Monthly Archives: August 2012

Seminar ketchup: CXVII-CXXI

If I mean to get this blog back up to some reasonable frequency of posting and currency, I have obviously got to do something about the massive backlog of seminars I want or intended to report on, so it’s time for drastic measures. For a start, I’m not even going to cover Rosanna Sornicola‘s presentation, “What the Legal Documents of the Early Middle Ages Can Tell Us About Language: the case of 9th- and 10th-century charters from Southern Italy” at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 25th January, not because it wasn’t interesting but because the indomitable Magistra covered it long ago and the only thing I really wanted to add to her write-up was my side of an argument I had with the speaker afterwards about when ipse starts to serve as a definite article in late Latin, and nobody needs that here, right? (I mean, if you do, ask in comments, but I’m guessing not.) Gorgeous pictures of Naples and a comprehensive handout, though, all respect to the speaker.

Developing towards a Viking Christianity

Birka Smycken

Silver crosses from graves at Birka, from Wikimedia Commons

That then lets me skip forward to the next day when, back in Oxford, Ildar Garipzanov gave the first of two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Balliol College, this one entitled “Christian Identities, Social Status, and Gender in Viking-Age Scandinavia”. This was required of him by a six-month fellowship he had at the college care of a bequest by that same O. Smithies, and which he was using to advance his part in a bigger project entitled, ‘The “Forging” of Christian Identity in the Northern Periphery (c. 820-1200)’. This project, which has already published a couple of essay volumes,1 is seeking to retell the story of the conversion of the Scandinavian regions to Christianity from the point of view of the converted, rather than the more traditional missionary perspective.2 Ildar’s reprise of it contained the worthwhile starting point that medieval Christianity was to a great degree both a social identity and a religious one: one was a member of a Christian population in a way that a pagan religious identity did not involve with paganism, because of Christianity’s articulated hierarchy that joined its members up. Their research, apparently, is tending to confirm an idea that one of the many social theorists mentioned in this paper had noted, that Christianity spread fastest where religious plurality was possible, as thus to profess Christianity allowed one to enhance various existing aspects of one’s identity (so as to get preferential taxation in Eastern markets, for example) without eradicating others. In those circumstances, why not add some Christian ideas and jewellery or whatever to one’s basic presentation? But this becoming a full Christianization was a much slower process. This helps us understand ‘mixed’-religion graves like some of those found at Birka (or these which I’ve just found about thanks to A Stitch In Time, cheers Katrin!) without thinking that the deceased or those burying them must have just got something wrong; rather, they were about showing off riches and ‘Christian’ material culture was one of the fashionable labels in that society. And when churches came to be put up where these burials, among others, were made, it was likely more because that’s where the power was than because that’s where the ‘Christians’ were buried. This was all very interesting stuff, and the theory put to good effect, but I should have begged a bibliography from Ildar because I’d never heard of any of what he cited…

Failures to extend authority in early Islam

Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik: 'Caliphal Image solidus' or Standing Caliph solidus struck from 74-77 AH. Based on Byzantine numismatic traditions

Obverse of an Umayyad dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, showing the Caliph standing with sword, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on the 31st January and the 2nd February Oxford got two papers by the same man, Andrew Marsham, the first entitled, “God’s Caliph: authority in the Umayyad Caliphate”, which he presented to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar, and the second, “Public Execution with Fire in Late Antiquity and Early Islam”, given to the Late Roman Seminar. The former of these was a study of the Islamic ruler’s title ‘Khalifat Allāh’, successor of God, rather than the now-more-conventional succesor of the Prophet. This title seems to appear in usage in 743 and run until the ninth century in various contexts before becoming theologically inadmissible. Dr Marsham explored the possibility of late Antique roots for it, a kind of contesting of importance with the Byzantine emperors or even simply part of an ideological struggle with the ‘community of the faithful’ over whether the Caliph was subject to law or not, but if that’s what it was, initially at least he appears to have lost. The latter was a similar sort of enquiry in a way, trying to work out if there might be effective late Antique precedents for the unusual and controversial occasions in early Islamic history in which people are judicially killed with fire. The interesting suggestion was involved here that these executions were failed rituals, in which someone in power decided that this case merited messing round with some old precedents now tinged with the echo of Hellfire, but which was always felt by the wider community to be too awful to become established. Both of these papers were interesting but I don’t have the kind of background that could evaluate Dr Marsham’s rather tentative conclusions so I just plug some of his work and move on.3

