Monthly Archives: March 2012

Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland

[Largely drafted offline, 28/10/11]

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795

When I first conceived my research interest, such as it be, in Pictish Scotland, one of the things I thought that the field sorely needed was a new and sincere attempt to write the period’s narrative history, not pulling the punches about the difficulties of the sources but convinced all the same that they could be used to mount some kind of story. Instead, we had Alfred Smyth’s Warlords and Holy Men, which while stimulating can also be extremely misleading and by its very title contributes to a conception of Scotland as a Celtic strangeness, whereas the field has for the last few years been trying very much to link Scotland and Pictland up to the wider world of Church, art and politics in which they clearly participated.1 I actually determined that I would some day write such a book, since I didn’t see anyone else who thought it feasible. Since I got properly stuck into Catalonia, however, several others have seen such a need and, in most cases, attempted to supply it: we now have Tim Clarkson’s The Picts, Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests (which insists that no narrative is possible but provides a comprehensive summary of the evidence from which it can’t be done and many useful insights about life and culture in the period) and now James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh 2009).2

In the course of this period an incredible amount of work has been done that upsets or resets some of the basic chronological and political foundations of this area and period, substantially by Alex Woolf, Thomas Owen Clancy and, not least, Fraser himself. We are now rather cautious in believing that Columba’s mission to the Picts took him north rather than south of the Great Glen (although since Adomnán’s claimed results of this mission are so embarrassingly scant I myself find an explanation of the episode as a claim of later territory inadequate to replace the simpler understanding of the text on this occasion), we do not believe in St Ninian at all any more and we have moved a substantial part of Pictland to the north of the Mounth rather than south of it.3 A new synthesis is badly needed, and Fraser is well-placed to provide it.

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south, from Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, he does so; this book presents a sophisticated picture of slow shifts of meaning, of political self-conceptions, of the identities of peoples and of territories, and of kingship and religion, without ignoring the potential for exceptional times, individuals or groups to accelerate these changes in local or immediate contexts to considerable and significant degrees. In Fraser’s conception of Scotland both geography and climate and kings and saints make a difference to developments. This makes his book for a start much to be preferred to textbook variations on histories seen only in terms of warlords and holy men (for example), the charismatic wyrd of wild individuals building a nation that stands peculiarly and Celtically different from its contemporaries, or the contrary trend to connect Scotland so tightly to Europe that its genuine distinctivenesses are over-ridden in a picture of its participation in the greater changes of European (by which is usually meant, Carolingian) history in the period.4 (This is simply to say that the biggest warlords and holy men somehow directed the rest in a great progress towards the EU!) Fraser’s North is linked to the outside, and its distinctivenesses of language and material culture are not made large parts of the story, but nonetheless the distinctiveness of the material that he deploys will reassure the reader that this is an area with its own history. Moreover, it is an area that is not solely the cradle of a great clash of Gaelic and Pictish nations that has dominated some other versions of the period, but one which definitively includes Northumbria from its earliest emergence (albeit that Fraser puts that later than is traditionally accepted, seeing its supposed kings before Æthelfrith of Bernicia as effectively genealogical ciphers5) and also has a place for the Britons of the North, although due to Fraser’s focus as much as the extremely limited evidence, that place is largely as a bank of possible genealogical links and political allies that assist the story of the other participants in the narrative, rather than a fully-developed role of their own.6

Both the evidence and the scholarship for this period are, in fact, as Fraser makes clear, better than is conventionally imagined. Indeed, by his essentially text-based approach, justified (p. 9) by reference to the volume of new archaeological synthesis such as Alcock’s book, he is leaving a considerable amount of other evidence aside; the Pictish symbol stones, for example, are mentioned on six pages only. It is also true, however, that the sources, primary and secondary both, are still extremely bitty, enigmatic and widely dispersed, even if with the scholarship much can be hoovered up via the Innes Review, Scottish Historical Review and one or two other established journals). That Fraser has mastered this granularity of material does not, unfortunately, permit him entirely to overcome it in synthesis, and so the book’s overriding themes, helpfully set out in the introduction albeit in self-deprecating periphrasis (“If the book has any single theme…”, p. 10; my emphasis), can sometimes be hard to perceive in a wash of tiny discussions over points of art. It cannot be helped that almost all of the progress in this field must be made by hypothesis; there is no other way to deal with this evidence except to admit that we do not have enough pieces of the jigsaw to reconstruct the full picture, and that we are all arranging the pieces into something that could make a picture we each happen to like. The best outcome we can hope for is that others like our picture well enough to repeat it, as happened with the narrative of the Gaelic take-over last century. Nonetheless, Fraser does not always find a comfortable balance between the pressures to account for the positioning of each piece in detail and that of making a manageable and comprehensible book (pressures of which he is keenly aware and which he discusses, pp. 7-10); there are many references to dispute and to hypothesis, too many for easy following of many threads. (Occasionally these are broken out into separate text-boxes sitting within the main discussion, though one may question whether thus having the appendices inline with the main text is really an `innovative format’ as claimed on p. 8.) As Fraser himself writes, “Specialists in particular may feel that too many points of light have been joined up”, but the resultant task for the non-specialist may be somewhat like trying to use those points of light as the air traveller might do, to try and imagine a street-map when passing over a town in an airliner.

