Monthly Archives: September 2012

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

The awesomeness of implied landscape

A brief check down the front page of this blog just now revealed to me that I apparently haven’t written about my actual study area for really quite some time. This must be changed. After all, it was not so very long ago that I sat down and had a proper go at reading a few hundred more charters, out of which I was claiming a few posts ago to have loads of new ideas, surely some of them can go here? Indeed they can. Working through charters can be pretty dull, but the Catalan ones, formulaic though they can be, are often quite descriptive about the landscape they’re set in. They do this in quite brief terms, however, because of course the landscape in question was familiar to the people involved and they didn’t need to write poetry about it. This means that some quite surprising things can almost slip past one, such as a charter from the Vic cathedral archive dealing with land in Pujolric in Balenyà in 963, which mentions that on one of the boundaries of the land concerned was, “ibso molino subterraneo”, or, in properly emphasised translation:1

‘the underground mill’

Now, OK, that might just sound kooky and perhaps slightly like the headquarters of a feudal supervillain, but consider. This is not a windmill: those hadn’t even come back to la Mancha yet as far as we know, and in any case, I don’t see how a windmill could be underground in any very convincing way.2 Yes, the actual milling parts could be, but why would you? The upper works would still need to be above ground so you’d just be making loading difficulties for yourself by not having the stones there too. It must have been a watermill, but water, of course, flows downhill, so the outflow of this water must also have been underground. Now, I can only see one easy way for that to happen, which is that the mill was stuck into a hillside above a river gorge and they’d dug it into the ground so as to use gravity to increase the water power. And when I figured that out I almost immediately wanted to set out on a trek down the Riu Congost looking for obvious holes in the cliffside around Balenyà…

You see, it’s one-off things like this that make it worth slogging through the next twenty documents where nothing exciting is listed. Except, that this one turns out not to be a one-off. Another, rather obscure, document from 989 relating to mills on the Riera de Marfà, also mentions a boundary on “ipso molino sutiran”, which, more Romance though it may be, is surely the same thing.3 (There are quite a lot of mills in this landscape: one was being sold and two more were on the boundaries, one being this one and another a “molino mediano”, the mill in the middle?)

View of the Riera de Marfà, Castellcir, Barcelona

A simple use of that FWSE for Marfà brought this up, which could hardly be bettered. Do you want to bet that habitation has never been a mill?

At that point you have to start wondering how many of these things there were and whether this is a more widely-known phenomenon than I’d expected. And, of course, it turns out it is.

View of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

View of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

What happened was, I mentioned this on Skype to an archaeologist friend of mine. They, despite knowing neither Spanish nor Catalonia, are nonetheless sufficiently cleverer than me with Google Maps that within five minutes they’d come up with this place in Calders, same county but four centuries later. Nonetheless, here you see how it works: the big bank to the right of the building is actually the top of the cliffside, which falls dramatically down to the Riu Calders on the other side. But it’s uphill to get there, so the workings must, necessarily, be underground, and indeed they still are.

Erstwhile workings of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

Erstwhile workings of the Molí del Blanquer

This is not quite how I’d imagined it, but that’s just my imagination being weak, or rather, heading direct for the scenery and wishing I was out there rather than soberly considering how it should have worked. Nonetheless: sometimes the implications of a charter formula can only be measured in fantastic.


1. I first met this charter as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 357, but had somehow managed to forget about this aspect till reading it again as Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 924. Is it worth mentioning that Pujolric’s name comes from pugio regio, ‘the royal rock’? I’m not sure how this helps…

2. Admittedly, this might be quite wrong because my authority on this is still Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962, repr. 1963), pp. 80-89, and since I would no longer cite this as any kind of authority on ploughs, for example, though plenty of people do, I guess things may have changed here also, but he at least reckoned windmills as an import from the Far East that got west in the late twelfth century.

3. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1548, which is obscure because of its condition clause stating that the recipient gets the mill and “ipsos dies nove cum ipsas noctes”, which looks like a timeshare but is costing him 26 solidi (i. e. enough for, say, three or four reasonably-sized farm or seven or eight head of cattle) and the interval within which those nine days are placed isn’t clear. Nine days a year isn’t much for that money. Nine days a month? I can’t help but wonder if is this actually time to vacate? This would, however, not be the first milling timeshare on record in this area: see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 800-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 92-93.

Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

In the continuing attempt to clear some of my ridiculous blogging backlog before the new academic year starts in the UK, I am sadly going to pass over James Palmer‘s paper at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in London in February this year, not because it wasn’t interesting but because Magistra has already covered it, and this brings me back to Oxford. As we saw with the last of these posts, on a Monday when it seems to be required, it’s possible to attend both the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar here as there’s half an hour’s grace between them, and the 27th of February was such a day, as a remarkably complementary pair of papers were being given across the two. The first was “Between the Carolingian West and the Byzantine East: fortified élite settlements of the 9th and 10th centuries AD in Central Europe”, by Dr Hajnalka Herold and the second was “Dirhams for Slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century” by Dr Marek Jankowiak.

The hilltop over which stretches the site of the Gars Thunau hillfort complex, on what seems to have been a horrible day when whatever satellite Google gets its pictures from flew by

I first heard Hajnalka speak at the Kalamazoo of 2010, as is duly recorded here indeed, and this meant that some of what she was presenting was not new to me, as in order to set things up she had to talk us quickly through a number of sites which are not exactly household names in the West. (I sympathise with this: it frightens me how few people have any clear idea where Girona is and no-one but me and by now you has heard of Vic or Urgell but at least, bar the latter perhaps, people can usually spell the names from my area once they’ve heard them.) The sites are scattered across a zone shared between what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the state of publication and excavation is very various but, starting especially from Gars Thunau in Austria, Hajnalka is trying to fit these various, and variously-sized, power centres into wider frameworks, and as you can tell from the title of her talk is willing to look quite widely to find out what the builders thought they were doing and what kind of position they’d achieved that meant they could do it. The zone lay between empires, Frankish, Byzantine and at times Bulgarian, and any of these might be found pushing their influence into it at a given point in the period. The two former especially competed in the mission field, and had done for some time of course, which makes it particularly tantalising that many of these sites contained churches, in fact in the case of Mikulčice, in Moravia, nine churches, and in Zalavár in Hungary, a huge one which seems to have been of a size and complexity to rival pretty much anything in the West of the time, and a number of smaller ones on neighbouring patches of sandy ground. A Salzburg text called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum claims that this was the work of the Archbishops of Salzburg, but it would be nice to know which phases and when, if that’s even true…1 (I note that further south, in Croatia, there is dispute over whether the Aachen-like complex at Zadar was put there in emulation of or in reaction against Carolingian ecclesiastical pressure.2)

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár,  Hungary

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy initially to see what unites these complexes: firstly, they’re all fortified settlements and secondly, where there is good dating evidence, they seem to have all got new ramparts at the close of the ninth century. That’s more or less where the similarities end, however: the technologies of building, the size and focality of the complexes and likely, therefore, their apparent purposes all differ site to site. Furthermore, with only archæology to go on (the few written sources here, Conversio included, don’t help very much at all putting together a big picture) it’s hard to guess at who was in charge of any of these places or how they were supported.3 There are aspects that look familiar from the West: all these sites showed evidence of craft manufacture (though glass and precious metal were confined to the biggest ones), of space for Christian worship and for burial (not obviously non-Christian, if there is in fact any such thing archæologically-speaking) and of social stratification. On the other hand, these sites were not emporia, their trade links as so far testified in the material culture were thin and almost incidental, although quite farflung, there’re almost no coins and so forth. (More digging could change this in almost all cases, however.) The links that we do see, however, run both east and west, and this is clearest in the dress hinted at by the burial evidence: broadly, Hajnalka sketched, we’re looking at a set of sites at which the men dressed Frankish and the women dressed Byzantine, high-status persons in both cases of course and not without exceptions. The rank and file (and indeed the slaves who must have been there) are less distinctive. So the big message that Hajnalka had was that, although it is very easy for Westerners to look at a scenario like this (or that at Zadar, as noted above) and see a reaction to the Carolingian and Ottonian Drang nach Osten, in which local élites funnel luxury goods from the pressuring western empire and use that wealth to build up structures against it, when you’re on, and indeed in, the ground at these places the Franks were very far from being the only players for these people’s attention and imitation.4 But there is much more to be done to work out what the people in question were actually up to, in political or other terms, and we can hopefully look to Hajnalka to do some of it!5

