Monthly Archives: April 2012


At the end of 2010, though suddenly I had all the publications in the world, I was a bit worried that now there was nothing much left in the pipe and my CV would have a nasty gap for 2011. … Continue reading

Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain

I have mentioned Graham Barrett here before, not least as one of those people whom I fear would, if they’d done my doctorate, have done it a good deal better than I did (though, y’know, I’m happy with my outcome). When I mention him, moreover, people pipe up saying how impressed they’ve been with his papers and wanting him to publish on slates, so, you probably want to know about when he presented one called “The Literate Mentality and the Textual Society in Early Medieval Spain” to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 21st November last year, especially since this was kind of a mission statement for his soon-to-be-finished doctorate. So, okay, here I am to tell you about it!

Frontage of León cathedral

Frontage of León cathedral; there are worse places to have to work...

The main question Graham was addressing here was the social level of literacy in Northern Spain, 711-1031, not including Catalonia (though less because of me, I imagine, than because of Michel Zimmermann, whose monster work covers this kind of ground; Professor Zimmermann probably has more to fear from Graham than I do). This gives him some 4,000 charters to play with, of which roughly a quarter are now in the cathedral archive of León. Some useful figures followed, characterising the sample: 61% cartulary copies, 21% originals, 6% loose copies; 54% donations, 36% sales, 10% ‘other’, and so on. He then stressed, however, that these categories aren’t necessarily useful for his kind of enquiry: more relevant may be that only 19% of them are transactions between lay-persons. That’s a lot, by early medieval standards, but the vast majority of the material here still concerns the Church. Preservation peaks at around the year 970, which makes a kind of sense in terms of war and stability but surely needs a better explanation than frequency of randomised destruction; we are instead, Graham argued, probably seeing a sea change in the social uses of writing.

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970

Tower and scriptorium of the monastery of Tábara de León, from its copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 970, complete with scribes busy altering the social fabric

[Edits to the first sentence of this paragraph, with apologies] At this point there was a pause to address the historiography, whose various offerings on what early medieval societies were doing with writing Graham didn’t find entirely helpful in his case, and the material he brought to bear more or less proved his point. For example, the boom in document preservation is in non-royal ones, so not driven by government directly.1 Instead he sees the pressure to write as having come from the Church, with monasteries and so forth being set up in new areas and effectively archiving community memories in such terms as boundary clauses, names of witnesses and knowledgeable persons, and so forth, and defending themselves at law in such ways that meant others needed documents too, when without that outsider pressure the whole thing might have rested on the community’s collective memory. (The references to documents the monastery didn’t make and didn’t preserve of course indicate that other people could write as well as the monks, and he would come to this.2) The fact that documents were valued at law – and Graham said that he has no court cases where a side with documentary proof ever loses, which surprised me and must, I think, despite its totality, be a factor of preservation as we’ve seen here before – meant that people were willing to forge them, store them, copy them and if necessary, destroy them.

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica

The law, which is the Visigothic Code on which Graham was presenting when reported here the time before last, even governed to an extent what documents were supposed to be written, and was itself a form of socially-active writing, albeit one that could be modified or ignored, and referred to silently, i. e. without saying that that’s what it was; it was, at least, a starting point and suggestion for how to deal with the situations it covered.3 One could argue—Graham did not, quite—that the Bible was used the same way, even though its status was rather different, and higher; nonetheless, it too was a source from which the writers of these documents drew their ideas of how things should be arranged (and, indeed, what would happen to those who disarranged them). These two texts were treated with at least some respect; other, lesser, ones were apt to be recycled, modified, edited or miscopied in fruitful ways, and the last part of the paper focused on their writers.

Three scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Three identified scribes, from the Codex Vigilanus of San Martín d'Albelda, circa 976, from Wikipedia

Scribes are surprisingly rarely identified in Graham’s documents (it surprises me, anyway, but then I am used to a corpus that is mostly originals) but those who are can be broken down into royal, episcopal, monastic, aristocrats’ and village scribes, almost all clerics or likely to be so. One third of these, roughly, only wrote a single document that survives, but as the period went on it became more usual for a few people to write a lot of charters, which I think probably tells us something about towns becoming spaces of public action and possibly, given its presence in the preservation, the development of León as a capital. These people had written models, of which at least one was the Formulae Visigothicae or, presumably, a version of those texts’ ancestor, with regional variations visible in the detail, and the documents they made could be done at the time of the transactions concerned, although sometimes they would come later. (This must be harder to judge with fewer individuals and I would want to leave some conceptual space for writing them before the ceremony too.)

Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978

Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978; slightly bigger version linked through

What the ceremony at which the text was deployed, witnessed, signed and given to the property’s new (or new-again) owner did, argued Graham, was to embed the act of writing and its encoding of an action in society. The increase in specialised scribes, as he saw it (contrary to my suggestion above) was a recognition of this by the powers-that-were, monopolising the authority of text and the ability to make it. Here again is supposed a world where for a while, writing got ‘out’ into a wider social plane, but where before that, it had been mostly élite and rare. Michel Zimmermann would, I think, agree with this, but I’m still struggling to see that boom in access to text in the 970s, which I have in my material too albeit maybe a decade or two earlier, as a phenomenon of society rather than of preservation. I’m not sure that when documents are rarely preserved it necessarily implies that few people of that era could write, rather than just that they were not writing things that get preserved. The Visigothic Law and the Formulae Visigothicae envisage far far more things being written down than we have from the tenth century, and the very limited preservation on slate, rather than parchment, from that era seems to show that in action, with accounts, lists and so on far outnumbering solemn documents.4 I, instead, find it easier to imagine a continuity in attitudes to writing from seventh to ninth centuries and that what changed after that was less more people finding it necessary to get at quills and more a greater number of institutions surviving, due to economic growth and so on, that would preserve a certain sort of document better for us. And for that case I would cite girls being taught to write at home, the incredible scale of loss of documentation from the societies of the Peninsula who didn’t have the good fortune of a continuous Church presence through to the modern era and the apparent survival of Visigothic norms of writing, including to an extent the script (something which is a lot truer for Graham’s area than mine5). All the same, I would certainly have to admit, firstly, that Catalunya no es Espanya, secondly, that the evidence we don’t have is obviously impossible to characterise, and thirdly, that Graham’s more complicated version of the history of text in his area would, indeed, look just the same as my simpler one in terms of evidence that we now have.

1. Compare, most obviously, Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (London 1979, 2nd edn. Oxford 1993), for a governmentality-driven thesis.

2. And until this work gets published, there’s Roger Collins, “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), XVI.

3. Compare Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism, V, and Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55, just to stick to the English-language literature.

4. I am used to consulting the slates in Ángel Canellas López, Diplomática hispano-visigoda (Zaragoza 1979), but Graham informs me that I would find many more in Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Documentos de época visigoda escritos en pizarra (siglos VI-VIII) (Turnhout 2000), 2 vols, where there are also pictures, for which you otherwise have to go back to Manuel Gómez Moreno, Documentación goda en pizarra: estudio y trascripción (Madrid 1966), with the reproduction standards of that era.

5. On which see Anscari M. Mundó, “Notas para una historia de la escritura visigótica en su periodo primitivo” in Bivium: Homenaje a Manuel Cecílio Díaz y Díaz (Madrid 1983), pp. 175-196, though cf. Collins, “Literacy and the Laity”. I’m sure Graham could provide far more up-to-date references than all of these but they are where my views came from.

“There are many roads to the great good we seek”

[Written partly offline on the bus between Oxford and Cambridge, 18/04/2012]

Over the last year, in the world of actual academia I seem to have written more about research methods than about the results of actual research, including two papers about blogging. I’m not sure what’s scarier, the fact that there is, eighteen years after my first introduction to the Internet, still a market for printed work about it,1 or that running a blog makes me a viable contributor to that literature. Nonetheless, there are two, one loosely based on the paper I gave in Siena now forthcoming in Literature Compass, and another piece with a more complicated genesis still under review.2 That genesis is interesting, in fact, as far as new media publishing goes (still, some might say, not very far): if accepted, it will be part of a ‘born-digital’ volume whose review process has up till now been done on the open web, at a site named for its prospective title, Writing History in the Digital Age. Here, various contributors, invited or responding to a CFP, were invited to post essays on more-or-less agreed topics (mine being blogging) and then several readers selected by the editors, as well as anyone else who wanted to, weighed in with comments. Feeling as if it was part of my role as a contributor, I actually read all of it, which is when this post became the stub that it’s taken me many months to fill out, but never mind that now; there’s some very interesting stuff in the volume and if you’re on this kind of new media humanities wavelength I do advise you to browse. Let me just finish talking about me first though, and then about one of those ‘nothing is ever new’ moments one sometimes gets that one of the essays there gave me.3