The ‘Three Orders’ in China, if China it were

Then the next week, on the 6th February, I made sure to come to the Medieval History Seminar because Naomi Standen was speaking. I know little to nothing about China but some of what I have read on it has been by Professor Standen and besides, I wanted to know what on earth a paper with a title like “Politics, Piety and Pots: shared repertoires across Continental Asia in the 7th to 12th centuries” would actually be.4 Really interesting, was the answer: fed up with divisions and mappings of medieval China that attempt to plot political groupings, ethnic divisions (most especially Han Chinese, very hard to define historically), agriculture and religious populations, all of which break down in various ways when examined closely, Professor Standen had elected to try and take a horizontal approach (and you know how I love that) and analyse this supposed unit socially. Taking a defined geographical expanse in which the climate was roughly similar, and thus leaving aside the far south-east, she started with leadership, differentiating a chieftain-style leadership of fictive ‘peoples’ from the more official one found in towns where society was multi-functional enough that influence could be had in other ways, but stressing that in the right places and at the right times officials could run tribes or chieftains towns and that some nomad groups notionally within the Empire had no leaders at all. Polities thus being dismissed as too structurally flexible to constitute differentiable zones, she moved onto religion, plotting a McCormick-like network of Buddhist contacts and travellers which though connected was not uniform and stretched as far as India and Japan and survived imperial collapses more or less safely.5

Map of China under the Liao dynasty

A traditional perspective

The political structuration being too granular and the religious one too variously-shaded and extensive, she lastly tried to look at the peasantry by means of ceramics, and although this suffers from the fact that the ceramic sequence is so poorly-studied here that there’s no real chronology of the stuff between 200 and 1200, that is also because a remarkably uniform grey ware was in use right across her ‘Continental zone’, and while other ceramic styles of higher quality came and went in certain areas, especially where the Silk Road reached, this at least did look like a kind of cultural unity, albeit one in which the ruling élites were very probably completely uninterested. Of course, that unity was not we think of as China or any ethnic group’s supposed territory, but the point of this paper was roughly to assert that nothing was, and it was really well done. (And yet of course the idea of a China was incredibly powerful throughout the period and beyond: Chris Wickham described it as a “continuity of potential disintegration” in questions, which struck me as being just right at the time.) But what I mainly loved about this paper, I admit, apart from being so well led into a field about which I know so little, was seeing the Three Orders in another context, because, as I pointed out to Professor Standen afterwards, that was what her three categories of analysis were, Those Who Fight, Those Who Pray and Those Who Work. She said she hadn’t done this consciously but it’s one of several things lately that have made me wonder why it is medieval historians don’t export theory rather than import it. This was a tenth-century set of categories doing useful analytical work still, was this; Adalbero of Laon would have been proud…

And finally women in men’s clothing

Lastly in this batch, on the 7th February I had the chance to hear Judith Bennett speak to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar, and I did so, partly because of the numerous people who’ve told me I could learn from her, but also because her title was “Early, Erotic, and Alien: cross-dressing in late medieval London”. This was work that Professor Bennett had done with one Shannon McSheffrey, of whom I’m afraid I know no more than this web-page offers, and it analysed 13 cases of persons brought before the courts in London between 1450 and 1547 for offences that included dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender. Only one of these was a man, and only two of the women appear to have actually been trying to pass as men, so the question opens up straight away, what was going on and was it a particular thing that can be described as a unity? This involved some foreign comparisons – for some reason Florence recorded a lot more of this than most places, albeit in the fourteenth century – but it also meant excluding things like saintly women trying to escape their biological sex and, well, ‘man up’, and also the kind of inversion beloved of festivals and so on. Aside from one fascinating case of two women who shared a bed, one of whom dressed male (because they felt one of them had to?), most of the cases that went before court appeared to be have aimed to titillate or disturb men, being displays at parties or in brothels and so on, and so some erotic charge was presumably involved,6 in which case it might fall into a rather wider category of queer dressing, cross-class, cross-profession, cross-age (maidens as matrons or vice versa). Another common factor, however, was that many of the women were foreigners, and this raised questions of whether being rootless or indeed without protection might allow or compel such reinvention of one’s presentation. For the London judiciary, all these cases were sexual misconduct, but Professor Bennett showed the range of possibilities that might lie behind such choices, from fear right the way through to fun (and not necessarily the fun of others only). From an early medievalist’s point of view it’s frustrating to discover that even when we’re dealing with sources that come as close as it’s reasonable to expect to actually being interviews with the people concerned, we still have to guess what was in their heads, of course, but there was more to this paper than just entertainment. As Andrew Marsham had also argued about executions by fire, these very unusual occurrences can be used to show up what was thought to be usual in better relief, and the odd thing here was that the courts saw a pattern where we, with much scantier and less detailed evidence than they had, can’t.


