Monthly Archives: January 2012

Conferring in Naples, III: a full day’s talking

So, term started, and there was a short hiatus, for most of which this post was in draft. But, it’s actually a little hard to work out how to address the papers given at the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference briefly. I don’t want to go on at the length of the previous post, and ordinarily therefore I’d start by listing the programme, but since it, the abstracts and indeed the slideshows from the papers are all already online, it seems as if you’d already have gone there if you wanted. Still, I can’t think of another structure, and maybe the few things I want to say will spark your interest, so I’m going to use my usual one anyway, but with a cut at the halfway mark because, well, this goes on a bit.

Systems

  • Jeroen Deploige & Guy de Tré, “When Were Medieval Benefactors Generous? Time Modelling in the Development of the Database Diplomatica Belgica
  • Žarko Vujošević, “The Medieval Serbian Chancery: challenge of digital diplomatics”
  • Richard Higgins, “Cataloguing medieval charters: a repository perspective”
  • This first session had been supposed to feature Christian Emil Ore, but he had now been moved to a slot later in the program, and Mr Vujošević moved up to compensate because of a later speaker not being available as planned. The organiser were keen on keeping papers together that could talk to each other. Dr Higgins’s was however, I think, always going to be an outlier: hailing from Durham University Library, which has a charter or two, although his primary concern was as most others’ getting stuff on the web so it could be used, he was trying to do so as part of a much larger project of which very little else was charters, and much of what he said of trying to find data schemes that would do it all struck close to my old experiences. It helped explain to the more hardcore audience, I think, why libraries so rarely seem to do things with charters the way that digital diplomatists might wish. The paper by Deploige and de Tré, meanwhile showed the kind of thing that we should be able to do with large-scale diplomatic corpora—things like, for example, did people give more to the Church when they were rich and there was peace, or when the Black Death was right around the corner?—but was actually more about quite how difficult it is to digitise medieval dates into something computers can actually compare. They had the compromise of a reference date, computer-readable and therefore unhistorically precise for the most part, and a text field always displayed with it showing the range of possible dates, but this is a kludge, I know because I do it myself, it leads to sorting of documents that may be completely awry, and they had a range of improvements they were hoping to try. And Mr Vujošević, meanwhile, spoke almost as a voice in the wilderness, because although Serbian medieval charters are plentiful they are very variably edited, if at all, and much of his work had turned into battles to simply get the texts out of archives and into a single uniformly-featured database. All the speakers were therefore giving work-in-progress reports on fairly intractable technical and archival problems, but I’m not sure this was the theme the organisers had expected to emerge.

Coffee, however, restored our spirits, and I was able to swap stories as well as some useful software tips with Dr Higgins, so the sessions resumed in good order.

  • Pierluigi Feliciati, “Descrizione digitale e digitalizzazione di pergamene e sigilli nel contesto di un sistema informativo archivistico nazionale: l’esperienza del SIAS”
  • Francesca Capochiani, Chiara Leoni & Roberto Rosselli Del Turco, “Open Source Tools for Online Publication of Charters”
  • François Bougard, Antonella Ghignoli & Wolfgang Huschner, “Il progetto ‘Italia Regia’ & il suo sistema informatico”
  • The latter two of these papers were given in Italian, or so my notes suggest, whereas the first one, with an Italian title, was presented in English! Figure that one out. Anyway, I don’t speak Italian, and though I was surprised by how much I could muddle out of it by reading the English abstracts at the same time as they spoke, nonetheless I didn’t get much. I will just note that the second paper was actually presented by all three authors, in segments, whereas the last was presented by Ghignoli alone, a pity as I’d like to have met M. Bougard, he does things that interest me. The first paper, although I did understand it, was essentially a verbal poster for this SIAS program, which is slowly chomping through Italy’s national archives and cataloguing them all. Since some 20-25% apparently don’t have indices for their charters at all, some exciting stuff will doubtless come out of this but that wasn’t what the paper was about. The second paper I could follow more or less because it was essentially a how-to guide on publishing such material, a presentation that may have missed its audience here. The third was where my language really just wasn’t up to it and I don’t know if what was being said was a demonstration of a remarkable project or just another one, but the project is a digital database with images of all Italian royal charters, seventh to twentieth centuries, and if you wonder as do I about what the later end of that might even be I guess we can go look

By now we were running some way behind, and there was a brief attempt to cancel the next coffee break, which had already been over-run. This was largely ignored—punctuation for the day, as I had that morning been told—but with some grumbling things were got going with some time clawed back, and we continued.

