Officers of the Portable Antiquities Service, an organisation which was having its funding cut even before the new government and its hypothetical axe of doom arrived. I see little way in which this makes things easier for anyone. It makes me wonder if the CBA really understand how much stuff is being found. Only, there’s this database and publication they could look at…

I think, on the whole, I would say that copper alloy finds should be included but single finds should still not. Someone who finds a hoard usually wants to be famous, now, they probably mostly get reported. Single finds won’t make you famous, but they might make you a few quid. If we start restricting that kind of detectoring, we need to have fixed the Treasure process and rebuilt the PAS first or it could kill them both. I realise that nighthawking will still be a problem, and that video above doesn’t encourage me, but I don’t think these measures will solve that nor does that seem to be what the CBA are trying to do, and I don’t think that what they propose will help their ultimate purpose.

Signs of the times: early medieval ‘graphicacy’

It has already been remarked that I really shouldn’t be having time to blog. And, well, yes, good point actually. But I can’t give it up so instead I shall have to write shorter. This is after all something I need practice with.

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

So, okay, on 6th October Ildar Garipzanov was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar, to the title, “Graphicacy and Authority in Early Medieval Europe: Graphic Signs of Power and Faith”. In case you’re wondering what graphicacy even means, it is a term of art which runs parallel to literacy, referring to an ability to understand information presenting graphically, not figurally or in text, the way, for example, that you know what a pie-chart or similar is demonstrating or what a map is showing you. I arrived late, because someone wanted to dance on the train tracks outside London Paddington as I was coming in, but I understand from Ildar that in the first part of the paper he was explaining all this and that this theory has so far largely been used to study exactly that, people’s ability to understand graphs and charts, and that he wanted to apply to something he knows a lot about, monograms and other sorts of ‘encoded’ text.1

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Broadly, he sees an increase in the use of this sort of information from the fifth century to about the twelfth, and then a decline in favour of text once more. He stressed that the background of all this was principally Classical, from an era in which people scratched initials onto their property, and distinguished conceptually between this, where a few letters are used to signify a greater word, and monograms, where all the letters are combined into something more recognisable for itself than for the letters. The obvious case of this for the Middle Ages is of course the Chi-Ro symbolising Christ, which goes back to before Christianity was even legal, precisely so as to indicate allegiance to the banned sect: the catacombs of Milan, for example, use this and the now-ubiquitous fish to signal membership in a hopefully-secret way. And, yes, it’s the first two letters of His name in Greek, but how many people using it read Greek?2 The Alpha and Omega pairing is also a case of this phenomenon, where something is recognised in these symbols that is not just their lexical value, and there is of course the sign of the Cross, by which most people sign documents, in various more or less elaborate ways…

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram; Fitzwilliam museum, PG.13806, Grierson Collection

Most of the questions were about monograms, which I guess is because they’re sort of like crossword puzzles, demanding to be solved. I predictably asked about coins, because it seemed to me that the fact that across the tenth century, when most of France is striking coins with a KAROLUS monogram on whether the ruler’s name is Charles or not, implying again that the word is not the thing itself, literacy was probably not declining by that much and so the two phenomena can’t simply be opposed. Ildar wasn’t claiming that they could of course, but it struck me as worth saying so explicitly. Alice Rio asked if these were really using the same methods of comprehension as, say, charts, which seem like very different animals. There’s a point there, but there was also a point in Ildar’s response, which is that the audience for these things varies hugely, no doubt, but the same is also true, including the different mechanisms of comprehension, for different sorts of text, warning noticeboard versus Scholastic theology for example, and that though the parallel wasn’t exact neither was its failure destructive of the thesis. He is just starting out with all this, although clearly from a position of considerable knowledge, so we can all expect to hear more, which I for one will be interested by.


1. See, for example, his “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464, which has loads of monograms to puzzle over in it.

2. After all, as he observed, in Genesis it says, “Deus erat uerbum“…

Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne: album review

Christopher Lee has done… questionable things. Yes, I learn from his website that (his website claims that) he was the only member of the whole Lord of the Rings film project who’d actually met Tolkien. Yes, Count Dooku is one of the only characters in the new Star Wars films played with any genuine irony. And no less lamented an ex-blogger than Jennifer Lynn Jordan has proclaimed, “I would break a lot of rules for Christopher Lee”; that’s a fanbase, ladies and gentlemen. On the other hand:

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the Sword and the Cross

This was, indeed, reported in the post where Jenn and I had this conversation, and Jeff Sypeck at Quid Plura was on it soon afterwards, but unless I’ve just failed to notice, no further reports emerged. But someone who shall remain nameless got the album for me as a birthday present, and well, you deserve to know the truth. I used to do album reviews quite a lot in my underspent and hairy near-youth, so I’ll try and do the music in my old style and then I have to say something about the history under the new dispensation.

