Monthly Archives: December 2010

Seminars LXXIII & LXXIV: downgrading homicide and upgrading women

Two brief notices of the next two seminars I went to after that last one just reported, which were both Oxford ones. I have, as you know, dithered about blogging these because they are more internal than the IHR ones or even Cambridge’s CLANS series; these are Oxford speakers talking to an Oxford audience. But, Tom Lambert is a sterling chap lecturing on the course I run and thoroughly deserves the publicity, and Emma Cavell is already sort of famous, so there seems no harm in it on this occasion.

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold, from Wikimedia Commons

Tom was speaking on the 8th of November 2010, to the title, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law”. The convenors at this seminar are unfailingly complimentary, but even so, invoking the ghost of Patrick Wormald, suggesting that he had thought that with his The Making of English Law written there was nothing more to say about Anglo-Saxon law, and then saying that it was Tom’s work that had convinced the convenor that this wasn’t true, that’s high praise. All the same, Tom gave a clear and interesting account of Anglo-Saxon legislation about theft and homicide, asking why the penalties for theft are so much more vicious (almost always capital) than for homicide, which is after all a capital crime but can be compensated, or at worst result in enslavement, whereas theft is impossible to pay off. Patrick Wormald was not the only person who has tried to explain this, but Tom gave convincing arguments, largely based on the tiny sample size and the fact that many cases Patrick used as evidence of an increasing royal ‘take-over’ of homicide punishment involved victims who would already have been under royal protection for other reasons, that these explanations would not really do. Tom’s alternative suggestion, which rested in part on the differentiation in the laws between simple homicide and morðor, hidden slaying, was that killing someone was an open act, not necessarily dishonourable, in which the killer was easily identifiable (and often turned himself in, in the cases we have), whereas theft and morðor alike were secretive things where no culprit could easily be found and which was therefore dishonourable and hateful for the society of the day in a way that open conflict, which had clear and well-known consequences and regulation that needed no intervention by the king, was not. This makes sense, as long as you don’t mind remembering that people of the past, even our Hardy English Yeomen Forebears(tm), in the case of those reading (and writing) who may have such roots, were not necessarily like us in the ways they thought and acted. This is the sort of thing that the work Tom’s doing can tell us, and it’s not a small thing.1

Whittington Castle in Shropshire

Whittington Castle in Shropshire, narrative home of Fulk le fitz Wareyn

As for Emma, she spoke on the 15th November, to the title, “Foulke le fitz Wareyn: literary space for real women?” This is a subject where I have far less of a handle, but the basics were that Emma, who did her doctorate on Anglo-Norman marcher lords on the Welsh border, had been asked at her viva whether there was any literary evidence she could have used for this enquiry, had not really looked at the stuff and was therefore now making good. She was anxious to stress, therefore, that she was out of her usual field, but she nonetheless gave a very clear account of a particular romance I’d not heard of, Foulke le fitz Wareyn, which involves a disinherited hero wandering a great many lands, seducing and converting a Muslim queen and so on, before returning as the greatest knight in Christendom, getting the girl, ousting the baddies (who are substantially King John, who is made to hand back Foulke’s inheritance) and experiencing various things as a person of importance before dying in his bed and so forth. The question Emma was asking was, are the women in this text anything more than romantic ciphers? Do they in fact relate to anyone historical, as certain of the other personages involved (not least the hero and King John) kind of do, with a certain amount of genealogical fiddling?2 They do have a certain amount of agency, but not very much; indeed, the woman with the most choice of her own fate in the text, who does anything other than what her male relatives want, is an unmarried noble girl who falls for a smooth-talking scoundrel and winds up betraying her lord’s castle and committing suicide. Despite this unprepossessing set of prospects, Emma argued, the (other) women in the story can still be associated with women who did exist, and the lifestyle and life options depicted here are probably not implausible, in which case while we may lament the patriarchy and so on, and not without reason, it may also be worth noticing that the author of the romance did give himself (I assume himself…) space to show his audience these women more or less happy in their successful and famous families, who listen to and love them. The fact that it’s possible to be happy while politically oppressed is obviously a dangerous thing to acknowledge if you want to remove the oppression, but the fact also surely has explanatory value when you want to know how the situation got that way at all…


1. If you want to read Tom at work you can try his “Royal Protections and Private Justice: a reassessment of Cnut’s ‘Reserved Pleas'” in Andrew Rabin, Stefan Jurasinski & Lisi Oliver (edd.), English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Medieval Law and its Practice 8 (Leiden 2010). The other thing that might be useful to put here is Patrick Wormald’s list of Anglo-Saxon lawsuits, called, fittingly enough, “A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Lawsuits” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 17 (Cambridge 1988), pp. 247-281.

