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.

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21 responses to “Seminar ketchup: CXVII-CXXI

  1. Jonathan, a fascinating post because of its world historical scope. I just came from teaching the first day in my world history to 1500 course, so the Islamic and Chinese papers struck me as good examples of how transnational thinking enriches our research.

    • Well, the Islamic papers both featured a reasonable amount of fitting Islam back into the `Greater European’ ambit by finding Antique echoes in the early Caliphate, so perhaps it’s less international viewed from the perspective of a Continentally-focused early medievalist, but yes, it was an enriching term that one!

  2. My “favourite” execution by fire from Late Antiquity comes from the so-called Fragmentary Chronicle of Saragossa from early to mid 6th-century Spain – it involves a failed usuper being burned alive inside a bronze bull – that itself being a clear echo of Phalaris of Sicily’s use of such a device in the 6th-century BC. Talk about continuity.

    • Ah now that’s very interesting, Mark, thankyou, that motif comes up in a piece of Wolfram’s Parzival when he’s talking about a text a pagan informant of his had read in Toledo, and I’d been unable to place it beyond Wikipedia for the person who was asking me about it. I wonder what on earth the transmission was there?

      • Did you mean the bull mentioned in book IX line 365, or maybe some other context ?

        • Lord how embarrassing; now that you make me go and check the reference, I discover it’s a misreading. I did mean that bull; I told my correspondent I thought this must be a reference to the Brazen Bull; and I seem to have remembered that it actually said as much, whereas it doesn’t. Sorry! I withdraw this subthread.

          • Ought!, then, you are not alone on this, I also think it’s a reference to the brazen bull!
            I’am using an english translation. at archive.org, it reads:

            By his father’s side a heathen, a calf he for God did hold,

            The ‘heathen’ adjective makes me think that Wolfram is playing words between the golden ‘bull’ made by Aaron, and the brazen one made in honour to Baal-Hammon=Kronos=Saturn. Mixing in a single quote both mythical jewish roots (biblical/pagan). I am wrong?

            • No, indeed, I think it is supposed to recall the Bull of Baal, I’m sure that’s right, but I think that to leap (as I did) from there to the execution bull of Phalaris of Sicily is a bit hard to justify in the cold light of day. Which is a pity, because I had such a nice transmission worked out for it… :-/

    • Just to be sure, I suppouse the source to be: Chronicorum Caesaraugustanorum Reliquiae, ad.497

      ad a 497. His coss. Gotthi intra Hispanias sedes acceperunt et Burdunelus a suis traditus et Tolosam directus in tauro aeneo impositus igne crematus est.

  3. Joan – that’s right. Burdunelus is mentioned nowhere else than this entry, so we have no real context for this. But it’s always nice to picture those nasty BARBARIAN Visigoths embarking on a piece of public hyper-classicizing in this way. Query how many people in 497 had heard of Phalaris?

  4. Fewer than had heard of Placidus / Eustace?

  5. Although that said I see that the tyrant Phalaris and his terrible bull crop up in all sorts of places, from Cicero and Ovid to Orosius and beyond…

    • Oh, I nominate Orosius for my personal question, in that case. Not only was Wolfram canny enough to know a Spanish author and use his provenance for a colourful story, but there’s also the amusing fact that Orosius’s Histories were translated into Arabic for the then caliphal heir-presumptive al-Hakām II. That copy would have been at Córdoba, but there’s a number of ways that such a manuscript could have finished up in Toledo and then it would, just, be possible, for a Muslim correspondent of Wolfram’s to have read it and reported the bull story as being from a ‘pagan’ manuscript. It’s much more likely that Wolfram was classically-read to the required degree and just made the whole thing up as background for his version of the grail myth, of course, and threw this story in too, but it’s amusing that his fictions have a just-feasible backstory.

  6. Is it possible to conceive of these relative dispersals of ethnic polities as merely political communities who divided by several courts, where the fiction of Chinese jurisprudence is conditioned by the veracity not of the imperial/juridical account (ie, barbarians vs. the literate) but by older periods of discovery? After all, the common welfare of the “pottery crowd” in contemporary China still insists on firing urns and pottery in kilns according to a Yuan style of blue and ochre design — county governance isn’t identified through common law, but a sort of political sovereignty on ethnic council, without any of the local groups revealing their shared identity or just histories. The political commercialisation of territory has possibly been in place since these policies of disintegration began to appeal to a trade abroad. Is it even possible to have religion any more in this kind of intrinsic rebellion that tends towards breakdown when county systems have made a lucrative market out of a renewed Continent? This is only possible if European history were pulled the backward way though.

    • If I follow you correctly, I think there are two different questions inherent in what you’re saying, one about the situation of Liao China and one about how that may reflect on the situation of China today. I am too poorly informed about either of these things to have a good opinion, but I would certainly observe that even polities defined by a religion usually have room for other religions and ways to economically found their chosen religion in whatever structures most readily provide the wealth they need for support, be it commerce, tribute, or whatever. I think that Professor Standen might question whether the separate courts divide or multiply ethnicities, however, and I don’t think that the large-scale spread of a common pottery style she noted is definitive of an identity in the way that the Yuan style which you mention is, and for which it is maintained. If that were the case, it seems unlikely to me that Sassanian wares coming in along the silk road would have found a market. So whether the ills of contemporary China can be projected back to the situation she described, I would doubt.

  7. Shannon McSheffrey has done some excellent work on gender and authority in late medieval/ early modern London, backed up with lots of detailed sources from the urban archives. Her approach appeals to me because she doesn’t use patriarchy as some sort of monolithic explanatory framework that works in basically the same way everywhere, all the time (which I see as a weakness of some feminist theoretical stances). Instead, she unpicks how gendered power relationships were structured and were operating between men and women, and between men and other men, in a specific historical context. She also makes the connections between how gendered power structures were imagined (in urban laws, guild regulations etc.) and how things actually worked in terms of individuals’ lived experience.

  8. On foreign women as cross-dressers, is it that they’re more likely to do it, or that they’re more likely to be picked on for exemplary punishment? I seem to remember Alan Bray, in “Homosexuality in Renaissance England” saying that the tiny number of men prosecuted for sodomy in the period included one man described as black, which statistically seems extremely unlikely to have happened by chance.

    • Well, if the number’s tiny, as you know, then ‘statistically’ doesn’t come into it, there’s no way to rule out chance with any basis, but I take your point. I don’t want to speak for Professor Bennett but I would guess that foreign women were in general more likely to wind up in marginal occupations and in trouble than those who had a local support network of some kind in the form of family or acquaintances, and those occupations seem to be the ones where this sort of thing was coming up. Of course, both your options could be true at once!

  9. Pingback: Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. A note: mail from Dr Marsham now advises me that the first securely-datable use of the title “Khalifat Allāh” is from c. 694, not 743 as stated. I’ve gone back to my notes, therefore, and find that he also mentioned insecure attestations as far back as maybe 674, but that nonetheless he began with the 743 date—it is the first word of my notes on the paper—so although I may have misunderstood what he said about it I think a note down here is more suitable than editing the post.

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