(Ultimately everyone is deriving from Chuck Berry anyway, right?)

My first go at a contribution for this volume was decidedly second-rate; I wasn’t sure that the editors knew what they wanted from me, and I wasn’t sure there was anything much of rigour or weight to be said about blogging as a historiographical enterprise anyway. Then I got asked to do the Literature Compass piece, which made me write at least a bit more seriously, and reading the other essays contributed to this volume generally forced me to buck my ideas up. Firstly, they introduced me to a welter of scholarship on digital humanities I had somehow managed to ignore, and secondly they showed me a number of contributions that were saying genuinely insightful things about the way we work and can work with these new tools in the æther. I decided I actually wanted in on this thing and therefore rewrote with a much better grounding in that scholarship and also an actual argument, and you can at time of writing see that version here; it’s kind of my current definitive statement on academic blogging in history, in as much as I don’t know what would have to happen for me to change my mind, well, apart from blog posts and readership figures officially counting towards academic promotion. (Tl;dr: they never will while peer review is still how we govern entry into the Academy.) What then happened was that the editors had more good stuff than would fit between the covers they were allowed to pitch for by their prospective press, and so winnowed thoroughly. What I had written crossed the tail-end of another contributor’s essay and so we were asked to make our two 5,000-word pieces, which disagreed over crucial issues, into one co-authored 4,000-word one. This request, you can imagine, I met with a certain amount of offline vituperation, as I felt I’d said what I wanted to say, and I might well have ignored it had not the other contributor, a gentleman or at least a scholar called Alex Sayf Cummings,4 who also hath a blog, got in touch and asked what I thought. Putting aside my spleen, I came up with a suggested best-of structure, he refined it, I built it out of the parts of what we’d written then we both refined, deleted, joined up and generally edited till we had something we were both happy with. It shouldn’t really have worked but I think it’s a better essay than mine alone was, and it at least doesn’t do him any disservice, I hope. (It’s here, at the moment, if you’re interested.) It’s been a weird way to work, and I don’t know if I’m ever likely to meet my now-co-author, but if it does come out I shall be quite pleased with it.

Alex Sayf Cummings faculty mugshot

Have you seen this man?

So that’s all been interesting, but it’s very far from being the only interesting thing in the volume, so do have a look. I was, however, especially struck by this bit from “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards” by Ansley T. Erickson:

It makes sense that historians would think about categories, as we encounter them in many ways in our work. As new graduate students, we learn to identify ourselves by sub-field – “I do history of gender,” or “I’m an Americanist.” And we are trained implicitly and explicitly to organize information and causal explanations into categories of analysis – race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, space, etc – when in fact these categories are never so neat and separate, whether in an individual’s life or in a historical moment. Then we research in archives that establish and reify their own categories – legal records divided by plaintiff or defendant, institutions that keep their records with an eye to confirming their power or reinforcing their independence. To make sense of a sometimes overwhelming volume of fact, all of which needs to be analyzed relationally, we rely on categories that we create as we work – like my database keywords.

This matter of categories connects to at least two fields of scholarship. Scholars of the history of knowledge like Peter Burke have examined the organizational schemes embodied in curricula, in libraries, in encyclopedias, and have shown us how these structures and taxonomies represent particular ways of seeing the world. Burke then shows that such schemes reify or naturalize those ways of seeing, helping to reproduce the view of the world from which they came. They also make some kinds of information more, or less, accessible.

