Seminars LXXXVI-LXXXIX: four for the price of one

(Written offline between approximately Andorra and the Isle of Wight, courtesy of British Airways, 12/04/11)

Front Court, All Soul's College

Front Court, All Soul's College (the Medieval History Seminar is up the last staircase on the right)

By the time I can post this I’ll be back, and with loads to write, but of course I already had loads to write so something must be done. By a happy coincidence, however, the next few seminars I wanted to write up, all Oxford ones, were one where I had less than usual to say, in each case for a different reason, so I’m going to rattle through them quickly, without prejudice to the speakers I hope, and then move on to the more recent matters.

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing, from Wikimedia Commons

In the first of these cases, when none other than Steffen Patzold spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 14th February 2011, the reason I have little to say is that his paper was all around one core point, argued elegantly and persuasively, but which is if he is right bad news for Carolingianists. His title, belying this rake in the grass with its innocuousness, was “Einhard’s First Readers”, and what he was doing was studying early reception of the most famous work of the eponymous biographer of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli. By early I mean really early, in one case contemporary; the two readers he looked at were Lupus of Ferrières and Walahfrid Strabo, the former of whom corresponded with Einhard, including flattering him about the biography in order to wheedle books out of him.1 Walahfrid, too late to have known Einhard himself, wrote a shiny new preface for the Vita emphasising how reliable Einhard’s testimony was since he had known the emperor himself, and so on. Lupus on the other hand paid little attention to the contents but lauded the Ciceronian style, including completing a quotation of Cicero that Einhard had used in the Vita in his letter of self-introduction.

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard, image from Wikimedia Commons

Steffen’s contention was, basically, that Lupus understood what Einhard had intended better than did Walahfrid, that the Vita, which is as Steffen showed heavily larded with Ciceronian references, was mainly intended to demonstrate Einhard’s skill with Latin, perhaps by way of engineering a renewal of his importance at court. Steffen even argued that from what the scholars of the time knew of Cicero, especially that he had written his Tusculan Disputations when similarly removed from court on the Classical equivalent of garden leave, Einhard would have probably felt keenly similar to Cicero (and, we established in questions, would not have known about the great rhetor’s rather unpleasant end). It all added up very neatly. The reason that this is bad news for Carolingianists, who have been trying to date the Vita by reference to its contents and their potential contemporary allusions for many years now (a debate I have even seen conducted in filk) is that it makes it likely that the actual content of Einhard’s Vita Karoli is similarly bent to a rhetorical end first and foremost, with the actual historical accuracy we have all hoped for possibly rather less important. In other words, it may just sound good, and never mind the facts. Walahfrid, of course, tells us otherwise, but if Steffen’s right Walahfrid must have been wrong, which is not something one often gets to say.

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on 16th February, Vivien Prigent addressed the Oxford Byzantine History Seminar to the title, “The Myth of the Mancus and The Origins of the European Economy“. Here he was addressing a very old numismatic dispute about what, exactly, the coins that the sources of the European eighth to tenth centuries call mancusi actually were. They occur first of all in Italy, and were plainly gold and apparently Eastern in some sense but within those brackets many possibilities exist: Byzantine solidi, Muslim dinars, and so on, In 1959 Philip Grierson published an article called “The Myth of the Mancus” that tried to settle this, which he subsequently had to admit was wrong, arguing that the word should be understood to mean ‘defective’ and that they were just low-weight solidi; others subsequently argued that in fact the word derived from the Arabic ‘manqush’, ‘engraved’, and that it referred to dinars struck by the Caliphate after the reform of the Islamic coinage that stopped the use of figural representation on the coins.2 There are to my mind a bunch of reasons that looks convincing: that coins that would fit the explanation exist and have been found in the right places, that this is what King Offa of Mercia apparently strikes at about the time that the term is first seen in England (seen above), and the negative argument that the standard coin in Europe at the time was called denarius in Latin so that the term ‘dinar’ would have been effectively indistinguishable by ear for many – they would have had to have another name and we do have Arabic sources calling these things ‘dinara manqushi’ (forgive dodgy Arabic, or indeed correct it if you like), albeit not till later on.