Edinburgh city lights

Edinburgh city lights

The specialist will, in fact, find a great deal here to stimulate, and even if Fraser’s picture is constituted of a thousand variables, the presence of some well-known and fixed points in the narrative, and perhaps more than there might have been in many others’, mean that we can proceed with a reasonable belief that the variability averages out rather than distorting in one or other particular direction. Thus, although Fraser shares the near-universal love of the Scottish medievalist for explaining politics with reference to reconstructed genealogy, it would not cripple his narrative if, for example, one were to find fault with his idea that the Miathi mentioned by Adomnán were in fact once part of a wider polity that included British Strathclyde and whose rulers retained links there for a long time after this was broken up, if Clancy’s reconstruction of the relationships of the four kings who vied for power in Pictland in the early eighth century should not in fact explain the effective power-base of the carnifex King Unuist map Uurguist (Oengus mac Fergus) or if, as I once argued, the sons of Ædán mac Gabráin should after all have found kingdoms in southern Pictland instead of in Ireland (as Fraser substantially believes).7 The courses of events and their interpretation by Fraser would realign, more or less, with most reasonable persons’ sense of what was likely based on his (and our) evidence before the next heading was reached. We might be more irritated by the occasional jokes about contemporary relevance,8 and suspicious of repeated phrases such as “Is it a coincidence that… ?” for which amateur conspiracists have equipped us with a Pavlovian distaste. All the same, there is no way that a book like this could be written, by anyone, without each reader who feels that they have expertise in the field too periodically suffering attacks of difference of opinion. If such a reader, after shouting, “Oh come on!” to the empty room, goes on reading because the book is so interesting, the author can probably consider this a success, and that was certainly this reader’s experience.

The book may however be harder going for the non-specialist. Despite Fraser’s detailed explanation of his refusal to accept that many of our sources, especially the Vita Columbae, tell us as much about the times they describe as that when they were written—something that Fraser can ignore fairly cheerfully when an unexplained entry in the Irish Annals supports a hypothesis, but if this were a crime who then should ‘scape whipping?—the reader new to these materials will likely be led to distrust everything the sources, and their mediator, says, even if he describes this process with the catchphrase, “opening the door to the historian’s laboratory”, borrowed from Marc Bloch but here a hokey claim to scientific credibility that may irritate more than reassure.9 Such a reader might also be better served if Fraser’s admirable and dogged pursuit of accuracy in name-forms, including Northumbrian rather than West Saxon spelling of the Old English ones—thus Aeðilred not Æthelred, Edwini not Eadwine, still less Ethelred or Edwin—had been relaxed so that, for example, they were served with Dalriadans not Corcu Réti and so forth, however much more accurate Fraser’s choices may be. (There may be good reasons for having a place called Fortriu that is described with the adjective Verturian and whose people are Waerteras, but it will certainly mislead the new reader.10) The only names that reliably occur in the forms in which a reader is used to them from older work are the Gaelic ones, in fact, and while Fraser’s intended audience may have been Gaelic-literate, philologically-educated but historically-untrained Scotophiles, because of these strategies of presentation one cannot comfortably set this book for the students or recommend it to the laypersons who could also benefit from such a volume. This is a pity, as it may be a long time before we see a better, cleverer and more erudite attempt to make sense of the history of this period, and the fact that it entertains, both structurally and philologically, this love of obscurities clouds more of its considerable scholarly and interpretative merit than those deserve.


1. Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (London 1984), repr. New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 1989), excellently reviewed by W. D. H. Sellar in “Warlords, Holy Men and Matrilineal Succession (‘Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, A. D. 80-1000′ by Alfred P. Smyth)” in Innes Review Vol. 36 (Glasgow 1985), pp. 29-42; The other books that were being set when I started on this stuff were Archibald Duncan, Scotland: the making of the kingdom (Edinburgh 1975), which runs through the early Middle Ages pretty fast, and Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots: early historic Scotland (London 1996, rev. 2004), which is more of an introduction to the archaeology than any kind of history. There is also Michael Lynch, Scotland: a new history (London 1991, rev. 1992), which is really no use for the Middle Ages at all.

2. T. Clarkson, The Picts: a history (Stroud 2008, 2nd edn. Edinburgh 2010); Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003); note also Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), the second volume in the series of which Fraser’s is now the first.

3. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 94-111; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The Real St Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; Alex Woolf, “Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85 (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 182-201.