1. Those being Garipzanov (ed.), Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Eastern Europe (c.1070–1200) (Turnhout 2011) and Ildar Garipzanov & Oleksiy Tolochko (edd.), Early Christianity on the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks: Christian Identities, Social Networks (Kyiv 2011).

2. I had to choose that phrase very carefully. If his ghost will forgive the association with it, I suppose the traditional perspective would ultimately be that of Adam of Bremen in his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. of choice being that of Francis J. Tschan (New York City 1959, repr. with intro. and notes by Timothy Reuter 2002).

3. Such as A. Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: accession and succession in the first Muslim empire (Edinburgh 2009) and specifically for his second topic, “Public Execution in the Umayyad Period: early Islamic punitive practice and its late Antique context” in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies Vol. 11 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 101-136.

4. What I’ve read is Naomi Standen, “(Re)Constructing the Frontiers of Tenth-Century North China” in Daniel Power & Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 55-79, but what I probably should read had I but world enough and time is Standen, Unbounded Loyalty: frontier crossings in Liao China (Honolulu 2007) or eadem, “The Five Dynasties” in Denis Twitchett & Paul Jakov Smith (edd.), The Cambridge history of China, Volume 5, Part 1: The Sung dynasty and its precursors, 907-1279 (Cambridge 2009), pp. 38-132.

5. Referring to Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2001).

6. I wanted to include here a salacious example, but I notice at the last minute that Professor Bennett’s hand-out has a request not to cite or quote it without permission and I haven’t thought to get same, so you’ll have to do without it, sorry.

The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA's osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic's own site really don't make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.



He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology'” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe


1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.

Seminar CXVI: beware of Greeks starting Crusades

This particular backlogged seminar report has more history behind it than usual. You very nearly got a post on this subject a while back, when a story appeared on News for Medievalists, recycled as is their wont from the Australian,1 entitled “Historian Peter Frankopan is challenging a millennium of scholarship in his view of the First Crusade”. This caught my attention straight away, partly because I’m interested in the First Crusade as we know but mainly because I do a lot of copy-editing and this headline struck me as being in need of modification, in the light of the fact that it has not yet been a millennium since the First Crusade occurred, for example. However, on inspection, it turned out that the press release they were running from, about this Frankopan character’s new book, had only claimed, “nearly a millennium of scholarship”, which is probably still contestable depending on whether we count the Crusade chronicles as scholarship, but let’s move on. What was the challenge? Well, briefly put, he was reported as arguing that the First Crusade was provoked not by Pope Urban II’s brilliant speech at Clermont (though that helped) but by the political situation of the Byzantine Empire being so desperate that they had had to ask the West for aid.

1490 manuscript illustration of the Council of  Clermont, 1095

1490 manuscript illustration of the Council of Clermont, earliest I can find, from Wikimedia Commons.

Now, in some sense this is news, yes, because the conventional version of the history of the First Crusade almost always does start with the Council of Clermont, but it struck me immediately that it was not exactly new news. I mean, not least, you could find me saying that the Greek appeal must have counted for a lot here in 2007, but I only got to say it because of a long chain of people arguing similarly, Paul Magdalino and Jonathan Shephard most recently but this really starts, in the Anglophone scholarship, with the translation endeavours of Dana Munro in the USA around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the work of his generation.2 So, you know, not new exactly. And I was all set to write a post about this, which might well have employed snark, when I discovered two things: firstly that Dr Frankopan is somewhat local to me, being a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, and secondly that he was addressing the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies Seminar in Oxford on 24th January 2012 on the very subject, and so I thought I’d postpone judgement until I’d heard him make his pitch, and off I duly went, and somehow it is now August. So, leaving that aside, how was it?