This has been described as a metal album wherever it’s been plugged, but in Jeff’s words, it’s likely that your city’s water supply has more metal in it. What we’re looking at here is something much more like Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra than even, for example, Metallica’s Slaves and Masters; there is a metal band here, or at least some people with those instruments, but they turn up only sporadically and the synthesizer gets all the biggest parts. The Mighty Riff is conspic. by its a.; this is mainly an orchestral album. Lee’s website reveals, as well as the fact that via a Carandini ancestry he himself claims descent from Charlemagne, that the guy who did the composition, Marco Sabiu, is “best known for his collaborations with Kylie Minogue, Take That, Ennio Morricone”. These are words to fill the strongest heart with fear, surely, but actually he’s no slouch with an orchestra. The arrangements are fairly simple but lively, energetic and rarely dull. If anything, the album’s natural tendency to melodrama makes it harder listening than it might be because it is usually off after an impact moment before any theme has had time to become established. Only with the bonus track ‘Iberia’ does the whole thing break down into movie soundtrack. On the other hand, the other bonus track, a version of ‘The Bloody Verdict of Verden’ (yes, really) without vocals does a good job of showing that really, there is music in here.

You will gather then that when there are vocals the music is not so successful. I believe Lee’s website when it claims that he is a classically-trained singer, I do, because the way he sings indicates that someone did their absolute best with him, but really, that must have been a long time ago now and his vocals are not what is needed here. Not only do some of the pieces really stretch his range too far (‘Starlight’, one of the few pieces without HUGE DRAMA scored into it from the bottom up, is especially bad for this) but he delivers everything, everything, in deeply ponderous tones as if every line were of world-changing seriousness and had to be delivered with Absolute Solemnity. Now, OK, there are some heavy events here; the album’s big schtick is the dying Charlemagne looking back over his life and wondering if he did well, and especially, whether the massacre of 4,000 Saxons at Werden in front of their families wasn’t going a bit too far. I am open to the idea that Charlemagne really did have good occasion to think, quite often, “I am about to embark on something that will change the face of Christendom! Third time this year too! Phew! What would Carloman say if he could see me now? Oh my poor brother!” etc., it is possible. But the musical result is that the album listens like one long national anthem, and not for a country that could afford Hadyn or Elgar either. And with lyrics like:

I forgive, for you were young, ambitious for your people
And your court was advising against me on principle

delivered at maximum stentorian setting, or

Defiant of baptism on pain of death
Tough measures call for me to be ruthless
To set an example to the rebels
Draconian for their worship of devils

I’m not really feeling it. You don’t believe me? It has a Youtube channel, a MySpace site, you can hear for yourself. This is probably the most metal thing about this album, in fact: certainly proper metal suffers incredibly from people who don’t realise (or perhaps don’t care) how silly their serious lyrics sound in English because it’s their second language. (Iron Maiden know, they’ve always known, come on, just look at them. Jury’s out on Metallica, for this as for everything else.) Here the guilty party is one Marie-Claire Calvet, who as well as managing to make a rhyme between ‘Pavia’ and ‘Saviour’ into assonance gives Pope Hadrian (who, marvellously, is sung by an Italian) these lines:

Encroaching closer upon Rome
Their leaders wanted to capture it for their own
And now King Desiderius
Has started to harass us

Scansion, sense, just not metal enough: all will fall before the force of that rhyme! The singer actually nearly manages to carry this mouthful off, but one’s final reaction still has to be in words that Michael Berubé once misattributed to Auerbach, to wit, “ew, ew, ew, ew”. You cannot listen to this straight; it would kill off all your higher language centres. These are the worst lines Lee has ever had to deliver, and he does so in such a way as to make them seem still more egregious.

So, in short: the artwork is impressive (is that map of Europe behind Lee on the cover burnished, or burning? I can’t tell but it’s great), the music, while not very metal, is not bad, but anything to do with the words here will make you want to switch it off unless you like real carcrash awfulness in entertainment. This is a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sort of album in that respect. I think a metal album probably could be recorded about Charlemagne, probably by Mastodon who have done less likely things already (and would probably, given their name, feel obliged to mention the elephant), but this certainly lowers the bar, and indeed poisons the well, empties the fridge, spoils the broth, etc..

What about the history, then? Well, they are careful to set out right up front (or, in fact, back of the booklet, but you see it as soon as you open the case) that:

“Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” is a musical concept album based on historical events. While the producers have tried to keep as close to history as possible, in all creative works some literary license is usually present. The contents of this album in relation with certain events and personality of the historical characters are not necessarily the opinions of the producers and all other participants.