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Vivien however argued that everyone has been wrong, and that the metrology and the early Italian instances can only really be explained by reference to Sicilian-minted Byzantine solidi. This certainly does seem to fit the Italian finds evidence, and at least fits the (Italian) metrology better than full-weight dinars, but to my mind still has two problems. One is that he was arguing his weights of coins by taking a mid-point between an ideal weight and a mean weight of finds; coins are of course almost always found worn and so the real mint weight is a matter of assumption, but the ideal standard is thus itself derived from the surviving specimens so this is only slightly more rigorous than the kind of `rounding up’ I have decried in this game before. The other obvious problem is that the term ‘mancus‘ is much more widely used than the distribution of the Sicilian coins, not least in Catalonia where it certainly does refer to dinars, something that we know because in 1018 a Barcelona Jew called Bonhom was contracted to produce them locally and some of his signed coins exist (pictured above).3 If, therefore, Vivien is to be right, and on his own ground he looks convincing, it means that we have to assume that the word quickly got out of Italy, where it meant something quite specific, and then was almost immediately used to mean pretty much any foreign gold coin, everywhere except Italy. That might be arguable (and indeed Vivien argued it), but, nonetheless, in other contexts there is no similar alternative to the dinar theory and fairly incontrovertible evidence for it (some of which I’ve given above). There are ways in which Vivien’s more complicated answer might be more realistic, and we can probably all think of a historian who would caution us against assuming that words always mean the same thing, but Occam’s Razor vibrates like an electro-magnet when brought near this theory even so and I for one am tempted to cut.

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch, from Wikimedia Commons

The very next day I then went to a paper at the Oxford Late Roman Seminar, by one Simon Ford to the title, “Take Us To Your Leader': the mechanics of ecclesiastical authority in the exilic Monophysite Church (AD 518-638)”. I confess that I did this under a misapprehension brought on by ignorance: I’ve got more and more interested in the Christian sects that began to leave the Byzantine Empire in the era after the Council of Chalcedon after teaching them this term gone, and I understood `exilic’ to mean groups outside the Empire whereas Mr Ford was actually talking about the disenfranchised Church inside the Empire. That’s one reason I have little to say, the other is that the presenter was painfully nervous and had to basically restart every sentence at least once. The effect of this was that as the end of his hour approached he had only got halfway through his text, which had probably seemed a completely reasonable length in front of the mirror, and had to skip to the end missing what seemed as if it was the interesting bit, in which rather than plotting the decline in the status of the kind of patrons that the clergy of the Monophysite Church were able to attract after 518, when they were ruled against (as evidenced basically in the letters of Bishop Severus of Antioch, who seems to be Mr Ford’s main subject), he would have talked about the way that this counter-intuitively forced the exilic Church into the arms of the Emperor, as no lesser patrons remained who might help. The Byzantine double-think involved here, where the clerics of a sect whom you, as Emperor, have removed from office are still important men whose dignity you respect and whose protection you order when necessary, would have been very interesting to hear more about, and it was a pity the paper wound up the way it did.

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Then last in this batch, I arrived late by reason of idiocy to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 21st February when Anne Pedersen was presenting to the title “New Discoveries at the Royal Site of Jelling, Denmark”, a site that she has more information on than is yet published and which I wish I’d been sharp enough to hear more about. By the end of the paper I’d managed to gather a picture of a diamond-shaped walled palace complex with one, maybe two entrances, neither on the obvious approach road, with a massive ship-setting of stones from point to point of the diamond. My natural inclination is to be sceptical about monumental alignments but this one is hard to ignore. Jelling fits into a hierarchy of similar sites in Denmark, and is predictably at the top (in a 1-2-3 size ratio with Trelleborg and Aggersborg). It also experienced conversion, as its famous rune-stone (there’s a 3D visualisation behind that link) more or less informs us: Dr Pedersen was not able to end the speculation about what might have happened to King Harald Bluetooth’s illustrious forebears who should, presumably, be in the site’s burial mounds but aren’t—one is empty, one emptied—but the church is hardly central and exactly how the site was articulated and how people moved through it may be the next thing to start trying to work out so as to solve questions like these. Whatever the answer is, it can be unusually short-term; the fixtures at all three of these sites appear never to have been repaired or replaced, we’re looking at a single generation in which power was expressed through a new form of building that then apparently became redundant. While they were up and running, though, there were people there: Dr Pedersen had emphasised the almost total absence of finds in the palace precinct, and as Rosamund Faith pointed out in questions, this must imply management of the site, unless no-one ever came there. So there’s lots still to work out, even after lots of digging.