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

The Medieval Archaeology seminar has lately taken to laying on tea and cake afterwards, which is very welcome and made it much more possible to pay attention to Marek Jankowiak after the brief trot to All Soul’s College. My notes indicate that he had an excellent set of visuals to back up his argument, about which sadly I can remember nothing, but those of you who may be setting up to see what must be a related paper at this term’s Institute of Historical Research seminar are in for a treat, at least. Here I can only recreate from my notes alas, and they tell me that what was principally at issue here was the absolutely huge preservation of Islamic silver coinage in Northern Europe. Dr Jankowiak wanted to get us thinking about how they had wound up there and what was moving in exchange. This first entailed a more detailed analysis of the finds than I’ve seen before, noting that particular areas receiving dirhams seem to have blipped in and out of the record at different times (except in Gotland where deposition was pretty continuous), and that the area providing them seems to have shifted from Iran to the Samanid Emirate at Khorasan over the tenth century, with Iraq hardly showing up and Spain not there at all. These were supplemented by imitations of such coins from the Khazar and Bulgar areas, again shifting from one to the other over the tenth century. By a series of rather unlikely calculations, Dr Jankowiak hypothesized that, if 75%-80% of this exchange was being paid for with slaves (a figure whose basis he did not explain) then we might be thinking of an export of 30,000-60,000 human beings over the century, a few hundred every year, but that that would not include exports to the West which, however they were going, were obviously not being paid for in a medium so readily hoarded. Identifying the slaves archæologically, given that they were exported and acculturated, is basically impossible but just because of the numbers involved Dr Jankowiak wound up developing a picture in which entire peoples, small tribes or whatever, were basically hoovered up and fed into this market by their more powerful neighbours, and thus suggested that the reason for the sudden boom in fortification in Central Europe in this era is because those who could be wanted to be on the rich side of this process, not the poor side! He saw in this the origins of settlement nucleation in Poland, especially, and suggested that we should perhaps see the lesser hillforts not so much as fortifications but as slave corrals with garrisons via a chain of which the unfortunate human goods were convoyed eastwards, a system out of whose profits new states might bloodily grow.

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air, rebuilt 989 after destruction by fire of unknown previous date

At that point, of course, these two papers came directly into conflict. For example, in Dr Jankowiak’s Southern Poland, apparently, many of the forts (and there are many there, but of course only a few have been dug well enough to provide dating evidence) show destruction layers. Is this because Poland was developing a central power that had to suppress these places? In that case, one might equally expect the Polish forts to be refuges, something that Dr Jankowiak ruled out due to the very small number of finds there that suggests to him only temporary occupation. But, many of these sites were dug (when they have been) a long time ago and it’s debatable what would have been found in such excavations and whether occupation, rather than just ‘artefacts’, would have been recognised. Anyway, the point of refuges surely is that they’re only temporarily occupied. And so on. These are issues I’ve brought out myself, but plenty of other people also had objections, about the neglected contribution of the fur trade (better seen in animal bone evidence further east than here, according to Dr Jankowiak), about the effects on prices of this influx of money that likely make a constant figure for the tenth-century slave economy problematic and (of course) about the hypothetical mathematics, it wasn’t even me for once. I did, however, ask about the hoards in Scandinavia, to wit: why on earth is there deposition on such a scale here without retrieval? Because if you have a hoard, one thing you can say for sure is that the owner didn’t come back for it. Was Scandinavia then even less stable than Central Europe’s slave-grounds? Dr Jankowiak thought that the hoards might be sort of treasure banks that were accessed on a small scale only, an increasingly fashionable idea, but if so, what the finds evidence seems to be showing us is an Eastern Scandinavian economy that brought in a great deal of coin but seems then to have considerable difficulty doing anything with it, which must make it worth rethinking whether this was in fact about getting rich. So there was a lot of debate. All the same, there is this much that cannot be gainsaid here: we know there was a slave trade, some of this money that we have found must have been paid for slaves, the changes in its deposition probably do reflect a variation in the availability of goods that Islamic merchants would pay for and so there’s a certain horrible plausibility about some of the mechanisms Dr Jankowiak laid out here, even if not whether the forts are part of those mechanisms or not. With that much accepted, if I can bring George Bernard Shaw back in again, we may just be haggling over how much was involved…