Think, for example, of the encyclopedia. We are accustomed to its A to Z organization of topics, but this structure in fact represented a break away from previous reference formats that grouped subjects under a structure of classical disciplines. The alphabetized encyclopedia came about at a point when the previous disciplinary categories were no longer so stable as to be able to contain growing knowledge, and a new, more horizontal or less hierarchical model took their place, a model that allowed readers access to information by topic, outside of the hierarchies of a discipline. Burke points us to the importance of how we categorize information, where these categories come from, and how categorizations affect our access to and experience of information.

And there’s more here. Now, call me an old hippy if you will, but isn’t that quite like this?

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups — Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Now this latter perpetrates the Great Greek Myth and so on, but bear in mind the context: it’s a liner note from the first album by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a Texas band with a chequered and short history who have some claim to the title of the USA’s first psychedelic band. It is, ineluctably, from 1967. But its relevance to re-envisioning the humanities might not be as surprising as it seems, given that this was a band whose lyrics were written by a would-be poet and whose signature acid manifesto, ‘Step Inside This House’, is actually a Coleridge filk, even if also that it is a general depressing tendency of listening to late sixties and early seventies rock that almost none of the social and political issues it’s about have ameliorated. But I’m figuring, all the same, that this is a reference point that isn’t going to make it into the academic literature any time soon, more’s the pity. Because it’s as the title says, in the words offered to the Roman Emperor Theodosius Valentinian II [edit: oops] by the senator Symmachus when the emperor proposed to close the last pagan temples, there are many roads to the great good we seek, and sometimes they seem to meet up.5 Still not convinced? First extract written by one Ansley Erickson; the Elevators’ singer, one Roky Erickson. I’m telling you man: once you look at it the right way it’s all connected

1. I’d have thought it was all said in Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: a Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005),, but apparently technology develops!

2. It will hopefully be Jonathan Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass (Oxford forthcoming).

3. For which I might now cite Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge MA 2006), about which I had no idea before getting involved in this.

4 He may well be a gentleman! But not having met him, I don’t want to presume; it’s not, after all, a title I feel I own either.

5. You’ll notice that this seems to more of a periphrasis than a translation, the version that the IMSB link gives (“One road alone does not suffice to so great a Mystery!”) being closer to canon. I’m not sure where I got this translation from; I’ve had it in my head since doing undergraduate work on paganism and Christianity in my second year, but I obviously didn’t find room for it in either of the pieces of coursework I did then because it’s not there. It seems likely to me that I’ve borrowed it either from Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven 1981), Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the mediterranean world from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2006) or Jocelyn Hillgarth (transl.), Christianity and Paganism, 350-750. The conversion of Western Europe (Philadelphia 1986), the first and last of which I remember fondly but not with enough clarity to be sure…

Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England?

I think I’ve decided to run with this theme for the moment, though some things may get shifted around for greater elegance. I’ll advertise any major changes, though. Thankyou all for comments. Now, back to the backlog! It probably won’t surprise you, now that you know that the Winton Institute for Monetary History were being medieval in their seminar series last year, that I was back there before long, on this occasion because Michael Metcalf was speaking, and he is a man whose work I’d read quite a bit of as an undergraduate and heard much of during my time at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but never actually met. He could best be described as Mark Blackburn‘s opposite number in Oxford, but started rather earlier and has perhaps said some more, um, adventurous things, so I was interested to see what would transpire.1 His paper, presented on the 16th November 2011, was entitled, “Thrymsas and sceattas and the balance of payments”.

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

A sceatta (pronounced 'she-att-er'), to wit, a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection. This is the reverse; it's really about a centimetre across.

It used, as Professor Metcalf began by saying, to be thought that the monetary economy began in the High Middle Ages, but ever since metal-detecting got big this has got steadily harder and harder to maintain. The take-off point keeps getting earlier and earlier as more coin is discovered. Especially prevalent have been finds of the earliest coinages of early medieval England and its neighbours, the coins usually known as sceattas (though Mark preferred ‘early pennies’) and their rarer gold predecessors, thrymsas. These have multiplied to such an extent that everyone is now agreed that the old classification of them makes no more sense but very few people have dared to risk putting a foundation down in the ongoing flow of evidence to start a new one, so the coins remain somewhat poorly understood.2 Once it was clear that the high medieval proponents were wrong, anyway, the next paradigm came from none other than Richard Hodges, who in the early 1980s suggested that these coins were in use only by élites and that the average peasant never saw them.3 This was defensible at the time of writing but is an especially hard-hit casualty of the increase in evidence; there’s just too much now, too widely-spread, for any sensible reconstruction of how much there once was to fit such an idea. So, it’s necessary to rethink what coinage in early Anglo-Saxon England was actually doing.