1. My abiding impression of reading Lupus’s letters (in the translation of Graydon W. Regenos as The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966)) is that this was the key motive behind all of Lupus’s letters, and that his correspondence can be divided into three phases, (early) you’re so great and I hear you have a copy of [x] I’d like to borrow, (middle) your copy of [x] is quite safe with me and will soon be sent back, honest, and (late) wah no-one will lend me books why is the world so cruel? I may do him the injustice of rapid reading though, it was a while ago I formed this impression. I assume that you know Einhard’s work, but in case not the translation of resort is now that of David Ganz, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), replacing the older one of the same title by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1969, repr. 1984 and often thereafter). The still older one of Samuel Turner is online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook here.

2. Philip Grierson, “Carolingian Europe and the Arabs: the myth of the mancus” in Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire vol. 31 (Bruxelles 1954), pp. 1059-1074; repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), III with important addenda. Cf. among others Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543.

3 On these and other imitative mancusi see now Lutz Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. `Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit” in Reinhard Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Klüßendorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hannover 2004), pp. 91-106, a reference for which I must thank Dr Marcus Phillips.

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15 responses to “Seminars LXXXVI-LXXXIX: four for the price of one

  1. New religion? New royal complex that lasted only one generation? All we need now is a burial field of slaves worked to death and we’ve got something like a Northern Akenaten!

    • Except that here the religion sticks! If I recall correctly Dr Pedersen suggested that the lack of renewal might mean that these sites were successful, that the political domination they defended was in fact embedded, and so they don’t need to be replaced. But I’ve not made the chronology clear, I shall have to fix this: the sites are pre-Harald Bluetooth, probably put up under his father Gorm (who is supposed to be buried at Jelling) and whomever he was working with; Gorm and perhaps his wife were laid down at Jelling, presumably in the two burial mounds; then Harald succeeded, converted, built a church in the middle of the site and put up his famous runestone, moved Gorm’s body into the church (no sign of the lady though) and all apparently passed on into a new Christian sæculum. So the politics and the conversion were not working in parallel. The traditional explanation that Dr Pedersen’s was a reaction against—I think, this was a while ago now—is therefore that conversion makes these efforts redundant. But really, who gives up on a fortified army base in tenth-century Scandinavia? I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom of this yet.

      • There’s a reconstruction of the site as it’s now (re)envisioned here. Fixing the dates of Gorm and Harald, and Svein Forkbeard’s accession is seriously problematic: not least because of the rather ‘imaginative’ interventions by Adam of Bremen, who had far more and bigger axes to grind than even your average febrile ecclesiastical chronicler. (It’s *amazing* how often one still finds people using Adam as their lodestone in early Danish history…) The trouble is, efforts to get past Adam have depended largely on the supposition that the dendro-dated burial chamber in the north mound belonged to Gorm (before he got ‘translated’…). There are some interesting reminders of difficulties with the conventional narrative in Niels Lund’s ‘Harald Bluetooth – a Saint very nearly made by Adam of Bremen’, in The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century, ed. J. Jesch (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 303-315. Lund wrote that long before the current excavations of course; for an act of historiographical provocation based on the first season of the new excavations, see also Klavs Randsborg’s ‘Kings’ Jelling: Gorm and Thyra’s palace — Harald’s monument — Svend’s cathedral’, Acta Archaeologica 79:1 (2008), 1–23. Possible rearrangements suggested in these pieces don’t necessarily have greater force than the standard version, but they supply instructive caveats. Hopefully the archaeologists will find something that answers a few of the historical questions–but I suspect we’re going to end up with a lot more. In the meantime, it’s still kind of fun to consider (until we’re told not to) the possibility of a lost ship-setting *substantially* longer than the Titanic.