4. The former trend perfectly embodied in Smyth, Warlords; for the latter see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum': a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in dark age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 6 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Martin Carver, “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40.

5. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 149-154.

6. Though here we now have Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh 2010).

7. Respectively, Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 15-17, 45-49 & 135-136; Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-king: Nechtan mac Der Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125; Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex’ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill (ed.), Aethelbald and Offa. Two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42; Jonathan Jarret [sic], “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 15 (Balgavies 2008), pp. 3-24, corrected version online here in PDF with Bibliography here.

8. For example, the crack, “For some, the vessels bearing vikings [sic] to Britain and Ireland a few years later were a part of God’s message to the Insular world. They would have had a field day with the combined threats of climate change and international terrorism!” (p. 341) seems to me, for example, to use a perceived silliness in the thinking of the time to make ours seem equally silly, and one suspects that the monks of Lindisfarne or the modern farmers of Kenya would not see the funny side.

9. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 2 & 8 and frequently thereafter, at the former citing Bloch without reference, though his Feudal Society, transl. L. A. Manyon (London 1989), 2 vols, is in the Bibliography.

10. Such a reader will be stymied especially by the fact that the reasons there are for this practice are set out not in this book at all but in Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, p. 31 n. 45!

Seminar CVI: Carolingian men of the Word

As you’ll have noticed I make a habit of going to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, but I make a special point of it when someone I know from my host institution, wherever it be, is presenting, partly to show support but also because it’s sometimes the only time you get to hear them do their stuff.1 On this occasion, however, my affiliations were confused, because Laura Carlson, despite teaching at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, had also at this point just become Past and Present Fellow at the Institute, and it was in that capacity she’d been asked to speak on the 26th October 2011. I guess that insofar as I’m a regular at the seminar and a Carolingianist I’d have been going if she’d been coming from the moon. In fact, if someone from the moon was presenting I’d probably be there regardless of the topic. But, dear reader, I digress! Laura’s title was, “Creating a Christian Language: letter and spirit at the Carolingian court”.

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546; click through for a fantastic illuminated page from it on the BL's site, but for reasons that will become clear I wanted some text

This was the first time I’d been to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar in exile, in parts of Senate House I’d never been to before, and it was also the first time I’d heard Laura present on the core of her research, so in both ways I got something of a shock. I’ve not had to think this hard to stay up with a paper since that Peter Sarris one of 2010. The experience of Laura’s style is not quite so much like being caught amidst a fifty-minute rockfall, but this was densely-packed stuff. What she was arguing was—assuming my notes were and are up to the job of preserving it, a very topical concern as you will see—that the collection of intellectuals whom Charlemagne kept around his court at the peak period of his reign collectively developed something like a new Christian philosophy of language. The highly international nature of the group partly forced such reflections upon them, but much more so did the reliance of their work, and Latin Christianity at large, on, well, Latin. This court group was, as readers of this blog will know by now, very concerned with the correctness of texts, which is understandable when you’re dealing with the supposed Word of God, and perhaps, if one follows certain arguments, when some of your scholars come from a background where the ruling powers of the day insist that they have a text that is more purely the Word of God, because God speaks in Arabic and the transmission of the Qu’ran is doctrinally understood to be perfect.2 Of course, the Christians were not and are not making any claims about God speaking in Latin, or even the writers of the actual Bible text, so problems of accuracy are inherent to the whole idea of Latin Christianity. But this kind of concern pushed these thinkers, and especially Alcuin as Laura set it forth for us, to worry about deeper issues: can written words in any language actually express the divine accurately? Even if they can, is the human reader actually up to understanding it correctly? And how does information pass from the eye to the inchoate mind anyway? When your understanding of human consciousness doesn’t involve electro-chemistry but does involve the idea of a separable, non-physical soul, this is an issue. The soul contains God and can presumably understand Him perfectly; but the body is not perfect, so if you need the body to partake of the Word, aren’t you in trouble from the get-go?3 And so on.

Now obviously this is partly grammar, because Latin grammar, even though pagan, became a tool that one needed in order to be able to understand both world and Word (since the two do not separate). But it’s also philosophy, because in order to explain how Scripture can save it was necessary to come up with a workable account of man’s ability to perceive God. For Alcuin, as Laura argued it, one important aspect of man’s unique rationality was his ability to perceive the abstract and communicate it; man can, that is, envisage things that are invisible. This is obviously relevant, and blurs the line between philosophy and theology a great deal, which allowed the people thinking about this to use Aristotelian categories, obtained largely via Augustine’s similar reflections, as a basis for breaking down man’s faculties for examination like this. The whole direction of thinking, thus, allowed these guys to reclaim and redirect pagan philosophy to a Christian project. With this work done, Hieronymian worries about being damned as a Ciceronian not a Christian could begin to recede: the explosive potential of Classical thinking for a Christian paradigm is defused and a text-based Christianity finally fully equipped to proceed into medieval Europe.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

