Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

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5 responses to “Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

  1. Erkesiya Dike, I think, is the one you mean.

    • Brilliant, thankyou. That’s valuable not just because it corrects my lousy spelling, but because top Google hit for the phrase is a 2011 paper on Academia.edu by, can you guess, Florin Curta, called `Linear Frontiers in the Ninth Century: Bulgaria and Wessex’, in Quæstiones Medii Ævi Novae (2011), 15-32. Well, at least it wasn’t `work in progress’ we got…

  2. For the record Karl and I in real life would have required 5 hours rather than 5 minutes.

  3. Pingback: Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges | A Corner ... | Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent | Scoop.it

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