2. I have linked above to an online translation of the story into English prose by Thomas Kelly, from Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (edd.), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo 1987) apparently, and there is a verse retelling by none other than Michael Rosen, with oodles of local photographs, here, if you can adjust to the rather different style, but the translation that Emma mentioned was Glynn S. Burgess (ed./transl.), Two Medieval Outlaws: Eustace the Monk and Fouke fitz Waryn (Woodbridge 1997). Emma’s paper is in fact already in print (since delivery), as “Fouke le Fitz Waryn: literary space for real women?’ in Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Medieval Practices of Space and Place, Parergon (New Series) Vol. 27 (Perth 2010), pp. 89-110, so there you are if this is your sort of stuff and you’d like better than my inexpert summary.

Someone is wrong on the Internet

XKCD strip 386

XKCD strip 386

That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).

DIgital Archaeology my Archive

The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:

Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.

The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.

And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.

I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid

On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:

It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.

At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.

Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:

“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.

“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.

“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”

You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.

Private Eye cover 1074

And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now

That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.


1. Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how the public purse is funding the guy.

Seminar LXXII: half of the world for a thousand years in one hour

On 3rd November 2010 the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research heard a paper entitled “Eurasia: society and solidarity 500-1500″. This, you might think, was just a bit ambitious, but as we rapidly learnt the paper had come about because the speaker had been asked to write an 8,000-word chapter for the Cambridge History of the Word covering that territory, and as we already knew, that speaker was Susan Reynolds, and though she professed ignorance and inadequacy throughout I can’t think of many people, if any, who could attempt this even if so asked, and not many more who might be asked. What we got was therefore a kind of first run that enabled all of us to put our areas of interest into a much bigger picture for a while. Summarising what was already a summary (except in as much as Susan probably had more space here than she will have in the chapter) doesn’t seem likely to succeed but I don’t think I can do much more; my notes for this paper run to two sides of narrow-lined longhand even before the questions started, I usually aim for half that, and that shows either how much I didn’t know or how well-packed the time was, I think the latter.

For Professor Reynolds the unifying theme of this huge spread, if there was one, was inequality: all societies of any size in this scope had haves and have-nots and the order in which they were arranged was usually fairly stable as long as not transgressed; polities were seen as natural, and this reinforced hierarchy. Even the poorest societies practised a hierarchy of genealogical structure, in the modern sense, or, as she said, “in my modern sense”. Most governments were monarchical, were expected to be such, and were challenged only by rivals for that status. Over the period these governments tended to have acquired more control of land and increased rights over it more generally. This was the development of the age that Susan thought could be most safely asserted as a generalisation. Land was always the basic source of power, even as professionalisation took hold towards the end of the period, but nowhere did a ruler hold all rights in his territory while, at the other end of the scale, very little property appears originally to have been held in common, as opposed to rights in property, which often were. Rights in property were usually very confused compared to most of our schema, and of course remain so. (Susan used herself as an example: “I’m a tenant of the Duke of Bedford, you know. It’s not feudal. It’s just how it is.”)

Map of the Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road

Production rose and populations expanded over the period, though again not continuously, not least because all areas, more or less, in this span were affected by the Black Death and its subsequent lighter-toned offspring, which travelled along the same routes as goods and ideas both, especially the Silk Road, one of the few things that gave the area Susan had been assigned any unity; although there was some argument afterwards about the importance of sea trade, this was, she argued, less steady and more variable than this long route along which wayside stops became hemisphere-famous cities. In other respects, though, the period was one in which large-scale social change is hard to assert, rather than shifting political configurations; technology and lifestyles were not very far from each other, viewed from outside the period, from 500 to 1500 across the area, especially compared to the advances and developments after this period. (David Ganz asked about before, and Susan agreed that that was probably very similar but that it was, thankfully, outside her remit here.)

