Seminar XCIV: cows, mills and bullion from the Duero to Dublin

Life seems at the moment determined to carry me relentlessly between cities, but I have plenty of good reasons to be in Cambridge at almost any time, and so when I learnt that on 17th March the Chadwick Memorial Lecture would be given there by none other than Professor Emerita Wendy Davies, it seemed rather as if a number of birds had queued up in front of my metaphorical mangonel. This was not least because her title was “Water mills and cattle standards: probing the economic comparison between Ireland and Spain in the early Middle Ages”, which may not sound so great in a detached way but Wendy is a person who can give a fascinating seminar paper about a single charter formula; her fans, among whom I freely number myself, must have known this would be good. And so it was. While a comparison between Spain and Ireland in the early Middle Ages may not seem that intuitive, it’s surprising how well it works (as long as you stick with Northern, Christian, Spain anyway). For example, Ireland is famous now for medieval mills; Spain has fewer known in archæology (and much less archæology generally, though there is apparently hope for a dig of a Leonese market site which would hopefully be fascinating) but does have lots of recorded disputes over them; both countries are also famous to medievalists for using cattle as currency (even if some of us disagree as to their value), and though there are other similarities these were the ones Wendy decided to use as wedges to open up the nature of early medieval societies a bit.

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

There are also differences. You won’t see documents like this in Ireland, but on the other neither will you find 50,000 ringforts in Spain, and though there are forts, very few have been dug. The climates obviously differ, though by less than you might expect in Atlantic, misty Galicia. Nonetheless, Wendy also detected similarities in the persistence of tradition, both regions having seventh-century law active in their courts till much later, for example, and using sculpted stones as boundary markers; in transactional language (and here, I have to admit, I find my notes less convincing than I found the lecture); in the importance of cereals, which is to say considerable but far from total, and in the growth of this cultivation over the ninth and tenth centuries (though that, I think, you would see in most places); in valuation, which was sometimes by cattle and otherwise by metal or other goods (in Spain the metal was notionally coined silver but only in Catalonia, which Wendy as usual disclaimed, was that coin actually available), with massive variation;1 and therefore in the exchange of unlike things, which means that there was some kind of commercial infrastructure in both places. Again, where not, you might wonder, but the evidence we have to demonstrate this is weirdly similar in its difference in these two places compared to elsewhere, where it is usually simply money (though that, as we know, need not always imply trade).

Hiberno-Norse penny of c. 997, presumably Dublin mint, imitating contemporary money of Æthelred the Unready

Hiberno-Norse penny of c. 997, presumably Dublin mint, imitating contemporary money of Æthelred the Unready

Both also seem to have gone through some parallel developments in the Viking era, which is odd as although there certainly were Viking attacks on Spain as we have before here discussed, some of the things that are usually explained by Viking influence in Ireland also happen in Spain, apparently for other reasons: a boom in the use of silver bullion as currency (eventually as coins in Ireland but as argentazas, which no-one is sure about,2 in Spain, Catalonia again apart), a new development of certain urban locations as population, military, administrative and economic foci (in Ireland Dublin and Waterford, in Spain most obviously León), and burgeoning exchange relations. Several of these are wider European phenomena, in which case their national explanations might need questioning… As Dr Mairé ní Mhaonaigh pointed out in her response, of course the Book of Invasions tells us Ireland was settled from Spain anyway, and there are probably more similarities to be found yet, but in this respect I think what I took away was one of my old favourite sentiments, hurray for deviation and variation. Because, in the things that are not quite the same lies a shortage of variables that means we can sometimes actually pin down the reasons for things, and that’s really rather what we’re here for, isn’t it?


1. W. Davies, “Sale, price and valuation in Galicia and Castile-Leon in the tenth century” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 149-174; soon also Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 8.

2. On the beginnings of coinage in Ireland, see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 4. The Dublin coinage c. 995-1050″, Presidential Address in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 78 (London 2008), pp. 111-137; on argentazas, Davies, “Sale, price and valuation” again, though a Catalan comparison such as J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243 at pp. 226-227 & n. 39, might still interest you.

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8 responses to “Seminar XCIV: cows, mills and bullion from the Duero to Dublin

  1. I have been following your blog for some time, now, as recommended by Neville. Like many Asturians I am a Celtic-geek of sorts and therefore I was delighted to read this last entry about Irish-Spanish parallels.
    Maybe you will be interested in this (amateur) text about similarities between Irish medieval myths and modern Asturian and Galician folklore

    http://www.asturianus.org/docs/Cristobo_de_Milio_Carrin_The_Widower_and_the_Goddess.pdf

    • Thankyou for the comment. That paper is nice, there is so much of the Irish stuff with the otherworld woman you have to obey exactly or lose everything and it’s interesting to know it has North Iberian parallels, but I can’t help thinking of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and wondering if it doesn’t also have pre-Christian Roman parallels, German parallels, Baltic parallels… In other words, I think the other side of the case has to be made too, that there is no other source for these stories than the Celtic twilight.

  2. I`m very honored that you find it interesting. I believe the closest parallel in classical mythology is Jason and Medea, along with Hercules in Hylaea. As far as I know, however, the story of the territory goddess and the young suitor is found much more often in Celtic sources, in many different variants. Tales about enchanted faeries by a well are found over large areas of Spain, France and Germany at least.
    Anyway, I think it would come as a shock for many in the English-speaking world if they became aware of the ties between both shores of our sea. For some reason I think Irish and British tend to see us as more alien from then than we really are.

    • Is `us’ here Asturians, Galicians and Cantabrians? I think that in Ireland and Wales `Celtic’ and Celticity have become identities mainly crystallised against England. This gives rise to all sorts of cultural misappropriations of which my least favourite is “the Celtic font“. I can, however, understand, how by now the holders of that identity feel little kindred with anyone who doesn’t have the English as their obvious problem. There’s also the language issue, of course; Wales, Ireland and some of Scotland still speak a Celtic language, whereas even Asturian is an interestingly-turned flavour of Romance, or at least so I take from the fact that I can just about read it! The language is also very important to identity, especially as it has had to be fought for (as indeed has Asturian, I realise, but…) and so again, it becomes a token of Celticity that others don’t really have the ability to share. I think that might all be fair?

      Neville might manage to build a bridge by comparing his views on Madrid to the Scottish National Party’s on London :-)

  3. I see your point and I am afraid you must be right. From our shore, however, Celticness is for some people (like myself) a way of opposing a South-centered and state-sponsored Spanish identity (flamenco, Arab heritage and such). In some way, we insist in the common roots of Atlantic Europe just in the same way as they, southerners, herald the long common history and warm appeal of Mediterranean countries. They want to be seen as one Antonio Banderas in a sun-bathed patio, we want to be Mel Gibson in a misty field.
    I have wondered for a long time why the cousins from the north apparently are not much interested in this issues. Now I understand, our problems are just not the same as theirs. So bad.
    Wow, you really loathe the whole “Celtic font” concept! ;)

    • I do, I do; it’s really unhistorical how this Roman import has somehow become the marker of faux-antique Celtic heritage. As to the cousins, well, their issues are actually quite like yours! But the flags, if you will, by which they have come to be identified are somewhat exclusive. I think this is a shame for the flag-wavers, but I think it’s hard to find a shared agenda that is not also shared by any other subaltern nationality…

  4. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 9 « Contagions

  5. Pingback: Friggatriskaidekaphobia at Kalamazoo « Medieval History Geek

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