At the very tail end of last term, I went slightly out of my usual paths to go to a couple of papers, Gabor Thomas presenting to the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Medieval Seminar in London to the title, “Settlement Dynamics and Monastic Foundation in pre-Viking England: new perspectives from excavations at Lyminge, Kent” on the 30th November 2010, and then James Howard-Johnston giving the inaugural lecture at the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research on the 3rd December 2010. His title was “The Seventh Century and the Formation of Byzantium”.
I’d wanted to chase down Gabor because I’d not been able to make it when he’d presented about the same site in Oxford for some footling reason, and it sounded interesting. As he said at the outset, such a variety of monastic sites have lately been excavated (or in some cases, published having been excavated long before)—Inchmarnock, Portmahomack, Wearmouth-Jarrow, Nendrum—that our pictures of what an early insular monastery looks like in the ground has been greatly diversified just lately. Lyminge is seemingly going to add to this by not looking like the classic church-buildings-inside-a-vallum model that we had once been used to, but like a big basilical affair right next to a royal vill (in which latter respect, at least, it does seem fairly typical).1 It was a mother church for its area that lost its importance once its relics (of St Ethelburga) were moved to Canterbury for protection during the Viking attacks of the ninth century, and the town has more or less left the church alone so there was plenty to find, though much more may well be under houses. There were Frankish artefacts coming up from sixth-century contexts, so we can assume it’s begun in the conversion period, and there are two cemeteries which may relate to the settlement, not the minster (an ambiguous word I use deliberately because we can’t even agree on what the difference is, still less whether we can detect it in the ground).2 A small cluster of sunken-featured buildings showed specialised craft production debris, especially glass of which there was an unusually high amount, including window glass, which some sources would suggest had to be imported from Francia at this time (as indeed it might have been). There was no vallum. There was, however, a large building to the south with a metalled floor which Gabor thought was best explained as a threshing barn, though he did point out that diagnostically it was no different from many things that have been called halls and used to argue for high-status occupation, and invited us to think about that if we like. Being sure what was the vill and what the church, and whether they were united or contemporary was tricky with the data to hand, but it seems clear that the site was busy with stuff and that it helps us broaden in various ways our range of ideas about what a really early Anglo-Saxon church might have been like.
Rather less specific and local was Professor Howard-Johnston’s lecture, delivered to commemorate the fact that just before the cuts hit Oxford has managed to establish a shiny new and very well-housed Byzantinists’ centre. Few could give better perspective on this than Professor Howard-Johnston, who has been teaching in Oxford for nearly fifty years and remembers being the only postgraduate in the university doing Byzantine stuff. Now there are fifty, almost all of whom (to judge from irreverent murmurings in the stalls) he had taught at some point. This doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, except in as much as he overran badly—but he managed to wrap this into his act, pointing out how many minutes more he’d slipped by every time he finished a section. No-one was going to miss this anyway and he knew it.
The sum of the lecture appeared to be an explanation of what I thought was a forthcoming book, but which appears to have actually come forth a little while ago, and which I’m guessing will be very important. One of the problems with teaching the ‘Rise of Islam’ is that almost all the secondary work in English is by Hugh Kennedy. Now, Hugh is a friend and I love his work; he and Rosamond McKitterick vie for top place in number of books I own by academics. But one voice, especially such an authoritatively learned one, does not encourage the students to argue or to go and get messy with the sources, not least because most of the sources are not in languages they read. Hugh’s concentration, especially lately I think it’s fair to say, has been on the Arabic material, which Western scholars grow less and less happy about relying on because of the very long chains of manuscript transmission, over centuries, and because of studies that have (irreverently and disrespectfully, to some more traditional scholars’ minds) checked to see what this transmission was like in the places where it’s possible and found it wanting somewhat.3 Hugh’s most recent book therefore did a deconstruction on this literature looking for the stories it wanted to tell about a past it doesn’t really reflect. Now, however, here is Professor Howard-Johnston saying, well, we need to get all the material on the table together. This results in a very large book (and a consequently sturdy table I assume) in which he has treated the Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Latin and Arabic sources (I may have missed some here) for the Near East in the seventh century and, contrary to the current wisdom, finds that the Arabic material, however shaky it ought to be, is fairly close to the other sources in many matters of fact and chronology.4 It is not that they are without distortion (the capture of Jerusalem, usually placed shortly before 638, was probably much earlier, and the Shi’ite founder ‘Alī’s sons would seem to have fought on for twenty years after he was driven into exile, putting the pact that allowed the Umayyads to rule in more or less peace in 680 not 661 as it is usually reckoned), but it is less bad than has been alleged, or so he himself alleges. This has knock-on effects that will take a long time to consider.
In this lecture, however, Professor Howard-Johnston was deploying all this to settle the question, ‘when should we stop talking about the Eastern Roman Empire and start talking about Byzantium?’ For him, this is a question about the rise of Islam, hence all the source-gathering, but he opted for Autumn 644, when the first convoy of African grain came into Medina. We, knowing what was to come, can now see this as the beginning of a new world order, all very Pirennian (and that most famous of Belgians seems to be back in vogue in Oxford this winter as shall be told). To contemporaries, of course, even though the West and Middle East were lost, it was not clear that this would be so definitive; in the end, however, Byzantium is what is left holding out against Islam, and indeed almost the only state of the time that does, buffering the others to its eventual loss. A massive pressure on resources must have resulted, explaining a lot of Byzantium’s subsequent internal problems, and the Turks become very important, which of course also has its problems. But, Byzantium endures, and it endures partly by ceasing trying to be Rome, argued Professor Howard-Johnston: by lowering the scale of its warfare, going guerilla rather than field army, playing enemies off against each other rather than swatting or subverting them individually, fighting sieges not field battles, and fighting almost all the time against a superior superpower. Others might disagree, I suspect, but in this lecture at least, that was the making of Byzantium, a remnant polity forged in a determined effort to survive. It was a good lecture. The book looks like a bit of a challenge, but it’s obviously going to have to come on board after this. Of course, I thought the same about Hugh’s new one after his inaugural lecture, so it will be interesting to see who wins…
1. Chris Lowe, Inchmarnock. An Early Historic island monastery and its archaeological landscape (Edinburgh 2008); Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008); Rosemary Cramp, Wearmouth and Jarrow monastic sites (London 2005), 2 vols; T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides: The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007). These were four of about eight books whose covers Gabor had on a slide, and I’m afraid the only ones I noted; some of the rest was a bit more southern, I think.
2. On which, classically, John Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.
3. Most famously Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2004) and now idem, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).
4. As you can see above, James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001.