Medieval hierarchy depicted; original source sadly unknown

Governments were layered, either hierarchically or from centre to periphery; connections between the two were made either by government officials or religious organisations, most often. Rulers were expected to give justice and take counsel, even eastern ‘despots’, in whom Susan found little reason to believe as the topos is largely based on court flattery writing aimed at the despots themselves whom it also usually urges to take counsel… Nonetheless, some rulers did not stay within the expectations of their societies and those in the most hierarchical organisations were the hardest to quell without terminal violence and upheaval, because their developed status made them invulnerable. Bureaucracy accrued with structure of government, but did not necessarily preserve that structure; it could often persist without the unity that had originally given it cause. Instead, political survival came best through solidarity, the acceptance of an order and development of an identity within it that could then be employed by others outside, if they would accept the existence of such groups. The larger your polity was, of course, the more disparate its member groups and the harder this was to do with any uniformity.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar debating different religions with scholars in his court

The Mughal Emperor Akbar (just slightly out of period) debating different religions with scholars in his court

Religion might lend some more egalitarian ideas, but more often was part of the hierarchy itself; this should not be allowed to shroud the extent to which rulers and religious clashed, which was common in many places. Christianity, among these religions, was unusual in its mobilisation against opponents, among whom cohabitation and mutual influence were more common. Another social glue was law, sometimes, but these often existed without any real influence detectable in the sources (which of course vary massively, another point of subsequent discussion, though less massively than we might suppose, Susan argued). Legislation through consensus achieved in assemblies was however common and sometimes effective, and almost all local government was done this way. Professional law declined in Islam and rose in Christianity over the period; one wonders why both, and will presumably never know.

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

Commemorative plaque at Santa Maria dAmer in Catalonia, recording the 1485 agreement between the peasant rising known as the Remences and their lords by King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragó, Count of Barcelona

In all areas, the bottom levels of society were roughly similar, and more or less enslaved, though Europe (alone?) had mechanisms of emancipation that could sometimes be called on and social mobility also came, here as elsewhere, from geographical mobility. Towns, contrary to popular wisdom, rarely made free and rarely gave impulse to democratic movements: this should not be taken as axiomatic. Collective action by the populations of towns was quite common, however, even if it did not institutionalise itself very widely. Class conflict also existed everywhere, as could be seen in the number of fairly hopeless revolts for goals we cannot now see clearly, for the most part, but which could probably usually be characterised as ‘justice’ rather than revolution, that is, uprisings were often aimed at a reversion to a status quo and almost never at a new order. Once more, most of the oppressed would accept a hierarchy if it were justly run. This was repeated several times and was clearly the point Susan felt most strongly about; it is certainly worth making before we allow too many generalisations about human nature and the desire to be free in the same sense that we now understand that word (i. e. idealistically).

The historiography available to Professor Reynolds was substantially Eurocentric, it’s worth noting, and this is a characteristic generally, she thought, of work covering this period, which is one set with reference to developments in Europe, developments furthermore that were subsequently exported or adopted overseas in many places, which makes that worse. Another characteristically Reynoldsian aside about words and their varied meanings (and do follow that link if you are fond of such things) in historical writing—which culminated with “serfs!”—drove the point home that the historiography has done the same thing in many cases, exporting European phenomena as terms locals would not have recognised for what they were used to identify.

The apparent steadiness of state that Susan had depicted led to a conversation in questions about what distinguished this period from others. She said that new ideas such as the Rights of Man and the State of Nature do in fact change things permanently; John Sabathapy said that he had felt while she talked that most differences she’d mentioned were surely geographically determined, not philosophically, but she argued that while the differences can and should be explained geographically, the similarities must be explained by ideas. This is logically really quite interesting, or perhaps illogically: it seems to me to imply a neutral space in the middle where something is neither similar nor different. This may not fit the binary well, but Susan is known for arguing that thinking in triads is better than in diads for your history… There is here considerable room for thought and, for those that want to think about it, may make it clear why the regulars at this seminar have such a great affection for Susan; she would say otherwise, I don’t doubt, but she is a very wise person, and few other people could have said anything coherent, still less anything as erudite as this was, about such a wide area and period.