1. This intriguing but allusive text was edited by Herwig Wolfram as Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum: das Weissbuch der Salzburger Kirche über die erfolgreiche Mission in Karantanien und Pannonien (Wien 1979) and he seems to have spent a long time since then trying to figure it out, resulting in idem, Salzburg, Bayern, Österreich: die Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum und die Quellen ihrer Zeit, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 31 (Wien 1995). This is not my area and I’m not going to pretend to have read either of these (I’ve seen quotes from the former), but they exist should you want to.

2. Here I know what I know from Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

3. One possibility, which I understand from Hajnalka may indeed be feasible at some of these sites, could be the kind of analysis of animal bone that Leslie Alcock was able to get done at the very early medieval Welsh site of Dinas Powys, and which showed that the cattle they were getting there were all young animals, not the spread of ages or mostly mature beasts that you’d get from a natural herd, thus showing that the occupiers of the site were probably receiving tribute: see his Dinas Powys: An Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82.

4. For a round-up of the post-Carolingian view of this general area see Matthew Innes, “Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216.

5. And indeed since this paper took place she has done, in the form of “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003. I’m not quite clear if this is actually out yet: the journal’s website says the current issue is Vol. 57 (2013) but only gives indices for up to Vol. 55 (2011). In either case I must thank Hajnalka for sending me a preprint version ahead of publication.

What’s in an ethnonym? Theories on the word `Viking’

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

I write this as Michaelmas Term approaches in Oxford and I have to organise, among other things, a lecture on Vikings in the British Isles. The last two years, I have done this, and I’m only not this time because I have too many others to cover; I may not be a Vikings expert but it’s one of those things where I think I know a bit. One of the things I used to know was what the word `Viking’ actually meant, but somehow each year I’ve taught this subject in Oxford I’ve come across another theory. When I hit the third one this spring I decided, enough: the blog has readers who know Vikings a lot better than I do, let’s put it to the blog. So, here are three theories. Have I missed some, or are there more? And which do you favour?

  1. The etymology is an Old Norse word ‘vikingr‘, derived from a verbal phrase: one ‘went a-viking’, ‘fara i viking‘. It’s thus a professional term rather than an ethnic one and if a Viking was at home farming presumably he stopped being a Viking. This is the one I thought I knew and for it I can quote Lars Lönnroth, “The Vikings in History and Legend”, in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 225-249 at pp. 229-230, though he says nothing about the grammar, which I may well have wrong. Still, it’s odd to find that explanation there because…
  2. … theory 2 is in the same book, in the words of the editor, who derives ‘Viking’ from the area around the Olsofjord called Viken, and suggests that this is why only the English used the word `Viking’, as opposed to Northman, Lithsman, etc., because only they were meeting raiders from Viken.1 Now one might ask how that knowledge was getting across—derby colours on the weapons?—but we also know that Vikings often hung around and could somehow usually deal with locals even in places without Germanic languages, so it’s not impossible, and when someone like Peter Sawyer says something about Vikings I certainly don’t have the expertise to say if he’s wrong.
  3. And then theory three came up, which is from an Anglo-Saxon archæologist and thus might be less likely to be right, but I can’t rid myself of the feeling it makes sense: Timothy Tatton-Brown suggested in 1988 that `Viking’ could be a derivative of the same Indo-European root as gave the Anglo-Saxons wic and the Romans vicus and to the former, at least, meant a coastal trading place. By this reckoning it would be `wic-ing‘, inhabitant of the seaport.2 This obviously comes very fast out of the traders-not-raiders of that great and unnecessary debate, but to me, no linguist, it has etymological plausibility.