  • Camille Desenclos & Vincent Jolivet, “Diple, propositions pour la convergence de schémas XML/TEI dédiés à l’édition de sources diplomatiques”
  • Daniel Piñol Alabart, “Proyecto ARQUIBANC. Digitalización de archivos privados catalanes: una herramienta para la investigación”
  • The former of these papers was notable for containing more acronyms and programming languages I think than any other at the conference, but this was partly because it was trying to explain the sheer variety of data schemas in use for charter material out there. By the end of this conference I think it was fairly clear to us all how this was happening: either new researchers don’t realise that there’s a toolset and a set of standards available to them and build their own, or, much more frequently it seemed (but then the former sort largely wouldn’t know about the conference, either…) they are aware of the tools but find them inadequate for their precise enquiry or sample and so modify them for their own purposes. The presenters argued that the widespread use of the TEI standard (explained last post but one) was making this easier for people to do, but that it also made it easier to link things back up again. The other paper, meanwhile, gave me great glee because it had my sort of material in it, documents in happily-familiar scripts and layouts, but what it also alerted me to was that for the period from when records begin in Catalonia to now, as a whole, a full 70% of surviving documentary material (of all kinds) is in private hands. Getting people to let the state digitise it, the point of the ARQUIBANC project, thus presents a number of problems, starting with arrant distrust and moving onto uncatalogued archives and getting scanners into somebody’s attic. Where this has been done, medieval material does come out, as indeed I knew from reading of the Catalunya Carolíngia for Osona and Manresa, where four of the tenth-century documents were revealed precisely by going and knocking on the doors of really old manors, but the size of the project as compared to the resources makes their considerable successes seem puny.

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Not this document! But documents like it! Hurray!

You will also imagine that I had much to ask Senyor Piñol, in shaky Catalan, afterwards on the subject of private archives, and he was helpful, but before very long we were being shuffled off to lunch, where I ate more pizza margarita than even I would have thought plausible in excellent company and felt pretty good about both these things on returning for the poster session and the last six papers. Continue reading

Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated 'execution'], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.


1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

Conferring in Naples, II: papers in the p. m.

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

The reason I had all the time I had to go sight-seeing in Naples was that the conference I was at didn’t start till the somewhat advanced hour of three o’clock the same afternoon. It then ran on till after eight, mind, but if you’re used to Mediterranean time-keeping that’s actually perfectly sensible. Anyway, I arrived slightly early, things started slightly later so I had the chance to catch up on old acquaintance here and there before the papers commenced. The venue for the first two days was the newer, less splendid part of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in the Palazzo degli Uffici, but on the other hand it was one of the most technically well-equipped conference centres I’ve been lucky enough to present in, full PA and three projection screens, etc. One thing to its detriment was that the designers seemed to have expected people to be using all three screens at once; everyone who was on only one found, I think, that the detail of their slides was hard to see at the size it finished up at. This may be another way of saying that all digital diplomatists pack their slides too full.

Frontage of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

The old building's kind of nice too, mind, and much easier to find

Anyway, there was an opening address that I understood only a third of (the third that was in French) and then there were some sessions. I’m conscious that much of the below is a bit technical, combining as it does computers and diplomatic, neither of them fields averse to labelling things with their own new words, so feel free to tune in next post if you’d rather. I’m guessing, though, that there are some people who would like to hear about it so I’m not skimping what’s necessary to make it meaningful for them. (Abstracts of all the papers are online, too, from this page which also has links to all our slides, so I’ll link the abstracts from the titles. Almost like being there!)