Thanksgiving for Internet treasures

There is no doubt that this employment thing has cut into my blogging. I am badly behind with what I would like to write here: I have nine post stubs and six seminars I’d like to say something about here, and we’re almost out of year. So to try and clear backlog I’m going to lump proto-posts together and keep them short, and this is the first, in which I acknowledge two people for supplying links to things I’ve been wanting to be online for ages and which you may also enjoy.

With thanks to an ex-student

I have been after this quote for ages. I suspect that I met it somewhere in Rosamond McKitterick’s collected papers but foolishly imagined that I’d remember it rather than making a note. Now I have come across it while looking for something else entirely in the Livejournal of an ex-student who would probably rather not be identified, as the LJ itself does not identify them, so I shall have to hope they will be satisfied with this level of recognition.

O beatissime lector, lava manus tuas et sic librum adprehende leniter folia turna, longe a littera digito pone. Quia qui nescit scribere, putat hoc esse nullum laborem. O quam gravis est scriptura! Oculos gravat, renes frangit, simul et omnia membra contristat! Tria digita scribunt, totus corpus laborat. Quia sicut nauta desiderat uenire ad proprium portum, ita scriptor ad ultimum uersum.

The scribe then goes to explain that the illustrious Count Aumohenus ordered him to write this text, which is a copy of the Burgundian laws, and that is also really interesting, but it’s the quote I wanted not the context for all that.1 Returning to my informant’s words:

Roughly translated: O most fortunate reader, wash your hands and thus take hold of the book, turn the pages carefully, keep your hand far from the page! Those who don’t know how to write think it is easy. O how hard it is to write: your eyes are burdened, your kidneys break, and all of your limbs get discouraged. Three fingers do the writing, but your whole body works. Just as a sailor wishes to arrive at his home port, so does a scribe long for the last line.

I’d like to dedicate this to all of my current students who are facing Collections exams at the beginning of next term and hope it may ease your writers’ cramp. But then the second thing arrived! And this is, perhaps, weightier.

And with thanks to Alice Rio and ARTEM

Charter from before 1121

"Charte antérieure à l'année 1121", they say

You probably have to be a real charter geek to have heard of the ARTEM project, but it was considerable. Based at the University of Nancy,2 a team spent a long time building a database of all the surviving original medieval charters in France dating from before the year 1121. This is a fair few, even though it’s not, you know, Spain. They had both scans and transcriptions, all kinds of searchable stuff and generated not a little interesting scholarship about the documents they now knew better than anyone else (till Mark Mersiowsky came along). But you had to go to Nancy to use it, which meant that the dissemination of this data was, shall we say, restricted. Now, at last, the ever-estimable Alice Rio informs me that at least the texts are now online in full, here. I haven’t yet had time to properly explore what this means; at the very least, however, I expect to be a considerable help when I finally get round to reading my shelf-bound copy of Benoît-Michel Tock’s Scribes et souscripteurs in pursuit of my long-stalled ultimate paper on charters, probably shortly before finding that between Michel Zimmermann and Mark Mersiowksy‘s massive works since emerged I have nothing left to say.3 Which would, in some ways, be a relief, but being able to check in with the texts that Tock, who was part of the ARTEM team, will have cited will make that book a lot more enlightening than it might have been otherwise. Who knows what lurks therein to be found by the person with a particular enquiry? Maybe that person is you! If so, now you know where to enquire. And for now that must be all.


1. Georgius Heinricus Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum: Legum tomus III (Hannover 1863), pp. 588-589.

2. Where confusingly, since this project finished, they have reused the acronym ARTEM for something else entirely, unless I have got completely the wrong end of some or other stick.

3. Referring respectively to: the full version of the thing I gave as “Fixing documents in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in the first-ever Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session at Leeds, ‘Clods, Altars, Donors and Records: Reading Narratives and Emotions in Early Medieval Charters’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 11th July 2006, which is likely to remain in progress a lot longer alas; to M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols; and Mark Mersiowsky, Die Urkunde in der Karolingerzeit. Originale, Urkundenpraxis und politische Kommunikation, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) 60 (Hannover forthcoming).