12th-century miniature portrait of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

12th-century miniature portrait of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, from Wikimedia Commons

Well, the seminar was a lecture on this occasion, in fairly splendid surroundings in St John’s College, and the lecture was more or less a book launch, being entitled the same as the book, “The First Crusade: the call from the East”. It addressed the whole question of crusading briefly, and the interest it continues to generate (Thomas Asbridge’s TV series was screening at this time and that helped make that point), but then dug into the question of why it happened when it did, and maintained that the only answer to this is Emperor Alexius I Komnenos, the ruler of Byzantium, and his 1095 appeal to Pope Urban and the West at large at the Council of Piacenza in that year. So far, so much like the newspaper story, but the extra depth came from the fact that, presumably as part of the same work that allowed him to renew the translation of Anna Komnena’s biography of her father, that same Alexius, in 2009, Dr Frankopan really does know the Byzantine material covering the Crusades well.3 He argued that Anna’s subtleties and strategies of concealment of awkward facts (like, single successful campaigns that she refers to again and again at different points inthe narrative, disregarding chronology) have not been fully recognised and that by reading her more carefully we get a much more serious idea of the Empire’s plight in the early 1090s than we have previously done, helping to explain why such desperate measures as Western help were on the table. This helped ease my mind somewhat: though the fact that Alexius’s appeal was well-known in the scholarship was not mentioned, and though I thought he talked down Urban II’s importance (which while certainly not as great as one would expect from the word `pope’, since he was but one of two and not the one who could get into Rome, was still more widely recognised than the casual listener might have gathered from this), Dr Frankopan certainly has some extra pieces to add to the story and I learnt a lot from listening. I have now relearnt most of it and more from his book, which I borrowed a quid in order to buy that same evening, so you can tell I was at least decently impressed.4

Cover of Peter Frankopan's book, The First Crusade: the call from the East

Alexius’s part in the Crusade, for Dr Frankopan, continued at full strength right up to the point when, in order to prevent the force dissolving at the siege of Antioch, the Crusader leaders had to finally break from the Byzantine strategy and start working for themselves, and thereafter we return to the conventional narrative. That narrative is well dealt with, though: the book is stylishly written and well-referenced (endnotes, but what can you do) and I found it pleasant but erudite reading. I do feel, admittedly, that one would benefit from reading it with Dr Frankopan’s translation of the Alexiad open as well, so that one had some means of seeing what Anna was actually saying and why, on this occasion, we should not believe here when elsewhere in the narrative she is used uncritically. Obviously, if he’d made that argument every time he cited her the book would have been three times the size and half as readable, and wherever alternative sources are available he does use them too, but he does ask for a lot of trust in his judgement of her veracity, given how important to his theory her alleged lack of it can sometimes get.

So: one should not go mistaking this for a full new scholarly history of the First Crusade but it certainly is a good and learned book on it, and even if some of its supposed novelty kind of rubs off in the wider scholarship, there is still a need for it. It is possible, as I say above, that there are places where Dr Frankopan’s emphasis on the Byzantine role and deprecation of the Western initiation of the Crusade goes too far, but on the other hand, one could, for example, compare it to Thomas Asbridge’s likewise recent book on the Crusade and notice how really, Alexius is just wheeled on there when dramatically necessary, as the real story is about Westerners versus Easterners, and not in a simplistic way but the Byzantines confuse the binary by being between the poles.5 So there is room for a take from the ‘third side’, for sure. Of course, Dr Asbridge managed to build on that book with a much larger one about the Crusades as a whole and then successfully managed to take it to TV.6 I didn’t see much of that, sadly, but what I did see had quite a lot of Syrian buildings of about the right period, a great deal of sunshine and Dr Asbridge almost mercilessly walking towards the camera, hands flying, and talking at it with great emphasis. I kind of think Dr Frankopan would like a TV series too, but I can’t help feeling his would involve a lot more indoor scenes, dark decisions being made by half-light, measured and careful delivery and an actress playing Anna scribbling away and crossing out ill-temperedly between every few scenes. I’d quite like to see that programme. Till then, the book will have to do…


1. Why do stories about Oxford University keep appearing in this paper, anyone? They were the only media coverage at all I saw of the ongoing sell-off of the History Faculty’s library building, and as with this story got most of the details wrong while still being remarkable for thinking it worth reporting in the first place.

2. J. Shepard, “Aspects of Byzantine Attitudes and Policy towards the West in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in J. D. Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West, c. 850-c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30th March-1st April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen: internationale Zeitschrift für Byzantinistik Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 67-118; Paul Magdalino, The Byzantine Background to the First Crusade (Toronto 1996), online here; previously Dana Carleton Munro, “Did the Emperor Alexius I. Ask for Aid to the Council of Piacenza, 1095?” in American Historical Review Vol. 27 (Washington 1922), at pp. 731-733; E. Joranson, “The Problem of the Spurious Letter of Emperor Alexius to the Count of Flanders” in American Historical Review Vol. 55 (Washington 1950), pp. 811-832.

3. Anna Komnena, Alexiad, transl. E. R A. Sewter, rev. with intro. by Peter Frankopan, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth 2009).

4. Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), a damn cheap hardback considering how nicely made it is. I note also that even Dr Frankopan feels that he cannot avoid starting with the Council of Clermont even if it is followed with five surprisingly readable chapters on Byzantine politics.

5. Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: a new history (London 2004, repr. 2005).

6. Idem, The Crusades: the war for the Holy Land (London 2010), now translated into four languages.

On the two hundred and fifteenth day since this blog was five

You will have noticed that things have got a bit backlogged around here, but the old obsessive compulsive symptoms, as well as vague concern for anyone who might be trying to read the blog retrospectively, mean that I persist in trying to work through it chronologically. I originally set the stub up for this post just after the beginning of the year, when the WordPress statistics mailshot that is included below arrived and I realised that I had, again, missed the blog’s birthday. A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe began on 14th December 2006; it is now in its sixth year of operation.

This has been a weird year for the blog. I’ve not been posting as much, largely because I’ve found that to keep even vaguely up with all the things I’ve foolishly committed myself to and try and keep rallying with the e-mails which, if left unanswered, will cause professional problems, has meant that other things have to give way, and they have been mainly writing here, since I’ve also been trying to have a life of sorts outside the job. I also had something of a professional sink patch in the middle of the academic year; I was teaching at my best ever, I think, but finding it harder and harder to make time for my own work and thinking, because all I seemed to have spare time for was the editing and admin stuff I’d promised to do for other people, not least the dead ones. Somewhere in there I found that I was no longer asking questions at seminars and that none of my personal projects had moved forward in a while. I stopped offering conference papers: I had nothing left in the tank that wasn’t a full-size research project which I had no time to start, and I didn’t want to amass more useless junk which was only interesting to an audience because they know nothing about my area. So I felt a bit stuck. A colleague of mine, some years before, who had just landed a permanent job despite having no publications – nice trick if you can do it – confessed to me shortly afterwards that they were worried that they had burned out, and I didn’t understand how that could be possible at their stage. Suddenly I have some idea.

Grotesque from the Catedral de Sant Pere, Vic, now in the Museu Episcopal

Grotesque from the Catedral de Vic, now in the Museu Episcopal

BUT! I’m pleased to say that this has now changed. In the slightly-easier summer term, I did what may seem foolish and set to reading a shed-load more charters, the most exposure to primary source material I’ve been able to manage since I was actually doing my doctorate. This has raised about a hundred new and old questions and I have ideas again, will be offering papers (indeed, already did, somewhat unwisely given what I will have to do to make it worth giving) and now have plans for far too many publications. I am trying to focus on two at a time and to kill off the various bits of editing and then accept no more than one of those at a time thereafter. (I currently have four.) And, most relevant for you guys, I have forty-five posts in some sort of draft, not counting seminar reports, even if most of them are only stubs containing an idea and even if three of them are probably going to become publications instead of blog posts, now that they’re written up and look more serious than I’d expected. I am still having trouble finding time to write here, and even more trouble trying to catch up with other bloggers’ output, but there is at least plenty yet to say and I hope you’ll hang around for it.

If you happen to look at the numbers page that’s linked from the below excerpt, by the way, you may notice three things, or at least I do. The simple and mundane one is that 2011 was the blog’s best ever year, and that’s rather pleasing. I already know that 2012 will not match it, because of my decreased posting I suppose; I suspect I have the same number of readers but I’m just making you load pages less often! But it’s good. The second thing is that the websearches that bring people here are now, by and large, ones that might give them useful results here; I advise all medievalists to write about the Treaty of Verdun and motte-and-bailey castles! Because of these factors, nothing new that I write ever does as well, but that’s fine; there are many ways to find this blog useful I hope. The third thing, though, is the commentators. Somewhere during 2011, we reached a point where I no longer had to keep conversations going in the comments, because the people here were talking to each other. I would log back in and find that other people had answered commentator’s questions, generously and helpfully. Occasionally commentators would solve historical problems I’d raised before I could even get home. (This was the best case: thankyou Alex Woolf and Joan Vilaseca for that, who could possibly only have got into conversation here.) I’m absurdly pleased about this, it’s what a discussion space on the web should be like, it’s made me a lot more positive about the value of blogging in academia as forthcoming publications will record, and it’s really not me who’s done this, it’s you fine people. So thank you all, especially those whom WordPress’s numbers show to be the most talkative but also all others too, anyone who checks in and has something to say. I will keep you posted.

And here’s the WordPress automagical review of 2011 in these parts in case you’re interested

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 150,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.