Reverse of Anglo-Saxon gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002

A thrymsa, or shilling, in this instance of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002, the reverse again, and even tinier than the previous

This paper had a go, then, at doing this by analysing the distribution of finds of these coinages. We are especially able to get at these now because of electronic resources like the venerable Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam and the rather newer NUMIS in the Netherlands. Playing with these quickly reveals the one-sidedness of finds of the (probably) earliest sceattas, of which many were made in both the Netherlands and England but English ones of which are only found in the latter, whereas the Low Countries ones get everywhere.4 This suggests to Professor Metcalf a balance of payments, and he suggested therefore that wool was a key export even this early, since the coins are in fact found most thickly in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire Wolds, wool-producing areas of note. That also suggests that the goods were shipped direct with no trade on the way! So, that might be élite, if that’s how you see English wool production even as early as the seventh century,5 though it might also not, but the distribution of finds of locally-minted gold coins of the seventh century is basically uniform, so it seems quite unlikely that the good stuff was being concentrated by any such interest. The élite hypothesis does, therefore, seem to have to go.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

Replica of a (much later) Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

A lot of the paper rested on estimates of the sizes of coinage, an area in which Professor Metcalf has become famous.6 For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent, from Archaeology in Europe (linked through) not one used by Professor Metcalf, whose maps' detail was rather finer, but I somehow find scrounging other people's handouts onto the web without their okay a step too far

So, you know, what, why and how? The answers are yet to come, but the questions are getting louder and louder. Some answers that did get suggested in questions were, the obvious one perhaps, a consumer class in the peasantry (John Blair), monasteries (also John Blair, you will be shocked to learn) both as consumers and as industrial drivers of the economy, salt and meat being bought in bulk (the latter of which was also John’s suggestion, in fact) and, back from the dead, the élite (Anthony Hotson, though here obviously channelling Chris Wickham, sadly absent), in as much as by promoting commerce and appropriating surplus that people are thus made to produce they are causing production and a market economy… And any of these might be the right answer, or indeed all of them, but none of this is coming from texts, or Henri Pirenne would likely have had the answer eighty years ago. This is one of those instances where the answer really does lie in the soil.

1. Most famously, perhaps unfairly, in one of his earliest papers, “How Large Was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, where he used an estimate of 30,000 coins produced by each hypothetical die to produce a maximum figure that somehow immediately became orthodoxy…

2. The basic classification goes back to Stuart Rigold, if I understand rightly—and I really may not!—in his “The principal series of English sceattas” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 47 (London 1977), pp. 21-30, but this rapidly got liberally beaten about, not least in David Hill and Michael Metcalf (edd.), Sceattas in England and on the continent: The Seventh Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 128 (Oxford 1984) and subsequently in D. M. Metcalf, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford 1993), 3 vols. Lately Tony Abramson has proposed a new classification in his Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide (London 2006), but the profession doesn’t seem to be happy with this and I believe we can expect more work on this soon, fostered not least by Tony’s readiness to get people together and talking about these coins as witnessed in the volume he’s edited, Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 1: Two Decades of Discovery (Woodbridge 2008), which came out of Leeds sessions (a lesson to me in prompt publication).

3. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn 1989).

4. Presumably this is all available in W. Op den Velde & D. M. Metcalf, The Monetary Economy of the Netherlands, c. 690-c. 715 and the Trade with England: A study of the Sceattas of Series D, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 90 (Utrecht 2003) and eidem, The monetary economy of the Netherlands, c. 690 – c. 760 and the trade with England: a study of the “Porcupine” Sceattas of series E, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 96 (Utrecht 2010 for 2009), but I confess I only just now found out about those so I can’t say for sure.