Deintellectualising King Alfred

The largest of my responsibilities in this job I have (for which some day there will be institutional web evidence) is coordinating the lecture series that serves the British early medieval survey course, British History I (300-1087). Partly out of wanting to hear what the students were getting, and partly out of wanting to be sure they ran all right, I attended all but one of these lectures in the term just gone, which means that I’ve heard some very notable people lecturing on their best subjects, which is almost always good. And of course, since these are not my best subjects, it’s not just the students who have been learning things…

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark whose inscription proclaims, "Alfred had me made"

King Alfred, as George Molyneaux told ‘my’ students, has been blamed for an awful lot that can’t really be substantiated, single-handedly defeating the Vikings (his son and daughter deserve quite a lot of credit too), building towns all over England and shiring it (again, more credit due to his successors) and founding the royal navy (actually just ordered some new ships that in the end didn’t work out), but one thing for which he does stand out in the scholarship is his interest in matters intellectual, which is supposed to have extended to getting translated a set of ‘certain books that are the most needful for men to know’, which were, as it’s usually counted, the first fifty Psalms, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (where this preface is to be found), the Soliloquies of St Augustine, On the Consolation of Philosophy by Bœthius, Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, mentions Alfred as having worked with a team of scholars to translate Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, and somewhere out there this court probably produced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too; it’s all fairly impressive.1 But, George warned the students, an article by Malcolm Godden has recently called all this into question. “Your tutors probably haven’t read this article yet,” he added, “so if you use it in an essay you’ll need to explain it, not just reference it”, which was a little close to the bone perhaps but, I have to admit for myself, true. George however wins prizes for being conspicuously clever, and is better-informed than almost anyone. So I patched my lack of knowledge in this respect at least, and have now seen what the argument is.2

Basically, Godden puts the evidence that all supposedly relates to this supposed phenomenon together and finds it seriously inconsistent. Asser mentions none of the rest of the works, only the Dialogues, and since Asser stopped writing a scant six years before the king’s death in 899, that really doesn’t leave a lot of time for a man who’d only recently learnt Latin to do all the rest, especially given the Viking army in the country between 892 and 896. Some might say, of course, that Asser is a forgery in which case ‘his’ estimate of the king’s Latinity isn’t to be taken literally, but the years don’t get much longer even then due to other factors. The prefaces to the other works refer to their other versions in ways that show that they are posterior to the translation dates and there is a severe shortage of known scholars writing in the West Saxon dialect in which most of these texts (and the Chronicle) now exist (as opposed to the Mercian one that colours the Dialogues). Several of the works also offer frank criticisms of bad kingship that seem implausible coming out of a court project. It all makes the traditional picture hard to sustain. You’ll have to assess it yourself—the paper seems to be online for free through FindArticles though who knows how long that will last?—but I think at least the Consolation of Philosophy and the Soliloquies probably have to be accepted as later translations identified as Alfred’s to bring them attention. Godden concludes that Alfred didn’t actually translate any of these texts, and it’s possibly easier to agree with him than to say why one shouldn’t.

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20 but here reproduced from Wikimedia Commons

This is not completely to demolish the idea of Alfred’s court as a centre of intellectual renewal and the headquarters of a battle for the incipient nation’s mind, however: Asser, if we accept him, testifies to the Dialogues (and to Alfred’s own interest in them even if the others in the team did the actual word-work); we can still securely date the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilation to 892; and the Pastoral Care is preserved early enough that it too must be from Alfred’s reign.3 So something was going on, even if the king wasn’t himself penning them. Given the which, does this actually matter very much?