Am I wrong? Who’s right? I invite you to weigh in!


1. P. Sawyer, “The Age of the Vikings and Before” in idem (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 1-18 at p. 8.

2. Timothy Tatton-Brown, “The Anglo-Saxon Towns of Kent” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 213-232 at p. 217.

Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity

It’s time for another of the catch-up seminar jam posts in which I try to clear the ridiculous backlog that leads me still to be writing about things that happened seven months ago!

British heresy

A thing that happened seven months ago, and which I believe I promised to Magistra that I would write up, was a paper by Alison Bonner at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in the Institute of Historical Research in London, on 8th February 2012. Its title was “The Manuscript Transmission of Pelagius’s Ad Demetriadem“, and maybe that sounds a bit hardcore as Magistra and I were among the very few people who came out, which is a pity as what we got was an approachable and thorough treatment of one of the late ancient world’s more interesting characters, the British heresiarch Pelagius. He got to be a heretic substantially because he got into argument, about whether one was damned without God’s grace, however well one might behave, or whether one could in fact save oneself by good Christian conduct alone, with future saints Jerome and Augustine whom later ages have come to see as pretty much impeccable (ironic eh?), or at least so it seemed to me when I first learnt about him. (The future saints took the former of the theological views.) On the other hand, he also seemed to have spent much of his time talking doctrine to wealthy women in Rome’s equivalent of society drawing rooms, so I also wound up envisioning him as something like a Roman George Bernard Shaw, annoying principally because he was working the orthodox theologians’ circuit better than they were and claiming a moral high ground they felt dubious to boot, as well as being British, which annoyed the Romans for different reasons than it annoyed Bernard Shaw’s contemporaries but is still a common label. This perspective was probably always going to be inaccurate, but, as even Wikipedia currently tells you, recently opinion has swung towards the idea that Pelagius’s doctrine may not have been fairly represented by his opponents, not just because they were his opponents, but because his disciple Cælestinus seems to have run rather further with Pelagius’s ideas than the man himself and the opponents were attacking him too. Augustine, indeed, accused Pelagius of using Cæstinus as a mouthpiece for that which he dared not say himself but truly thought, so he wasn’t really being attacked for what he actually preached and thus it’s quite hard to know what that was. Whatever it was was not enough to get him condemned in two of his heresy trials in 415 and 418, and though one pope was convinced by Augustine to condemn him the next one was convinced by Pelagius to repeal that, so it’s possible, you know, that he wasn’t actually heretical in the eyes of the wider Church. (Something I raised in questions was that it’s weird that two popes choose the name later if it were so indelibly associated with EVIL.)

Portrait photograph of George Bernard Shaw

Pelagius

Non-contemporary portrait of British heresiarch Pelagius

Shaw

Getting to the bottom of this means closer contact with his actual works, and these are limited in their survival: there is a commentary on Paul’s Letters, and then there is an actual letter to a young lady named Demetrias, who was also being advised by Jerome, so it really was competition for patrons here. This letter was really quite widely copied, which was what Ms Bonner had come to tell us about. Specifically, there are 110 known copies of it, as against 148 of Jerome’s letter to the young lady. Pelagius’s other works survive astonishingly well, too, and while some of this may be because the letter has tended, ironically, to be identified as Jerome’s (what with being addressed to the same lady), there is more going on or so Ms Bonner told us.1 Basically, the picture that she developed (as I understood it or now understand it from my notes) was that even though Augustine came to think that he had the answer about free will, and that his impact was such that eventually everyone else thought he did, there was first a long period in which that doctrine was not clear to many people and it was not clear either that Augustine was right or that Pelagius was wrong, especially since texts existed in such numbers in which he denied saying what Augustine had said he said. There was debate. That said, quite a lot of the preservation calls the author of the text a heretic (though not always with his right name) but obviously had copied it anyway. This might be, theorised Dr Bonner, because the Letter is good ascetic literature aside from the theology, advocating all kinds of humble behaviour, and they cared more about the life examples than the theology, which is confusing. (The problem that God already supposedly knows the outcome of a person’s attempt or not to be saved, because He is outside time and they are not, does after all remain a rather difficult one, and it bothered plenty of people after this.) Possibly they should have cared as, of course, if good works are not what it’s about and faith alone is enough, then the whole practice of locking yourself away in a monastery and living as ascetically as you can loses its basis somewhat, but, the preservation is hard to argue with. He was popular; he had some popular opponents who didn’t believe him about what he claimed to believe and had convinced themselves this man was a danger to society; and they became the principal guides of the medieval Church so the weird Briton became a famous heretic. At the time, however, he was mainly just famous, or so we might now think, and that went on for a while.