As I say, this is harder than I usually like to think, though I did a bit of history of ideas stuff in my undergraduate years and can still do the dance up to a point. One point that looms large from my perspective, though, is what did Charlemagne get from all this? This is a live concern because it’s all too easy to envisage it in terms of the university and very current concerns about research and teaching, not least because Alcuin did teach this stuff: it’s concerns about what language actually does and how the understanding of it works that make dialogic question-and-answer topics like “what a ship is”, answered with “a lodging-house in any place”, anything other than smug and glib.4 This leads to a faintly sour tone in some of the writing on this kind of topic, like a cat playing up to visitors after its family have a child: here’s a patron who understands that governments should fund intellectual endeavour (or a cat) for its own sake, current paymasters please take note, etc. We have to think about it not in terms of our own funding cycles, relevant though it can be made, and more in the terms of Charlemagne’s priorities, which were, really, quite different.5

So, was the main point of having these scholars at court to train up a new generation of civil servant nobles all alive with imperial loyalties, and this stuff was the research he let the scholars do to keep them happy? Or, at the other end, was Charlemagne, whom his biographer pictures eagerly chewing down chunks of Augustine's City of God alongside his more corporeal food at mealtimes, also keen on sorting out and understanding this stuff?6 It was obviously to these scholars’ general interest to show the king as being concerned with these things, as it might encourage other kings to give them a job (a concern raised on this occasion by Susan Reynolds) but on the other hand we have substantial efforts to provide a standard Bible text (see first image) and a corrected liturgy that obviously required this kind of scholarly effort and which, if not as uniformly rolled out as we once thought, still had an effect. And of course there was masses of legislation that partook of this moral agenda of correctio and also comes from this general intellectual ferment, to the extent that scholars now hang arguments about its content off which of these scholars they think wrote it, though this does take us into rather more troubling concerns of who, if anyone, were the readers.7 Given that I work so far away from this court, both in space and time, I am naturally more interested in the reception than the generation of these texts, which were around in my area to be read in some cases, but papers like this remind me firstly that there is still a lot we don’t understand about their generation which may still be possible to work out, secondly that the people doing it were genuinely really clever and that being trapped into thinking of them as religion-constrained Dark Age mystics just isn’t going to help understand the Carolingian Empire and its effects on subsequent European civilisation at all, and thirdly that I think that, whatever my particular intellectual skills may be, they’re not up to doing this kind of work so I’m glad that Laura is.


1. Of course, that support can, as in this instance, be assuring a matter of assuring the speaker beforehand that we would be tallying all their uses of the word ‘epistemological’ to be used in evidence against them. But, you know, supportively.

2. By which I mean, more or less, those arguments set out by Yitzhak Hen in his article, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51, which really long-term readers may remember I had some issues with.

3. It strikes me now I’ve written that up that there’s some really messy implications for the Eucharist down this road of thinking, and in fact, for the whole question of the Word made Flesh. I suppose this is why we could have hundreds of years of bitter dispute about Christology, isn’t it.

4. This is from Alcuin’s “Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico“, usually known as the Disputatio Pippini because there’s really only so much of Alcuin’s style anyone normal can stomach. It is edited by W. Suchier in L. W. Daly & Suchier (edd.), Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24 (Urbana 1939), pp. 137-143, and translated in full by Gillian Spraggs here. For more information see Martha Bayless, “Alcuin’s Diputatio Pippini and the early medieval riddle tradition” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 157-178. I mean, it’s clever, encouraging, witty and affectionate, but I think it can still be smug and glib besides these other notable qualities, which is kind of how I feel about Alcuin in general, you’ll no doubt have noticed.

5. For a start, I imagine any cats around Charlemagne’s court had to justify their keep in terms of dead rodents, although they probably didn’t have to collect all their kills together and grade their bloody impact every five years.

6. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), III.24, relevant portion also in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. More generally on the Carolingian cultural project, try Giles Brown, “Introduction: the Carolingian Renaissance” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 1-46, and, really, the whole of that volume if you’re interested.

7. Hen’s “Charlemagne’s Jihad” an example, in as much as its argument hinges on the background he imputes to Bishop Theodulf of Orléans; for readership concerns Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829″ in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

A threat to learning that we rarely consider

Old Scary-Go-Round `Bears Will Eat You' t-shirt artwork

I have some sort of rule about not featuring my students on this blog, as you may have observed. It’s not fair on them to be identifiable in such a fashion, I figure, and looks unprofessional and gossipy. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the exigencies of due credit require a breach of this rule. I cannot, cannot pass up the chance to blog this gem that one of my students the term before last found in the reading, and since I hadn’t seen it myself I think she deserves credit. I have checked with her and she’s cool with that so all due praise to her and on we go. I quote no-one less than Giles Constable:

… there was an active exchange of manuscripts among religious houses in the twelfth century. Peter the Venerable wrote to the Carthusians in 1136/7 asking for a volume of the letters of St Augustine ‘because by accident a bear ate a large part of ours in one of our dependencies’.69



69 Peter the Venerable, Ep. 25, ed. Constable, I, 47; see the notes in II, 112.

This only goes to prove that Carl was right, as so often, to warn us all from Got Medieval: “When you least expect it… expect BEARS!!!” Though how one got a taste for Augustine, I guess that Peter sadly felt it unedifying to explain…


The quote from Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Trevelyan Lectures 1985 (Cambridge 1996), p. 222, cit. Jane Cahill, “Why did the monastic ideal exercise such a potent influence upon both clergy and laity before c. 1200?”, unpublished essay for the course ‘General History II: the formation of medieval Christendom, 1000-1300‘, 1st November 2011; Constable’s reference is to Constable (ed.), The Letters of Peter the Venerable, Harvard Historical Studies 78 (Cambridge 1967), 2 vols.

Seminars CIV & CV: two from off my map

Let me try and keep up the pace with a couple of quick notices of seminars I was at in October last year. (They’ll have to be quick if I’m ever to catch up.) Both are from the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford, where on the 17th October Hilde de Weert spoke with the title, “Empire and Information during the Twelfth-Century Chinese Crisis”, and the next week Jan Dumolyn gave us, “‘Let Each Man Carry on with His Trade and Remain Silent’. Politics and Urban Literature in the Later Medieval Netherlands”. Both of these are later and in different countries than I really know anything about, so my own thoughts on them are pretty limited, but they were both very interesting and I do want to try and get that across, at least.

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Dr de Weert crammed an incredible amount of information into her paper, which was as well in some ways as I for one really needed the context. Her work here was on information networks in Song China as found in notebooks of commentary exchanged by the administrative élite of the period and country. There were apparently an awful lot of these, a genre that it’s really hard to parallel from the west, sort of worked-up commonplace notebooks with things like demographic information, maps, pieces of historical writing, proto-ethnography and anything that a well-off civil servant was interested in, which would then be published (apparently at state expense because they administered those expenses in the relevant areas—this was one of the many parts of this system I had trouble getting my head round) and circulated and responded to in kind. This gives you two things that Dr de Weert was exploiting in this paper, firstly the actual networks of contact between these administrative intellectuals, an empire of letters but with a system of contact much more like academic publishing than personal correspondence, and secondly a brilliant source for the transmission of political ideologies, which was, if you like, where De de Weert’s story really started. She was looking for language of and initiatives towards centralisation and standardisation, and the descriptions of the previous era, in which the Sung court had been penned into the South by the Mongol Empire, use pejorative terms of it (‘the small court’) to help give grandeur and context to the new bigger and more demanding imperial operation of the thirteenth century. For Dr de Weert what this showed was a set of local élites who had internalised the imperial mission, and guaranteed that even if the empire held them only loosely and ineffectively it could still count them as members, and be sure that they too would so count themselves. There I saw some parallels with the way that Rome bedded down in the post-imperial West of the early Middle Ages, or indeed the Holy Roman Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but I was much more fascinated by the exotic, and yet parochially familiar (because pseudo-academic) source material, these notebooks that we in the West just have nothing much like from any period I know about. Except maybe blogs, a point made by Dr de Weert in the questions, if one’s blog were provided by the City Council or similar!

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of the poems of Anthonis de Roovere

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of a poem of Anthonis de Roovere with which Dr Dumolyn started his paper. There are quite a lot of ways in which this is not like my usual material.

Dr Dumolyn, visiting us from Ghent, also had interesting source material, to wit plays written for performance in various cities of the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. Writing this kind of material was apparently confined to a fairly restricted group (again), a guild of poets, usually well-off lettered bourgeoisie with a strong interest in the status quo. For this reason, the social messages of these plays are usually fairly conservative, and only some 30 of his 600-odd pieces of material could be qualified as `social’, but even well-off bourgeois can get annoyed (as anyone who reads the Times‘s letters column can see) so there is some scope for getting at social tensions here. For these guys the main evil was war, which disrupted everything and threatened positions, but was also obviously easy to condemn for basic moral and religious reasons. There was also, however, here and there and with certain playwrights especially, a critique of nobility of birth that looks a lot like the kind of “When Adam delved and Eve span” rhetoric used in the English Peasants’ Revolt, and workers’ complaints get used as a way of making these points, outsourcing the social critique to mouthpieces from other classes. These writers were presumably not interested in starting a revolt, and lazy workers and stupid peasants also feature quite a lot, but some of them nonetheless felt it necessary, wise or convenient to give a voice to more, shall we say, communal, feelings in their work. Discussion then centred on whether this was really a form of protest, or a palliative intended to relieve social tension and actually keep off the danger of workers’ revolt. One answer seemed to be that the plays were often staged competitively, so that writers would try and appeal to audiences so as to earn the patronage and prizes that came from winning. In cities where the social tensions they pulled on to give themselves that kind of appeal were often very real, this may have been a dangerous sort of literary brinkmanship…