The principal reason that it matters to me is that the example of Alfred as historian-king has often been used as a parallel to an almost-contemporary one, King Alfonso III of Asturias, who has been claimed as author of the Chronicle that bears his name.4 Alfonso clearly also had the court full of scholars, and also a far better library, but the same arguments of how busy warrior kings surely were have been raised against the idea.5 What may have made Alfred slightly more plausible is that he was aiming for work in the vernacular, which is at first take easier to imagine for us who have to learn to write Latin specially, but in Alfred’s day of course literacy would have been Latin first and vernacular second, and in any case translating into English from (extremely sophisticated) Latin requires a mastery of both tongues so that doesn’t help.6 For everyone other than the Hispanists, however, the importance is that these works are some of the principal evidence for Alfred as architect of an idea of English political unity, for which some of these texts seem well-suited, most obviously Orosius and Bede. The Pastoral Care seems more like a text for governors, which fits with other things that Asser says about encouraging a literate nobility, and might fit into other views of the court but what I think of as the ‘Angelcynn’ hypothesis is at least partly supported on these texts being part of a bigger Alfredian plan.7 Now we have to consider that, possibly, we can’t show Alfred had any such plan after all. Worried, evidently, that the lid on the coffin of this thesis wasn’t yet firmly fixed in place, George last year added a piece of his own (I now discover) looking specifically at the Old English Bede, and pointing out that much of the one-people-one-country stuff that Bede’s original contains (among other more plural takes on the island’s Anglo-Saxon population) is omitted from the Old English version, which seems instead to concentrate on the stories to encourage good behaviour at the expense of the history and national framework.8 This seems to make it part of the how-to-behave school of texts such as the Dialogues, Pastoral Care and Consolation now seem, as opposed to a bigger project of nationality-building. Fair enough! I don’t mind rethinking Alfred to this extent; he’s still always going to be remarkable in terms of quantity and quality of information (at least as long as we can maintain our faith in Asser).

[Edit: image changed to match caption!]

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The only thing that still bugs me, and about which I must ask George when next I see him, is that somewhere out there someone around that court was still building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while its agenda may well be more West Saxon (as the most successful and surviving of a number of accepted and equally-old royal dynasties it cheerfully mentions9) than pan-English, it’s definitely a bit more than a self-help text. While we still have someone (and who, for heavens’ sake?) doing that, the size and scope of the political picture at Alfred’s court can’t be too completely underestimated, I think.


1. This is all set out most accessibly in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 25-35 where the Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms are reckoned Alfred’s own work on the basis of stylistic similarities to the Pastoral Care‘s text.

2. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23, on which all this paragraph is based.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Edited and translated into Castilian in J. Gil Fernández (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985) and French in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987). There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999 without visible changes) but I hesitate to recommend it as it freely selects between the two quite different versions of the Chronicle according to an agenda I think belongs to only one of them. The most strident assertion of royal authorship inevitably came from Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in his “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section, “Apéndice 2″, repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 97-108.

5. Compare Bonnaz, Chroniques, pp. LIII-LVII with J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, “La cultura en la corte ovetense del siglo IX” in Gil et al., Crónicas Asturianas, pp. 11-42 at pp. 38-41.

6. For more on this theme see Susan E Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 36-62.

7. Named after Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 25-49 but most eminently espoused in Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24, repr. in idem, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Oxford 2003), pp. 359-382.

8. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323.

9. The fact that it arguably manages the equally-old bit by bodging the landing of the West Saxon royal ancestors Cerdic and Cynric back about fifty years to me reinforces this idea that the editors were involved in a competition that took in more than just Wessex, though as discussed here before the material they were using may not have served that purpose in its original form. For the fifty-year bump see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

You know you’re a medievalist when…

… you find that you’re referencing Patrick Geary* when trying to comfort another medievalist after a messy break-up. <sigh>

Sorry, there will be more substantive content soon. This last week has mostly been interviews and spare time has been hard to find.


* The cognitive psychology bit in Phantoms of Remembrance about how human memory constantly over-writes the previous stored version of a memory with the recalled one, since you ask.

Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna. Always start posts like this with skeletons!

A while back now I blogged a paper that Caroline Goodson had given at the Institute of Historical Research in London about a site in Italy where she was working and where it seemed likely that they had found a room in which two Roman emperors had enjoyed a drink together and one later written about it. Caroline‘s been a friend and/or teacher of mine since I was still doctorising, so when she came to Oxford this term with an update I made sure I was there to hear. She presented it at the Medieval Archaeology seminar on 1st November 2010, and the title was simply “Excavations at Villa Magna”.