Linguistical Statistics

  • Nicolas Perreaux, “From Accumulation to Exploitation? Experiments and Proposals for Indexing and for the Use of Diplomatics Databases“, opened up with a dilemma that we would keep coming back to again and again through the conference: there are now some really impressive digital corpora of charters online or otherwise available, about 150,000 documents at the time of presentation, with which some incredible work ought to be possible, and very few projects actually exploiting them.1 He suggested that it might be because it still all needs sorting out and indexing, but really wanted to tell us about the testing of traditional diplomatic categories of document that he’d done in trying to work out if this could be done automatically. Basically, by lexical analysis as he did it, looking for distinct groups of words, only notitiae and episcopal acta are typologically distinct.2 Even this, he thought, was a start in separating things out, but I thought that actually he’d shown that the categories themselves are pretty much bunk. This fits with a documented tendency of mine to ignore work coming from the German Rechtschule however, and it’s hard to say which of us is thinking more progressively here. The advantage of it as a technique is that it’s interested in what the sources themselves emphasise, rather than looking for what we think they meant, but in that case I think we should be ready to define new categories. But then would anyone outside the digital field ever use the stuff? He ended, however, with another big point, which I’ve noted as: “There is no perfect software: what questions do you have?” This, also, many people would pick up, and I thought this paper was a marvellous choice for an opener as it really turned out to encapsulate some of the conference’s agenda.
  • I’ve gone on in detail about this one, because I resonated with a lot of it as you can tell (both in and out of phase), but I must be briefer with the rest.

  • Olivier Canteaut & Frédéric Glorieux, “Essai de classificiation automatique des actes royaux français (XIVe-XVe siècles)“, was as you can see related, and trying to get at the chancery practice revealed by a 13,000 document sample without being swamped by it. Their first problem was how much Latin inflection messes up searches for word groupings; their results were much better with French-language documents. This is going to have to be dealt with: surely we can come up with a Latin parser that rolls words back to their stems for these purposes? But it’s a bit of an overhead. They were instead going to come back round by assessing institutional culture and then matching the phenomena there to linguistic data, but again this seems to me to be giving up and using external models rather than letting the data speak for itself. Some useful issues highlighted all the same, however!
  • Michael Gervers & Gelila Tilahun, “Statistical Methods for Dating Collections of Medieval Documents“, was talking about the DEEDS project at the University of Toronto. I’ve heard a lot of flak for this project from outside so it was interesting to get a view from inside on what it was actually doing, of which however this was only a tiny part. Basically, DEEDS have the problem that most of their documents aren’t dated, so they were using linguistic analysis to see if they could do a sort of linguistical palæography and date them by language use.3 Here again the key turned out to be very small word-groups, ‘shingles’ as they were calling them, and with an analysis based on two-word shingles deployed on a test set with known dates they were able to get a mean error in dating down as small as nine years, although in some periods when documents were fewer the results were a lot less certain. Still far better than `undated’ however! Professor Gervers was happy to admit that the method still needed work but that it works at all was fun to see.
  • The session was split over a coffee break, which was the first time I came across an important regional phenomenon. I am told that the further south you go in Italy, the smaller and stronger ‘a coffee’ gets. The next day on the way to the conference I was introduced to Neapolitan coffee as served in street kiosks and well, yes, it’s about four thimblefuls of espresso for which you pay a Euro twenty, but you don’t need more that soon. My then-companion described it as “punctuation for the day”, which I loved. However, a lot of people at this conference were from a lot further north and expected larger servings. It went quickly. I had two little plastic mugs and then found myself a bit shaky (and as I type this up I’m off caffeine briefly so now I shiver with envy of my autumn self). But I was in no danger of nodding off!