1. It has been observed to me that it’s almost more interesting to note which seminars I went to that I don’t blog. Since I have such a backlog, indeed, I’m being rather harsher about culling the ones about which I just don’t have anything useful to say from my to-do list. This isn’t necessarily to do with the quality of the paper – “it’s not you, it’s me” – but sometimes, well, it is. Of course, you’d have to know where I was the term before last in some detail to spot this happening and start to guess which was which…

The rudest tree you ever did see written about

To continue, a lighter note in the knells of Zimmermann critique for once! Just at the close of chapter 6 of his immense Écrire et lire en Catalogne, Michel Zimmermann references as an amusing throwaway a document which I had seen before, but mislaid my reference to, and of which I was delighted to be reminded. The document is an ordinary land-grant, albeit by a count, although it has its own fascinations: among the things granted are ‘waste churches’, for example, which have been made to bear far too much significance in the past1 but which leaves an intriguing tale untold. It may possibly have something to do with the fact that on the boundaries of the property there was a guardia maurisca, if that’s correct a Muslim guard-tower, although we have seen that often when such things are invoked they were actually Carolingian and a tower is a more likely Carolingian than Muslim feature out here.2 But the reason to love the document is that one of the other boundaries is, as the scribe puts it:

On the tip of the higher pine tree, which has a mendacious and malformed name, a name which is however perfectly well-known to everyone, which on account of its deformity we avoid writing… 

Did you get that? The scribe is refusing to tell us what the boundary tree is called because it has a rude name. And that’s why Zimmermann mentions it, and for once tells us where the document can be found.3 But ladies and gentlemen, the story does not end there. That name that could not be uttered, the place where the scribe wouldn’t go? We’re going there. (Here are some preparatory instructions.) Because, not every scribe shared this fine sense of language, you see, and the property is also referred to in a later papal confirmation by Pope John XV, from which we can supply the name.4 Now I know I said there had to be more swearing on this blog but I want to be sure you’re ready for this so I’ve run it through ROT13 in consideration of your tender minds and gentle souls. Those who feel strong enough to decode it should run the following string through this web-page. Ready?

PNSENYVB

Oh, and I also put the Latin in this footnote, oops.5 Now, this is actually more interesting than it might appear, on inspection. I can’t myself see anything up with this word—and okay, if I’m going to discuss it I suppose I have to name it, Cafralio. But if I bend my brain suitably, I can imagine that a scribe who was looking back at an unfamiliar script with closed letters `a’ might somehow read “coprolio” and there I start to see the problem, although it is a problem in Greek.6 So it’s interesting, because whereas the script change in this area and time was generally from Visigothic bookscript (what the palæographers of the area call escritura condal), which has an almost-triangular letter `a’, to Caroline minuscule which has a rounder one, here we appear to have a scribe who didn’t recognise what must be Caroline script. But that itself is a problem for me, because this ought to being done from notes, and I can’t imagine that people made notes in Caroline, it’s a book hand. The notes should be cursive, and any cursive I know of in this area would have had open letters `a’, I think, not that there’s much to go on.7 And there is also the fact that while John XV’s scribes were happy with the name, an earlier and much more contemporary papal Bull from Benedict VI does not feature it.8

Sample of text in escritura condal

Sample of text in escritura condal, reading "& ipsas meas equas ·IIIIor·", from Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 9, I, no. 50, photograph by me

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal, reading "In hac vero audiencia", from Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins C 20; note that the scribe used both forms, differing at the beginning of `audiencia' from the end

So, OK, one option is that there was an earlier document, perhaps written by a Frankish scribe or from one of those flash guys near Barcelona, and Sant Pere de Rodes’s scribe couldn’t read it but thought he could. That seems awkward to me because Caroline is supposed to be legible, that’s the point, and there would be lots of other letters to compare these with in the document which ought to prevent the mistake. Okay, maybe it wasn’t very good Caroline. But the other option is that the first scribe is right about what the name is—and he does say that it’s well-known to everyone—and while they didn’t dare put it in the text they used for Pope Benedict (which was probably this same charter9), they decided later on that they really needed the boundaries of this property (which was much contested) in a papal Bull and so bowdlerised it to Cafralio for the text they took to Rome for John XV. That sounds pretty silly, but it does seem to me less improbable… Or, is there a Latin reading that would make more sense that I’m just too innocent to see?


1. Albert Benet i Clarà, “La incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942″ in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 568-574, uses any indication of a destroyed or abandoned church to map the progress of the Magyar raid into Catalonia and Spain in 942; I’m not sure that’s what they spent all their time doing, myself… See my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 115-119, which also contains my worst academic pun committed to print. SO FAR.