Actually, though, they don’t really need to: the history here is remarkably clear and unmucked-with. Just in case the album weren’t ponderous enough, each act is introduced by a narration setting the historical context, and there is very little in these that I would mark wrong in an essay, for example, though I would probably add some notes about toning down the dramatic style at the end. The narrations threw me completely for a short while, however, by being in slightly-accented English by someone called Christina Lee. Now, I’ve met such a person, and so may others of you have: she does Viking studies at Nottingham and I wondered for some minutes how on earth she’d become involved in this before getting deep enough into Lee’s website to find that he has a daughter called Christina whom I suspect is more likely to be responsible.


They do sound remarkably alike

But we have a reasonable progress: calling for Einhard at his deathbed, hearing the voices of father Pippin and brother Carloman, of Pope Hadrian rhyming Desiderius, etc.; we get a brief reference to Aquitaine, then the Lombard campaign, the wars against the Saxons culminating in ‘The Bloody Verdict of Verden’, the forging of an Empire and a final look into a then-future with Fastrada. This is all real Charlemagne, not the legend, except for an appearance by the sword Joyeuse (which does take us into a further complication: Calvet appears to think that Charlemagne spoke French, and indeed called himself ‘Charlemagne’, a name that Lee’s character uses of himself many times in the course of the album—but I guess there is a need to use the name people know). The legend does turn up rather harder in the bewilderingly playscript-like ‘Iberia’, 12 peers and so on, but that is as I say only a bonus track, in which respect its position is actually fairly typical of the field of study, he says with studied bitterness.

All this is an interpretation of course. Specifically, and consciously, it is an interpretation of Charlemagne as an almost fanatical evangelist and one not afraid to put the sword behind what he feels to be ultimately necessary to build a better world. I’ve seen essays with no argument more sophisticated than that, and they certainly run with it to what would be good effect here if only the words weren’t so terrible. But it makes its own sense, and perhaps it is the strangest thing that on a metal album on which the lead singer is a man famous for playing a Bond villain, a wizard and a vampire, it is not actually the history that lets them down.

Being in Oxford

I said to several people in Cambridge that I wasn’t really escaping, since I was only going to Oxford. This was both true and not true. The two places are 81 miles apart, I was told yesterday by a medievalist who’d worked this out while planning to walk between them overnight; yet it is really quite awkward to travel between them without a car, so they are cut off slightly from each other.

There are lots of other differences I’m noticing, some of which have no business on a public blog and some of which just aren’t very interesting unless you live here. One of the ways in which the two universities are the same is that it is very hard sometimes to get the people you need to cooperate in contact with each other. It is as if by arriving here I have formed a new medieval-style body corporate of which I am the head, but of which the left and right hands firmly and correctly believe that they are nothing to do with each other. In this institutional gap has fallen much of the online access I expected immediately to have, which is why entries have been thin and few just lately. This is now almost fixed, I have set my first round of essays, met most of the people I need to work with, braved the Senior Common Room (and been welcomed very warmly there), probably even made new friends though it’s hard to tell as yet, and unpacked almost all the books. I am still not online from home, but in other respects the new situation is lovely and I am feeling extremely lucky and over-privileged. (Going to tea in All Soul’s has however shown me that there is much higher one could climb in terms of privilege. When did you last see both India and China tea served together, with bread-and-butter and cake? Even I don’t do this.1) I have to write quite a lot in the next little while, however, so I don’t know what content I shall have for here. I have plenty of old charter stories to draw on at least, and they may be a good excuse to try and work out using the Bodleian, which otherwise I will likely find ways to avoid, so I shall try one of them next. For the moment, however, here are some Bullets of Being in Oxford.