  • Els de Paermentier, “Diplomatica Belgica. Analysing medieval charter texts (dictamen) through a quantitative approach: the case of Flanders and Hainaut (1191-1244)“, was trying something more directed than simple significance-fishing, deliberately looking for ways to recognise documents that were made by the comital chanceries of her two target counties from those that the recipients drafted and just got signed off. She was more or less able to do this, and thus establish that the chancery sometimes issues documents on behalf of relatives of the counts and lesser comital officials as well as just the counts. She also noticed that between 1200 and 1225 the chanceries also stood out for their modifications of phrases that everyone used into their own special versions, which I thought was quite interesting as the assumption is usually that documentary forms are set top-down, but of course over as short a period as that certain individuals could be entirely to blame. I actually don’t think that upsets the point…
  • Robin Sutherland-Harris, “Applications of the DEEDS database to Somerset Charters: dating, diplomatics, and historical context“, was a paper by another member of the DEEDS team but showing the way forward by effectively having used DEEDS as a test set for undigitised records she was using for her own project, which were likewise broadly undated (“thirteenth-century”, sort of level). The things that Robin said that most caught my ear was a mention of a word only two of her charters use for the action of enclosing land, ‘perprisere‘; that is a word I know and was surprised to see here.4 Since her sample was 45 documents, however, it also seemed to me that any changes she is picking up must be personal choices, and she was kind enough to agree that that would be a next step.
  • Timo Korkiakangas, “Challenges for the Linguistic Annotation of an Early Medieval Charter Corpus“, was an analysis of the charters from eighth- and ninth-century Tuscany, and was looking for software that would automate an analysis he was doing of variation from formulae, trying to sort willing alteration from mistakes. So far he had not found such software though he had tested a few! This was I think a good thing for the conference, because it caught again this mismatch between tools and historical enquiry that we had already come up against in the first paper.

Key Note

    The closing presentation of the evening was given by Benoît-Michel Tock, under the title, “Digital Diplomatics, Magic Diplomatics”. This was essentially a retrospective from a man who has seen almost all of this stuff happen, having been involved for a long time with the ARTEM project that eventually went online via TELMA, putting all French original charters from before 1121 on the web. So he knows, and could also tell us that the copies are about to follow the originals up. The problem, of course, is in using these resources together: not all are full-text, different standards of mark-up have been used,5 and of course not everything is very relevant to everything else anyway. Little problems like the fact that many projects only digitise the faces of their charters make certain projects no more possible.6 Even something as basic as lists of what material there is and ideally, where it’s been written about) is often lacking, although weirdly (my point not his) this is where Anglo-Saxon diplomatic began the process, even though its sample is so much smaller. (Perhaps because of that!) There was, too, the very salient and often bitter point that it is both more interesting to do and easier to fund new projects than the maintenance of old ones, something anyone who has worked on an old database which people actually use knows all too well. Also, and this I thought was notable in a very digital conference, he pled for the continuation of publication of printed editions of charter material, arguing that anyone who has worked with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century editions knows that they are far from useless and that they will outlast many a format change and institutional bankruptcy. As long, of course, as we don’t ‘kill all the libraries‘… I think, quite frankly, we should be seeing print now primarily as a stable archive format, which is something we really do not have in the digital world, and so entirely agreed with this point, hence my emphasis here.

And then there was a very excellent dinner, in which I met some very cool people (despite the geekiness of the subject, there were a lot of cool people here), got to tell my father’s story about a friend of his who turned off a god’s electricity and so on, and it was all very good. Nonetheless, when I get to the second day’s report, it’s going to have to be briefer isn’t it? Sorry about that…


1. To name only some of the resources that he did (i. e. those I knew well enough to note): the numerous databases hanging off TELMA : traitement électronique des manuscrits et des archives, MŌM: Europe’s virtual documents online (a. k. a. Monasterium.net), the various online publications of the Fundació Noguera (on which more here), DEEDS as above and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi (already lauded here).

2. If by some chance you don’t understand these terms but would like to, I’m afraid there is little of use online or (non-exclusive) in English (though it’s possible that there is stuff of use online not in English: anybody know some?) and you should probably start with either Olivier Guyotjeannin, Benoît-Michel Tock and Michel Pycke, Diplomatique Médiévale, L’Atelier du Médiéviste 2 (Turnhout 1993) or now Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter, Historische Hilfswissenschaften (Wien 2011), whichever you’re more linguistically comfortable with, though note that Härtel does not cover royal documents; he gives plentiful reference to those who do. If you are stuck with only English there’s a short piece that by now really needs replacing in the form of Leonard E. Boyle, “Diplomatics” in James M. Powell (ed.), Medieval Studies (Syracuse 1976), pp. 82-113, and that at least is online (as far as I can see completely and free of thumbs) via Google Books.

3. And having heard this paper I must really now get round to reading my copy of the presumably related Michael Gervers (ed.), Dating Undated Medieval Charters (Woodbridge 2000), which was something of an aspirational purchase I-won’t-say-how-long ago.