2. I’m sure there is literature on this but it won’t come to mind; the one I’m thinking of is the supposed Torre dels Moros astride the Casserres peninsula, discussed most thoroughly in Antoni Pladevall i Font, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny a Catalunya (Manlleu 2004), pp. 51-55.

3. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (siècles IX-XIII), Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, I p. 423 citing Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972 & 1989), ap. CXVI, which must by now be reprinted in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I’m not in a position to look that up just now: “In sumitatem de ipso pino altiore qui habet inhonestum atque incompositum nomen, cujus tamen nomen omnibus notissimum est, quem nos propter deformitatem scribere devitamus.”

4. That being de Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXL, which certainly must be better edited in Harald Zimmermann [no relation I believe] (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046(Wien 1984), but again I don’t right now have the access to check.

5. “Cafralio”. <looks around nervously>

6. That doesn’t actually prohibit it, however. On this Zimmermann is quite good, as far as I’m any judge: see Écrire et lire, I pp. 297-312. He sees the use of Greek words here mainly as stylistic showing-off by borrowing from word-lists and glossaries, but that would do for this case.

7. The local palæography is covered in M. Josepa Arnall i Juan & Josep M. Pons i Guri, L’escriptura a les terres gironines (Girona 1993), but there just isn’t really any preserved cursive from this era as far as I know, except the odd chancery-like signature.

8. De Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXVII, again presumably better edited in Zimmermann, Papsturkunden, if only I could reach it.

9. That’s how papal documents of this era tended to be done, with a model you brought with you and got copied up in advance: see Hans-Henning Körtum, Zur Päpstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995).

Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

Term in Oxford started early this year, and as a consequence is now over. (If you work anywhere else in higher education, I’m sorry to dangle that in front of you.) This term has been energising but also frantic, and I’ve not been coping well with the to-do lists outside of teaching because various bits of my family have needed a lot of attention in the background, as well my general disorganisation. To stay afloat in my seven to eight hours contact time a week across six different courses, it does rather seem as if I had to sacrifice blogging, and indeed social e-mail. Well, I’m now sort of caught up on sleep and so I’m going to try and get some posts up. I have loads part-written, so hopefully this isn’t a vain promise, because after all I have a heck of a backlog. And first in it, chronologically, is the fact that I went to see the British Museum’s exhibition about saints’ relics in the Middle Ages, Treasures of Heaven on the 8th October last year, narrowly before it closed, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

Cover of the catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven

Cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, showing the reliquary of an unknown female saint who became the face of the exhibition, and whose actual picture is firmly copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she now once more resides

I thought this was a very good exhibition, actually—and I suppose I should mention that one of my best friends helped set it up, so I may be biased, but they had no control over what went in or how it was displayed—but not everyone I’ve spoken has agreed. There’s no question that explaining the cult of relics, or even the cult of saints more broadly, to a modern secular audience is problematic; the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman a few years ago put this in front of the journalists and it’s still true. This is an affair mainly of belief, of ideas and notions that are largely intangible – an identifiable person in Heaven with whom the believer has some basis to feel a connection, and whom they can therefore use or conceive of as a conduit to Heaven that has special personal relevance and personal effectiveness.1 I can say that, but if you don’t believe in Heaven or worry about your salvation, then it’s still not going to be easy to take on board. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think that the British Museum tried hard enough to get the ideas across. My immediate reaction to that, as an ex-museum person, is to bluster about how hard it is to represent ideas with objects, but actually, for a start that’s exactly what these objects were for, and secondly, on reflection, I think the BM did a pretty darn good job of it, actually (and my museums experience has not always inclined me to speak kindly of the BM, so it costs me something to admit this).

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre; not so many of the actual objects from the BM exhibition are online, and this one actually makes my point better as it's not Christian. It's also from Wikimedia Commons. The guy had problems with his eyes and a foot, it seems.

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry, from Wikimedia Commons; click through for a British Museum video presentation of it

So they started with burial customs in the Roman world, and included as well as the ornamental sarcophagi that help give some idea of an Antique afterlife to the viewer, some votive plaques that open up the idea of communicating with it. Now after that, I will admit, it all went maps for a bit and I’m not sure the average viewer will have understood why they were important; I suppose that the idea was quite literally to put Christianity on the map and thus explain how ideas born in the Middle East came to be of such relevance in the areas that the exhibition largely featured, which were substantially Germany and the Low Countries although many other places too. But the context was set quite early, and after that it became much more of an art-historical progress than a religious-historical progress. I thought this was fair enough, because most of the objects were amazingly beautiful, and the mere fact that people had put that much effort and feeling into creating treasure houses for tiny bits of dead people was itself pretty religious, and there were changes in the way people worshipped revealed in the way the relics were housed, displayed and set up for use, not least because the objects displayed deliberately overlapped the Reformation and printing, and the captioning brought those out.