Pagan burial

Somehow after that I went 12 days without hearing an academic presentation and then came back to earth, quite literally, when Chris Fern came to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar in Oxford to talk with the title, “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Tranmer House (Sutton Hoo)”. You could be forgiven for thinking we know all about Sutton Hoo by now, given the size of the site report and supporting literature, but the thing is that though the big site with the mounds on has been pretty much done over, yes, it is cemetery number two on the site, and number one, across the path at Tranmer House, was dug in 2000, but the finds are only now finishing analysis.2 It had previously yielded artefacts that showed there was a cemetery there too, and likely an earlier one, so, what do we know now?

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Well, paraphrasing from my notes, the site goes back to the Neolithic, and there was a Bronze Age barrow detectable under the cemetery, though there was also an Iron Age enclosure (as would be expected from similar signs under the mounds to the south) and the cemetery may actually have been limited by that, not focused on the mound. The burials found are both inhumations and cremations, the former often with weapons and one or two of the latter with detectable pyre arrangements and in one case a whole cow and whole horse and at least some of a sheep and a pig burnt with them and the remains distributed between a bronze bowl and four pots for the animals. The cremations may be the later but inhumations go on afterwards, if you see what I mean. A number of cremations contain both cow and horse bones too and they seem to have been female burials; also, they focus on the Bronze Age barrow. There’s some showing-off here, in short, and power signalling, and in the late sixth century that seems to have led to a large burial mound being put up at the edge, so looking very much like the prequel to the move across the wall and into what is now the next field for the really big guys in what had obviously by then got to being a well-stratified society, whether it was before or not. It seems likely that burial had begun at the other end of the site, and may have carried on there for many but that we have here a generation or two of warband members and their bosses, who eventually had to have their importance stressed so much that they needed to be fully separate from the ‘folk’. (Though the female presence in the fancy cremations does raise questions about exactly who the bosses were, what with these women surrounded by dead warriors…) Martin Carver will be pleased with some of these findings as the increase in hierarchy and shift of site is pretty much what he guessed in the report on the newer site, and the radiocarbon dates might so easily have made them contemporary, but he will be less pleased with the fact that the dates push back a change in burial rite he likes to see as being carried out in opposition to Christian conversion’s success to a point when that is less plausible. One now wants to know quite a lot who got buried in the rest of that enclosure, how, and how long for, of course. Hopefully we will get to find out.