4. See J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 335-336.

5. There were some jokes made in the papers the next day about the number of different Encoding Initiatives there seem to be in our worlds, all spinning off the Text Encoding Initiative, a project that was begun to develop an International Standard for the digital encoding of texts, but it was an odd truth that the Charters Encoding Initiative, started because TEI didn’t then quite supply the mark-up it was felt charters needed, was not in use by any of the people presenting at this conference, almost all of whom had opted to use TEI instead so as to increase interoperability with other projects.

6. I think that the first team to break the mould here were probably the guys publishing the facsimile editions of the St Gallen material, which very often has preliminary versions drafted on the dorse of its charters, but they may have just been the first ones I noticed: Peter Erhart (ed.), Chartae Latinae Antiquiores (2) 100: Switzerland 3 (Zürich 2006), Erhart & Bernhard Zeller with Karl Heidecker (edd.), … 101: Switzerland 4 (2008), Erhart, Zeller & Heidecker, … 102: Switzerland 5 (2009), eidem (edd.), … 103: Switzerland 6 (2010) and eidem (edd.), … 104: Switzerland 7 (2011), with vol 105, Switzerland 8, to follow. But of course this is neither online nor open-access.

Have you seen this emperor?

Edit: two minor errors fixed, indicated with strikethrough

Let me ask you something that may reveal my ignorance. Or, it might reveal someone else’s, we’ll see. A while ago I saw the image below on the one Tumblr blog you’ll find in my sidebar, Medium Aevum. Now this is not an unfamiliar image to me, because it is the one used for the cover of Paul Edward Dutton’s excellent reader Carolingian Civilization in its second edition (and maybe its first, which I only ever saw in a library binding), and it ought not to be unfamiliar anyway, because it comes from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, so an actual piece of Carolingian book-painting (which is as you may well know about the only kind of Carolingian painting we really have).1 And that manuscript is now Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Lat. 1241 1141, which means that a certain amount of poking around Mandragore can get you the full thing digitised, because the web is wonderful like that.

Painting of an emperor between two popes, being crowned by God

Now my query here is with the identification given to the figures in this picture in the Medium Aevum post, and indeed elsewhere. (The owner of Medium Aevum has disabled comments there because of abuse, so I hope they won’t mind my using their page as an example. The place I actually borrowed the image from, About.com’s Medieval History pages, makes the same statement though they do there at least notice some of the difficulties I’m about to point out.) There it is said to be Charlemagne, standing between Popes Gelasius I and Gregory the Great. That immediately gave me pause. Firstly I paused because, well, that guy just doesn’t look like a Carolingian: as has been said here before, there seems to have either been a strong resemblance between the males of the line or else a strong idea among artists about what they should look like, and it includes more jowls than that, also moustaches, and quite less late-Antique hair.2 This looks like a young Constantine to me, not that an artist in 870 would have known what that looked like. But then there’s the popes. Why those two? Why not Leo III and Hadrian, the one whom Charlemagne was actually crowned Emperor by and the one he actually got on with?3 Gelasius, as the man who told Emperor Anastasius that his power was ultimately lesser than the pope’s (or at least, his responsibility was), I can kind of see although why a king would want that in his Sacramentary is harder to imagine. Gregory I would make a kind of sense, too, just because of his fame and connection with Saint Benedict, though I think the Carolingian fascination with him was lesser than the Anglo-Saxon one, but it’s still only a kind of sense, and certainly he had no special connection with imperial power (quite the reverse, in fact, if you look at his career, which was pretty much all about how to manage disconnection from Empire).4 Gregory the Great does admittedly turn up on the next page of the manuscript, being inspired by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in that way that he so often apparently was, and they do look similar, so it’s not impossible, but still a strange thing to put a coronation of Charlemagne. If that’s what it is… Because I see nothing on the page that so identifies it; it’s not even clear if the text in the panel beneath them is actually from this page, because if you seek it out in Mandragore you’ll see that one of the two sources has reversed the image, and I think the text may actually have imprinted from the previous or subsequent page: Mandragore shows it faded and backwards, and very little left of the text on the subsequent page’s equivalent panel.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