It’s not that I had no problems with the exhibition at all, obviously, this is me. I would have liked a few more instances of relics that weren’t body parts or bits of the True Cross, but instead things like dust and stones from the Holy Land, and so forth. There were some of these, but they were easily missed, especially as there was a number of containers for such things on display from which the actual relics had long been removed. Of course, such objects were kept bagged and even if displayed the viewer wouldn’t be able to see what they were, so I can see why not, but they were, it seems, by far the commonest sort of relic, so I thought that could have been further up front.2 There were also some issues with actual display I had. In particular I kept finding myself crouching at the edges of cases, because the lighting from above seemed to work best if one viewed the objects from below – that presumably can’t have been the intent. I know how hard this is to do, of course, especially when one’s objects are so damn shiny, but also not least when there are fabrics and perishables involved that you mustn’t subject to bright light. All the same, I expect the BM to get these things right, and I personally felt that these were only nearly right. Is the answer perhaps small lights at the corners of the cases, sometimes?

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral; this was on display, but the image is borrowed from Columbia University, whose zoomable version is linked through. The actual fabric, unlike St Amand, is Middle Eastern

The other thing that niggled was the persistent recurrence of the phrase, “It was thought…” to explain the beliefs behind the pieces. This became especially tricky as we approached the Reformation but it also made absolutely everyone implied by the phrase as credulous as each other. Now, when students try and tell me, Terry Jones style, that medieval Christianity was basically a massive scam dream up by the Church to feather its own nest by encouraging fearful donations, those students do not fare well, but nonetheless, saints’ cults were huge earners sometimes, and people involved in them did do things to maximise their cults’ popularity and saleability.3 And if you read, for example, Chaucer, you can find people mocking this, well before Calvin’s bit about there being enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build a warship. Not everyone, even if Christian, reckoned all this stuff to be genuine. So, sometimes I’d have been happier to see, “It was claimed that…” or even “Some claimed that…” in these labels, just to put a bit of an edge on this `Age of Faith’ interpretation. But, mainly, I thought this exhibition was an amazing treasure house, and one that (unlike some others) it was just about possible to tour in one go. Also, the exhibition catalogue, which I caught on half price (and so can you), is absolutely gorgeous, and even if it does contain another piece on saints’ cults by Arnold Angenendt—which I’m sure many people think is a good thing—there is lots of interesting writing alongside the amazing objects.4 So I’ll finish this with a selection of some of the objects I was most struck by (where images of them are legitimately available on the open web, at least).

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel, fifteenth-century shrine round a seventh-to-eighth-century bell; again, from Columbia Art Museum's Treasures of Heaven pages

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

I liked this one so much not because it is individually special, though it is, but because the label in the case with it stuck it next to the church I’ve shown it with here, in the same kind of juxtaposition, and the similarity of form did more than words could have done to put the intentional echoes actually before one and in a quite literally founded way. I would have been well pleased with coming up with that idea.

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph, image at Columbia University

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph, likewise from Columbia University, full zoomable version linked through

These, which are twelfth-century reliquaries of two bishops of Maastricht, I just loved because, as the catalogue says, each of the dead bishops is, “twisting energetically as if ready to leap from his tomb”.5 As the resurrected Saved would presumably be pleased to do! Full of personality, these.

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, here from Columbia University and therefore again linked through to a zoomable version which is totally worth the time you'll spend goggling at it

And this because it has so many things going on: papal sponsorship, robbing of Byzantium (because the icon—which is a mosaic!—is Byzantine but the case is Italian from decades later), non-physical relics (not that you can tell, as I admitted above) and immense artistry for a fairly small audience. If this was shared, it was shared among a very select group of people. The best of this exhibition for me was, thus, a way to step harmlessly into the private devotions of a great many people to whom these objects were more than just treasure.


1. The entry text for this whole phenomenon is undoubtedly Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (London 1981), which is one of those books that decides students on an academic career, so brilliant is it.

2. I make that assertion based largely on a couple of papers I’ve seen Julia Smith give about such objects, but as yet I think the only part of that research that’s published is “Rulers and Relics c.750-c.950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven” in Andrew Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford 2010), pp. 73-96, so what this means is that I might have got this fact wrong as I can’t look it up where I think I got it yet.

3. For that sort of shenanigan, your book of reference should be Patrick Geary’s Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1994), which is kind of a bumper resource for weird-seeming medieval customs involving dead people.

4. To give it its full citation, Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann & James Robinson (edd.), Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion on medieval Europe (London 2011), including Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and their Veneration”, pp. 19-28, which I will up and admit might be excellent as I haven’t yet read it.

5. Martina Bagnoli, “Reliquary of St. Gondulph” and “Reliquary of St. Monulph”, ibid. p. 177. They abbreviate “St.” thus throughout, even though it’s not a suspension so shouldn’t carry the stop. Is this a concession to American usage?