Norman profanity

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Then lastly, that same day, Timothy Hunter addressed the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “‘They Made No Difference Between Sacred and Profane': images of Norman knighthood in Romanesque art”, which obviously as a member of Team Romanesque I had to see. What this was about was essentially one piece of artwork, a battle scene on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari showing knights on horseback attacking armed men on foot who surround a castle with two men in it. This has been read as a record of the Norman capture of Bari or as a Crusade scene but neither side look to be differentiated by their wargear so as to be Muslims or even Greeks (I mean Romans); a small clutch of sort-of-similar scenes are identified as being Arthurian but the late 1080s, when the church was rebuilt, seems awfully early for that in Italy. Consequently, there has been argument about whether this portal belongs to the rebuild or if it was put on later, and it’s all circular. Dr Hunter argued that the other parts of the church look likely to have been done by the same masons, so it’s probably early, that it’s therefore not Arthurian or even a depiction of Guillaume d’Orange whom he would identify in similar carvings at Angoulême cathedral, and so he suggested that it might, just, be the Normans coming to rescue Gregory the Great from would-be-Emperor Henry IV in 1084. One of the men in the castle does appear to be a ‘civilian’, it was a famous Norman deed at the time and Pope Urban II, opponent-in-succession to Henry, came here a lot… Now, this caused some argument because it’s very nice and clever but if a mason wanted to depict a pope you’d expect him to identify him with headgear, surely, and this shouldn’t be a thing about which one could be confused, but still, it fitted better than any of the other answers. I’m still not sure myself, and of course I haven’t given you the full arguments here anyway, but I wonder what you think?


1. New interest in Pelagius in recent years has led to his works being substantially translated, should you care, in Brinley Roderick Rees (transl.), The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge 1991) and Theodore de Bruyn (ed./transl.), Pelagius’s commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford 1993).

2. A very preliminary analysis in C. Fern, “New Dates for Early Sutton Hoo” in Saxon no. 52 (Woodbridge 2011), online in PDF here, pp. 1-3. The full site report of the better-known cemetery is Martin Carver (ed.), Sutton Hoo: a seventh-century princely burial ground and its context (London 2005), and that contains preliminary data on Tranmer House in J. Newman, “Survey in the Deben Valley” in Carver, Sutton Hoo, pp. 477-487 at pp. 483-486 and in Carver, “Sutton Hoo in Context”, ibid. pp. 489-503 at pp. 489-490. A more accessible introduction to the more famous site and its finds is Carver’s Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998) but the full report does update that somewhat.

On being one of the barbarians

I had high intentions for this post when I made a stub of it many moons ago. I wanted, having read some thought-provoking scholarship and some argument-provoking blog comments, to write something trenchant about how what the people who seek to identify themselves with the migrating peoples of the early Middle Ages are looking for is not always biological race, which is inherently ridiculous to hang on to given the number of intervening generations diluting its supposed ancient purity (itself equally diluted from something else, of course), but a kind of either locational or cultural continuity, or both. And I wanted to contrast that to how fascinated people now get with tracing DNA mutations back, not to a modern or even ancient people of some kind, but beyond it to an origin group that doesn’t relate in any obvious way to where they are now or how they identify. There’s a number of arguments that could spin off this, one for example about how difficult it seems to be getting to confine the status of ‘human’ to homo sapiens as it turns out to share DNA with ever more other hominids, one about how the link between those two fascinations may most obviously be in the way that time renders their visible or functional effects irrelevantly tiny, or even the one about whether migration makes any long-term genetic difference that isn’t just as explicable by distance, but I can’t tell from my stub which of these, if any, I’d intended, so I’ve decided instead to just make a couple of glib observations about supposed barbarian identity and the modern day, one which I owe to teaching and the other of which came to me in a flash of hilarity during the summer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Roma nova, Roma felix

The first of these was started off by a sharp set of observations in something I was reading about how rather too much scholarship for analytical neutrality has been founded in the idea that we, the scholars, represent civilisations in some way continuing the identity of either Romans or barbarians.1 Again, one could get serious about that, but I found it more fun in teaching to question our ability to call ourselves civilised. Witness this well-known piece of Roman writing by Sidonius Apollinaris,2 in a letter to his friend Catullinus:

Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid
me compose a song dedicated to Venus the lover of
Fescennine mirth, placed as I am among long-haired
hordes, having to endure German speech, praising
oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Bur-
gundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair?
Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry?
Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has
spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld
these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call
your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for
you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions dis-
charged upon you at early morn from ten break-
fasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn,
like an old grandfather or a foster-father, by a crowd
of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen
of Alcinous could support them.