With suspicions thus up, I started with Dutton’s book, whose back cover identifies the portrait only as “The Crowning of a Christian King”. Hmmm, I thought, and betook me armed with the shelfmark usefully given there to Mandragore, as described, and they entitle the picture, “Allégorie : royauté de droit divin”.5 Yes, I thought, that’s more like what I had in mind, so where on earth has this come from? And there I draw a blank. Medium Aevum almost always gives a source, and it’s usually Wikipedia; so it was in this case. The file on Wikipedia is called “Karl 1 mit papst gelasius gregor1 sacramentar v karl d kahlen.jpg”, which is fairly unambiguous, and as so often with Wikipedia too, it gives a source for this, but as is also so often the case, that source is a dead link, a course web-page at the University of (Edit: North) Florida whose course or whose owner has obviously left the building. And there the trail goes cold, although from Wikipedia it has grown widely as you will see if you Google elements of the filename. (There is a further link on the Wikipedia page to the Bridgeman Art and Culture image library, but, well, I do not retrieve this image on any search I can be bothered to follow through with, and certainly not one for Charlemagne.)

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Now that's a Carolingian! To wit, Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now also in the BN Paris and also here taken from Wikipedia

So okay, there’s the question. Has anyone thought that this was a scene of the coronation of Charlemagne before, is this just out there in a book I perhaps should have read? If so, on what basis did that person make the identification of king and popes? And if not, how on earth has this idea got out there?


1. That is, P. E. Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader (Ontario 1994), 2nd edn. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Ontario 2004); for more on Carolingian-period painting my first resort would be George Henderson, “Emulation and Innovation in Carolingian Art” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 248-273.

2. From which statement we learn that apparently after seeing two Kalamazoo papers about late antique hairstyles I feel like an expert. Ignore me about the hair.

3. Dutton’s anthology indeed includes the tombstone inscription for Hadrian that Charlemagne had put up in San Pietro di Roma, Carolingian Civilization 2nd edn., c. 9.4, but you can also see it here.

4. My go-to book on Gregory, who was an interesting man, is Jeremy Jeffrey Richards’s Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980), though there are probably more recent things by now.

5. It’s seemingly not possible to give direct links to a Mandragore record, it’s all dynamic, but the first box in the search page has an index that lets you pretty much pull the thing up.

Conferring in Naples I: the gratuitous picture post

Having finally finished reporting on July’s Leeds conference (and not even being the last to do so) leaves me now free to leap forward two months in a single bound, leaving me only four behind from reality, and talk about a conference I went to in September, to wit: Digital Diplomatics 2011. The organiser of this, I will admit, largely got me to participate by pointing that it would be (a) in Naples and (b) largely expenses-paid. I was practically packing at that point, because compensations for academic drudgery are sometimes hard to find and that seemed like a good one. But, following the practice of my last (and first) jaunt to Italy for similar purposes, I made sure to leave at least some little time for sight-seeing too, because I have been to too many exciting places and spent my time there in a conference venue drinking bad coffee. (And in Italy drinking bad coffee is kind of a felony.) So even before I got to the conference, having made more or less sure I could find it (wrongly, as it happened, but I had help by then so it was OK), I took the time to take a look round with a camera.

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street


I really took to Naples. My kind of city appears to be one that’s scummy enough that it suggests you could survive and even enjoy yourself if you were poor, that has people having fun in it in the evenings, and ideally has plentiful Italian food and wine in it, so I may need to learn more Italian and advance my intent for a Sicilian comparative project, as plotted here years ago. Naples – well, scummy isn’t the word, the whole city really really needs a clean, but it is full of people having fun and the food was easy to find good and cheap.
A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

It may have helped with this impression that I was in the city the evening the Napoli football team beat Inter Milan, but you know, I’ve been in cities where the local team winning means an outbreak of civic violence and window-breaking, not (as here) spontaneous Vespa parades including stupidly dangerous jumps from scooter pillion to scooter pillion on the move. (There appears to be no public space into which Neapolitan youth will not try to get on the back of a Vespa.) It was all kind of great, if dirty and poorly-maintained. But this is not a tourism blog so I will just concentrate on the medieval stuff for a few photos, which I’ll stick below a cut. But let me at least show you this:

I never even found out what this building was, though some poking at maps now suggests it is part of the Palazzo Reale enclosing the Piazza del Plebiscito, very democratic, but there was much more to be seen here. Continue reading