Portal of the church at Villamagna

Portal of the church at Villamagna – observe the many different sorts of stonework

They’ve come a long way since 2007, when they had basically uncovered the Roman villa and some confusing floors elsewhere on the site and just begun on the cemetery in front of the Church, from which in the end more than five hundred separate bodies have now come. They’re now therefore able to say, assuming that I can correctly interpret my notes and that I understood right when I wrote them, that the church, which is extremely mixed-up in its surviving fabric as the illustration above makes clear, goes back in some parts to a point somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries and was being modified almost as soon as it was up and running. Similarly over the course of this period, what had been a portico to this villa that had a semi-industrial wine production centre elsewhere on the site briefly became the home to that production—probably using, as it turns out, the same dolia that the team had presumed stolen from the earlier location—but was very soon after emptied out again, after which the roof collapsed. The building was then partially cleared and huts built, inside the still-standing walls. These were in their turn demolished for what seems to have been fortification in the fifth-to-sixth centuries but the area, which stands close to the slowly-filling cemetery, was being used for settlement and burial again by the eighth-to-ninth centuries.

[Edit: the below image changed and various alterations made (and indicated) thanks to input from Dr Goodson herself!]

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

In the tenth century this place became a monastery, and a monastery whose charters have been published.1 This, for me, would be the interesting bit, except that the three founders of the monastery appear to have been Anagni citizens of no great importance, so guessing how they had got hold of this site, which had been an imperial villa and then a papal possession is utterly obscure. (In conversation afterwards with Caroline I decided that what I thought most probable was that these were vassals of the bishop of Anagni, who would probably have got the site from the papacy some time before, but since I have not actually seen the charters or read any of the literature this can only be the most arrant and careless hypothesis.2 Comparing these charters with those of Anagni, if any survive there, might prove interesting, all the same.) On the other hand, while the question of succession and foundation and patronage may be the most interesting bit for me, the excavators and team generally are probably more interested in the site as a whole, where the monastery lasts as a set of structures till about 1400 but which also has several other zones, including a late Antique building they’re identifying as a barracks, a later castle (inevitably) and of course the old villa. The latest report on their excellent website [has even more stuff in it, so, if] you want to know more, therefore, look at the site! Because what they are looking at here is succession, but of a slightly broader sort than the narrow who-controls-the-means-of-production way I would usually think; what we’ve got here is a succession to the ancient world, in which an imperial property becomes something like a modern French château, a fortress, a village, a monastery and then a village again.

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

This change of worlds was also brought out by a question of Lesley Abrams‘s at the very end, about the origins of goods showing up as finds evidence. Caroline said that there was Byzantine and North African material showing up until the seventh century, Sicilian and Constantinopolitan until 700, and thereafter the economy of the site seems to have gone almost completely local, making its own pottery, not even getting goods from Rome, and doesn’t really reconnect until 1296 when the monastery was suppressed. Chris Wickham (also present, unsurprisingly) has written about this kind of change as seen in pottery but an actual site with things you can see on it shows maybe even more clearly how small these places’ worlds, that had been pan-Imperial, quickly got, and how local any kind of power and influence must have been.3 Here, three unknown citizens from Anagni with a land-grant can become bigshots in a site where emperors once drank. It’s not quite the kind of ‘end of civilisation’ that Bryan Ward-Perkins (also present…) has written about, not least because here the buildings went on for a while in various configurations, but it’s a fairly major set of changes that this kind of study lets us put together as part of a bigger story.4


1. Published as, I learn from the project’s website’s full bibliography, C. D. Flascassovitti (ed.), Le Pergamene del Monastero di S. Pietro di Villamagna (976-1237) (Lecce 1994).

2. From that same bibliography I learn that, until this project’s report comes out, the works of reference would be M. De Meo, S. Pietro di Villamagna presso Anagni: una villa romana si trasforma in abbazia, Quaderni di architettura e restauro 2 (Rome 1998) and G. Giammaria (ed.), Villamagna, Monumenti di Anagni 3 (Anagni 1999). The team’s provisional reports can however be found here.

3. Chris’s point of view could be found, among other places, in his “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98.

4. Most obviously B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford 2005).