5. My ill-disguised Grierson fandom obliges me to mention Philip Grierson, “The Relations Between England and Flanders Before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th Series Vol. 23 (London 1941), pp. 71-112, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 61-92, though even he didn’t try to push the wool link back this many centuries, not then having the last seventy years’ finds to work from.

6. Not just his “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency” above, to which one might like to compare Philip Grierson’s reply, “The Volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 20 (London 1967), pp. 153-160, repr. in Grierson, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), XXXVIII, but more recently Metcalf, “Some Speculations on the Volume of the German Coinage in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Thomas Fischer & Peter Ilisch (edd.), Lagom. Festschrift für Peter Berghaus zum 60. Geburtstag am 20. November 1979 (Münster 1981), pp. 185-193, another one I know of rather than know, and Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018″ in K. Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, which I have actually read, although a very long time ago…

7. Since these methods involve at crucial points making up figures, I don’t myself put much trust in them and in this I’m guided not least by Ted Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, Presidential Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335–351, but also by the careful compromise suggested by Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973–1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and history in the North Sea world, c. AD 500–1200. Essays in honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523. There’s a computer simulation test of the various statistical estimators in use published by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which gives some reason for credence in such methods, but ultimately I’m with Ted on this: even if it might just be right, it’s inherent to the method that you can’t know that… That doesn’t invalidate Professor Metcalf’s relative conclusions, however!

8. See Helena Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.

Metablog VII: theme change experiment

No, don’t panic! It’s just a test. You may have seen how silly the threading on this site has sometimes got when discussion has been busy here. This has only really been an issue in the last two years, and it usually takes me at least that long to consider changing, well, anything really, but last November I did decide that there was one other free theme available in WordPress that supported everything I currently have loaded up in this here blog more or less where you’d expect to find it, and also had slightly better-looking threading of comments. Since then another has turned up, but the one I’d noticed does things more compactly and the new one would need more work to restore a blogroll. I quite like it, and it has a lot of scope for moving things to more convenient and intuitive locations; but, what do you think? And here I ask especially not just those who often comment but those who don’t, because lovely though the former group are they are about 1% of the blog’s audience, so some other views too might make things more representative. Basically, we can run with this, I can try the second one, we can revert to the old theme and I just disable threading, or I can wait for another plausible candidate to come up. Please, let me read your thoughts!

Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

Much prefigured, this post! I noticed last October, you might recall, that Alex Woolf was more or less doing a speaking tour of the south, to which I was going to be able to make it for only a few of the papers (and thus Magistra kindly blogged one of them for me); then in November I mentioned that he’d just been to Oxford and I’d been able to talk Picts to him, and said something similar when I finally got round to talking about his Leeds paper. Since then I have been citing him a lot and now we finally get to the Oxford paper. Yes, I am behind, I cannot tell a lie. You will deduce that I follow the man’s work, and indeed, Alex put on the first conference I ever presented at and thus indirectly got me my first offer of publication, so I owe him a favour or two. I had encouraged the convenors of the Oxford Medieval History Seminar to invite him, for all these reasons, and was not at all disappointed when on 7th November he gave us a paper called “Framing Scotland in the Early Middle Ages”.

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, from Wikimedia Commons

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, by David Wyatt and licensed under Creative Commons, from Wikimedia Commons; this is the alleged 'capital' of Dál Riata