Now obviously this deserves the big flashing-green SATIRE warning once deployed by Monty Python, though despite that it’s been made to bear rather a lot of weight about the accommodation of barbarian warriors by Roman aristocrats.3 Taking it briefly at its face value, however, what would Sidonius think of us? The barbarians have won! We may not put butter on our hair (except maybe cocoa butter) but some of us do wear our hair long and, damn, do we cook with onions. In fact some of us even care where the onions come from: Spanish, French, English, all different… Again, not at breakfast maybe (though: hash browns? omelettes? don’t tell me you think an omelette is better without finely-chopped red onion in it) but pretty thoroughly otherwise. And as for garlic, there might have been a hold-out in England at least until the eighties but I’m not sure how many people you could still find considering it typically French now. I mean, there is (or was; its website domain has gone…) a restaurant in London dedicated to the noble alium, which horrifies as many people as it delights but which I’m pretty sure would have about killed Sidonius. Meanwhile, if you look around for the kind of things that Sidonius might have considered haute cuisine, it’s not the Romans who won, really, is it? The barbarians are us! What he would have made of Burger King can only be imagined, except to say that he would probably find a tiny relief that it was only a king…

Anyway. I’ve had fun with that as a teaching point, especially since it then leads into the whole question about how seriously it’s meant to be taken given the set-up, but more difficult, sometimes, is trying to find an analogy for barbarian identity if you want to push people away from an idea of tribalism based on genealogical descent. This is of course tricky given how much weight the barbarians themselves, or at least their leaders, could place on biological descent, even if it was often plainly fictive.4 The common analogy with football teams and their supporters doesn’t quite get you over this hump. But on the other hand, where in this day and age are you going to find a group of people with a distinctive and almost uniform appearance in terms of hair and costume, a quasi-militaristic presentation with elements of existing political iconography in it, and even aims of world conquest, who also claim to be kin to each other even though everyone knows it’s not true?

Logo of the band the Ramones, based on the United States Great Seal

(Wikipedia, whence I got this, has an extensive free-use justification for borrowing it that I think can be justified here also, but the Wikipedia article as it now stands, linked through, is also good on the iconography here and its source.)

SPOILER: Jonny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee were not actually related

Cover of Ramones' album Rocket to Russia

Cover of Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia, used on Wikipedia with a similar fair use justification, linked through. Here I’m after the militarism and what I think of as the ‘standard’ uniform.

OH YEAH. Though, of course, you’d then need the distinctive material culture to be adopted by people who weren’t, and couldn’t even have been, part of the original movement…

Child named Daisy wearing Ramones t-shirt

You’ve seen this. Not this particular child, probably, but you’ve seen it, and on people who get to choose their own clothes too.

Brilliant. Now, how do we incorporate this into a pedagogical context?

… I think we’re done here.5 I’d like to dedicate this post to the senior academic who told me off for requesting the Ramones at the Leeds dance and to all the people who danced anyway…


1. The scholarly writings that set this partly off were Catherine Hills, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology”, both in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 16-26 and 27-41 respectively and previously Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003).

2. Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmen 12, ed. and transl. W. B. Anderson in Sidonius, Poems and Letters, ed. and transl. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA 1936), 2 vols, I, pp. 212-213; a newer text of the Latin online here.

3. Compare Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, A. D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation (Princeton 1980), and specifically the pp. 3-39 repr. as “The Barbarians in Late Antiquity and how they were Accommodated in the West” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 25-44, with Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: a new history (London 2005), esp. pp. 192-202 where the same Sidonius poem comes out, taken more or less straight, and Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. 417-454, using Sidonius p. 434. It will not be news to anyone who reads this regularly that I find Guy’s use of this and other evidence on this question most persuasive; he also has a more sustained and nuanced reading of the poem in his “Funny Foreigners: laughing with the barbarians in late antiquity” in idem (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 89-113 at pp. 93-96, which I very much recommend. I owe my copy of that book to the kindness of Professor Matthew Innes.

4. Venerable but classic treatments of this theme are Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” and David N. Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists” in Peter Sawyer and Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29 & 72-104 respectively, the latter reprinted in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), IV.

5. Though if the fact that Joey professed here not to care about history bothers you, you might like to be reminded that one of his biggest fans sees the point