        • Thankyou as ever for the references, I’m always up for reading Niels Lund throwing firecrackers into the history playpen. Dr Pedersen appeared to take the ship setting as read, and certainly it seems to me that it is visible, in its northern part, on the Google Maps images linked above. But of course, Google Earth does not a firm archaeological date give…

          • The remains of the ship setting have been interpreted in various different ways… Until now the only definite signs of it were some stones under the south mound, the construction of which (in about 970) seems to have corresponded with the destruction of the setting. After the 1941 excavations Ejnar Dyggve saw these stones as the apex of a gigantic v-shaped ‘sanctuary’ (Dan. ‘vi’) which only extended as far as the site of the north mound. In the 1960s Olaf Olsen did a pretty good job of pulling apart fanciful reconstructions of sanctuaries of this sort (although some of his views on other sorts of cult sites have been revised since the 1990s). With Krogh’s digs in the 1970s, a bronze-age barrow found under the north mound was taken as the original northern terminus for what was now reinterpreted as a ship-setting supposed to have been built by Gorm for Queen Thyre in 940×960 (dated partly on the bais of Adam’s chronology). Less than half the length of what’s now envisaged, it would still have been by far the biggest in Scandinavia. There are a couple of similar arrangements with a ship setting running up to an ancient mound elsewhere in Denmark. Basically it would have looked like the monuments at Anundshög in Sweden–although in this case only with one big setting… There’s always been uncertainty about whether the stones under the present north mound, which Krogh thought formed the prow of his ship were not actually part of the old barrow: and it now turns out that they were, and that the barrow and its C10th redevelopment lay at the centre of a ship setting double the size of the one Krogh imagined. As you note, the shape of the setting in its maximal outline appears to be detectable in the shape of the churchyard. But for comparison it’s worth bearing in mind that the largest surviving ship setting in Scandinavia (if I remember rightly) is Ales stenar, in southern Sweden, which is a mere 67 metres long, not even 20% of the length of the monster at Jelling.

    • Late C12th Danes were as impressed as we are by this place, which evidently focussed stories about Harald Bluetooth’s authoritarian kingship, and its implications for supply-side economics: they liked to think that they had ways of dealing with over-assertive rulers and the concomitant labour issues. Sven Aggesen wrote of Harald: ‘This was the first king to reject the filth of idolatry and worship the cross of Christ. However, he sent his army to haul the immense rock which he intended to raise over his mother’s mound in memory of her achievements, and disorder began to seethe among the people. It was caused both by the new religious observances and by the unbearable servile yoke. Then the commons broke out in rebellion against the king, and all together they drove him from the kingdom.’

  2. (An aside on places: Jelling, too.)

  3. Pedantic comment, but Thorpe’s Penguin ‘Two Lives’ translation of Einhard and Notker was redone in 2008 by David Ganz: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Two-Lives-Charlemagne-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140455051/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1303425416&sr=8-1

    • Thankyou for that, I had for some reason got the idea that David had just added a new introduction in that printing, not that he’d redone the whole thing. That makes it something of a desideratum (and also means I must tweak some reading lists…)! I shall edit accordingly.

  4. Isn’t the first seminar’s argument (Prof Patzold on Einhard’s VCM) mostly contained within the envelope of this:

    http://brepols.metapress.com/content/j203674xrr343153/

    • Not entirely. Reference was made to that article in several places, and you’ll notice that whereas that one thinks that the rhetoric employed can be used to date the Vita, Steffen’s final conclusion was that it couldn’t. He thinks the political contexts that Kempshall sees in the Vita can’t be relied on and that its purpose should be seen primarily as a personal advertisement of the author’s skill. If I didn’t make that clear, I’m sorry, I did mean to.

      • Ah no it’s okay, your summary is clear, I’d just forgotten that MSK does indeed suggest a political context for the ‘Vita’, while also relating most of its elements to models from Cicero.

  5. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 7 « Contagions

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