The title, as you may have spotted, comes from the fact that one of the convenors has this little book called Framing the Early Middle Ages, which is extensive in coverage but for various reasons doesn’t cover Scotland.1 Alex thus wondered out loud for fifty minutes on how Scotland might be fitted into that larger picture, looking not at political developments primarily but at socio-economic ones. There is of course really not much evidence for this sort of thing (though it benefits a lot more from the ever-increasing archaeological data than does the political account) but Alex argued that we can probably still do better than just extrapolating from Ireland and England instead… The first thing he focused on was the weirdness that in 600 or so, Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland all had their political centres in areas that have almost always otherwise been politically marginal in these kingdoms, what’s now Northumberland, what’s now Argyll, and what’s now Donegal, and that by 900 this had stopped in all three cases. This is not just because these area generated written sources, though they certainly did, because we can also get the same clues from fortresses, of which small ones were springing up in all three zones at around this time. The development of the North Sea trade network in the eighth century however seems to have pulled power over to the east coast ports, in Britain, when we get York and Portmahomack developing as (very different) sites and Ireland generally falling back somewhat.2 Alex suggested that when this sort of system developed, these marginal areas became principally exporters of men, military or otherwise, looking for prospects beyond the marginal economy of their homelands, but that when those possibilities didn’t really exist, it became viable to turn military power into a base of local influence because there was a surplus of manpower with which to do it, and sites like the Mote of Mark were where these little sub-royal powers found their links into the trade zone that their presence drove. This may have a lot to do with why King Edwin was so keen to drive into Cumbria and Carlisle, and the kings of Northumbria were generally so active on the West coast, and why Dál Riata, which was surely a miscellaneous gathering of squabbling islands in its natural state, became a political power of any standing: it must have been the main route for goods travelling on that network to go into Pictland.3 That kind of influence might, indeed, get Irish missionaries received at the top of Loch Ness and sea-kings received into alliance with Pictish monarchs; annoying or not, those people were in a position to cut off the flow of shiny things on which early medieval kingship seems to have tried to enjoy a monopoly. For the short time in which that could continue, this Great Game, whose later more famous sibling would occupy so many Irish and Scottish soldiers, was in the West.

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons, a bit late for our purposes (10th-century) but very sharp and shiny

My notes on this are pretty much covered in asterisks of emphasis; you who know my very limited work on Scotland will see how it makes things I want to argue make sense, or at least certainly could do. Chris Wickham asked why the eastern zones should ever have lost their influence, and Alex answered that they had been much more plugged into the Roman Empire and so suffered a greater degree of collapse when it withdrew. Since that’s been argued as an effect in many other places, it was hard to deny here.4 The western margins simply didn’t have as much to lose. George Molyneaux asked why such powers hadn’t generated more written sources, and Alex brought out various survival arguments as well as a plea not to think that these are big powers on a European scale.5 I asked about symbol stones, but Alex just thinks they’re later than I want to, well, OK. Thomas Charles-Edwards argued for the importance of the central zone where these powers met their eventual supplanters,6 and I also think we see that focus become very important during the eighth century and then the Viking Age, but obviously there could be lots of reasons for that…

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland: culture contact or culture clash... ?

You can see, firstly, that it was a very full seminar, and secondly that there was an immense potential for discussion. I subsequently gathered from Alex that this paper, and the others he’d been doing on his tour, were sort of rehearsals of chapters from a book he’s putting together, partly because these are days in which almost all UK academics would like to have a book published between 2008 and mid-2013 but also because he feels there is room beside James Fraser’s book for something that takes this kind of socio-economic view. I think a book by Alex on the early period would form a very interesting counterpart to Fraser’s, as their approaches are probably different enough that one could profit from both, but I think two things are for sure when it comes out; firstly, it’ll be fascinating and invoke parallels from periods and places no-one else would ever have thought of comparing, and secondly, it will cause avid discussion. Both of these things happen a lot round Alex, and here’s to it.

1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), Scotland’s absence regretted p. 6 n. 6.

2. For the development of the North Sea zone the classic account is Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989), though his new Dark Age Economics: a new audit, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2011) might have some repositioning of his argument. For York, I’m going on Richard Hall, “The Making of Domesday York” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988) and Dominic Tweddle, “York, Ciudad de Alcuino” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (Barcelona 1999), pp. 171-174, transl. as “York: Alcuin’s Town” ibid., pp. 504-506, though I realise there must be more recent stuff out there, I just haven’t read it yet; Portmahomack is a different matter, with the latest published word, at least, being Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

3. Here, I am actually working substantially off James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, Edinburgh New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), but it would be worth adding Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: A Dark Age Hillfort in South-West Scotland, Oxbow Monographs (Oxford 2006) and, even now, James Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriata (Edinburgh 1974).

4. Here I think principally of Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), though fairness would probably also oblige me to mention Richard Hodges, “Anglo-Saxon England and the Origins of the Modern World System” in Hooke, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, pp. 291-304, which attempts a similar argument with rather less basis in about half a page.

5. In this question George was riffing on, and Alex largely conforming to, a piece by Kathleen Hughes called “Where are the writings of early Scotland?” in idem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 1-21.