  • I have had to relearn Macs since that’s what was immediately available for me as an office computer. It’s a MacBook, and I cannot find a key on it that will type a hash. How can I do my footnotes, dammit?
  • There are as many bikes here as in Cambridge but in Oxford they are much more endangered by the traffic, and outside the immediate town centre the roads are a patchwork of repairs and potholes, very dangerous to cycle on.
  • On the other hand, the buses are so good that it’s tempting to leave the bike at home. In Cambridge, the buses are a ridiculous and useless waste of public and private money condemned to inefficacy from the start by the tiny city’s tiny roads, on almost all of which in the centre two buses cannot pass. Oxford’s buses are about half as expensive as Cambridge’s, four times as fast as Cambridge’s, twice as frequent as Cambridge’s and just actually work. I have never lived somewhere where the bus was actually a viable way of getting round, and now I do. It’s weird.
  • I used to complain bitterly also of Cambridge’s shops, piled high with expensive stuff no-one wanted; Oxford’s shops are however frequently mostly bare of shelves. The usual shops are hard to find. The phone book lists a number of supermarkets that are simply not physically there. Leaf tea is weirdly hard to buy here, especially if you eschew Twining’s, as anyone who prefers flavour to oil should.2 I did today find the city centre Sainsbury’s but it really wasn’t easy. I am probably missing something important here but it is using a lot of my time trying to find it.
  • The History faculty here is much larger than the Cambridge one, but because Cambridge has the Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, there are actually fewer Anglo-Saxonists noticeable in Oxford. It must be said that Cambridge ASNCs are notoriously social so they may just show up disproportionately anyway.
  • Seminars! There are loads! I will never manage to report on them all, and given that those presenting here will be close colleagues for some years it may be wiser of me not to…
  • Two people already have recognised me from the blog, and one said that he’d seen me cycling and thought, “Aha, he’s arrived then” and then remembered he actually didn’t know me at all. Apparently I am still an Internet celebrity, and it’s still weird, but I’d never before thought that it might also be weird for other people to see me wandering the streets, swearing under my breath like a street crazy, in fruitless search of Kenyan Broken Orange Pekoe. (None of this is a joke, sadly.)
  • The number of people who have freely offered help is far too many to count and I owe them all thanks, though a special mention to one on the outside, Elina Screen, for various documents and advices, is definitely deserved; thankyou Elina, should you ever read this.
  • Again, this may be the change of job, but, my good and propitious deity-of-your-choice, there is SO MUCH FREE FOOD available to me. Enough to make me feel quite guilty in fact (though also, you know, full).
  • I worked out, in an SMS exchange with T’anta Wawa, that one of the reasons I am feeling guilty about this post, apart from that lots of others didn’t get it of course, is that as well as teaching I am now also being paid to research. My income has been supposed to allow me to research for, I think, two years of my 13-year postgraduate career. For the last five years I’ve had a nine-to-five job that my research had to fit round. Being able to read on work time, which is more or less whenever I set it, is freaky.
  • That said, also writing. By the time you read this, I will since I arrived here have submitted a final version of one paper and started writing another. At one of the inductions I’ve been to someone said that they were keenly aware that there were several really important new books they should have read but haven’t because they weren’t quite relevant to their current papers. I’ve been working in that frame for years and it had not yet struck me that I might have the opportunity to abandon it; and already it seems I probably haven’t, at least until Christmas. A good Spanish friend of mine observed to me apropos an editor we were both arguing with, “never believe an Englishman when he tells you something will be finished by Christmas”. This may well invalidate the previous hope. However, it may be a good sign that so far, at least, even an it be dysfunctional, I am more busy with research than with teaching.
  • The book is now down to the absolute final stages but still doesn’t yet exist; I now await proofs of the index…
  • Lastly, some links of relevance:

  • Obviously the place is full of students, but so far there is one particular one I have not come across. Probably best not to be teaching other blogger’s sons anyway, right?
  • Secondly, in Cambridge, at least around where I worked, there was an awful lot of interest in Vikings. In Oxford, however, we kill Vikings! So there.

1. Mind you, I looked in the silver teapots and was rather surprised to find they were using teabags. Oxford college’s secret shame revealed!

2. Which would explain the situation at All Soul’s, I suppose.

Word from Sean Miller: announcing ascharters.net

Grant of King Edgar to his thegn Igeramn, 963, preserved at Christ Church Canterbury, Sawyer 717

Grant of King Edgar to his thegn Igeramn, 963, preserved at Christ Church Canterbury, Sawyer 717

Many of you will know the name Sean Miller. When I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum still, occasionally we would get mail for him or people trying to reach him, because his name occurred on our site because he coded the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds that now records about 9,500 single finds and another 45,000 or so in museum collections via the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles. It’s needed only the most occasional maintenance since he left the Museum more than a decade ago. From there, he went on to charters, as a right-thinking person of course should, and in between a few other things put the whole corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters online in searchable electronic form. You know, as you do. Or at least, as he did. I talk this up because I don’t think his work is adequately recognised, really, and he left the profession for one with money in it that people were prepared to give him some time ago.

Now, if you know that much, you may also know that the site where Sean mounted all the Anglo-Saxon charters has been ill of late. Parts of it still work but the search had broken. Indeed, we got people asking us at the Museum if it would be fixed. I couldn’t answer those people then but now I can: I had the pleasure of catching up with Sean at a book launch party just before I left Cambridge and now he has mailed me to say that the new site is up and running at Anglo-Saxon Charters. It works, as far as my quick tests show. Considering he gets nothing for this, I think that’s pretty decent of him. So there you are: update your bookmarks and sing Dr Miller’s praises!