6. Professor Charles-Edwards has a small and well-groomed dog in this particular fight, as he has been arguing that kingship really develops around the control of land, not the supply of shiny things, for a very long time now, and archæologists have increasingly not been paying attention to him because, of course, we have shiny things from the period than information about land control: see his “Kinship, Status and the Origins of the Hide” in Past and Present no. 56 (Oxford 1972), pp. 3-33, “The Distinction Between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement: continuity and change (London 1979), pp. 180-187, and “Early Medieval Kingships in the British Isles” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 28-39, the first of these picked up and applied interestingly to English archæology, at least, by Chris Scull in his “Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 17-24, though the latter two are in the bibliography of Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003).

Lady Cynethryth at home

OK, that was three heavy posts, time for something lighter. This time without naming the student, since the bits I’m actually quoting are all mine, I had a tutorial some months back in which we were looking at the Mercian Supremacy, when the kings of Mercia were top dogs in England as no doubt you know, and we spoke of King Offa’s queen Cynethryth, who has the unusual distinction of being the only queen consort in English history, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly the only Anglo-Saxon one, to have coinage struck in her name. She also turns up in Offa’s charters, and was generally recognised as a presence in a way few other queens of the period were. Whether that tells us anything about her, however, as opposed to how much she was important to Offa’s claim to the throne, is more of a debate, and getting at her actual rôle in the kingdom is very hard indeed.1 So, one of the pupils tried pitching her as a kind of Lady MacBeth character, the driving force behind the throne. There’s some material to do this with, if one wanted, with Alcuin (him again) telling a half-story in one letter of a throne acquired and held by spilling copious blood, but I’d never before envisaged Cynethryth standing behind Offa goading him on in the way that Shakespeare’s MacBeth, who is really Holinshed’s MacBeth and not really a historical MacBeth, was driven by Gruach.2 And before I could do anything my mind had gone somewhere entirely otherwise with the idea, snippets of home life in the Mercian court which owe more to Barrie Took than the Bard:

Offa                 : Mek room there lass, I want some breakfast before I sit in judgement.
Cynethryth: Well you haven’t seen this letter from Archbishop Jænberht! I ask you! Who does he think he is, dreadful little man! You’ll have to do something about him.
Offa                  moans: Not Jænberht again. What do you want me to do, ‘e’s the Archbishop, I can’t just mek me own now can I?
Cynethyrth Nonsense, of course you can. In any case it won’t do. We shall holiday in Kent this year, Offa.
Offa                 : Can’t we ‘ave just one spring without a war?
Cynethryth: It won’t do.
Offa                  sighs and gets up.
Cynethryth: And where are you off to, exactly?
Offa                 : Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to get me hair done…

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Yes, OK, not very likely, but seriously that hair demands some explanation. The real question, I suppose, is whether this counts as Oxbridge-quality teaching or not, a question to which I don’t intend to solicit answers. Back to seminar reports next, featuring indeed he of n. 2 below, the one who’s still alive that is, and no coins at all for once!

1. This is kind of a general problem with studying powerful women in the early Middle Ages; they are all unusual. The best place to start is probably with Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: the king’s wife in the early Middle Ages (London 1983), repr. in Women, Power and Politics (Leicester 1998), but if you wanted Cynethryth specifically a different piece by Pauline Stafford would be more useful, her “Political Women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Studies in the Early History of Europe (Leicester 2001), repr. in Continuum studies in medieval history (London 2005), pp. 35-49.

2. Alcuin’s letter, to the Mercian Ealdorman Osbert, is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae no. 122, and translated in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), no. 46 and Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 202. Meanwhile, if you didn’t know either of the facts that the real King Macbethad of Alba had a relatively long and mostly secure time on the throne (1040-1057) and that he might even have been the first King of ‘Scots’ to have ruled from the north coast to the border with England, you should probably get hold of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), where pp. 225-271 will set it all out for you. If you knew the first bit, but the second has you piqued and you want all the detail, then Alex has written it up in “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, though it is also briefly covered in the book, and I’m not sure he’d necessarily choose to present the conclusions in quite the way I just did.