Category Archives: archaeology

For whom does ‘theory’ work, and for how long?

Long-time readers of this blog will maybe have noticed that I’ve had a long journey with regards to what the discipline classifies as ‘theory’, which is probably to say, any use of terms outside our evidence to explain it. When I started writing for the Internet I was basically hostile to such approaches, which got me into a certain amount of argument. That argument however, because it was with people I respected and of whose work and findings I could often see the point, and finding some such work that did something useful for me, got me looking for more such work. This also entailed me becoming more ready to admit that, of course, we all carry round interpretative models as a result of our education and that in many ways an explicitly theorised approach may be more intellectually rigorous than one which doesn’t recognise a source for its ideas. (Mine seem largely to be Marx, tempered also with Foucault and Bourdieu, all of which I acquired second-hand but whose effect on my thinking I can’t deny even so.) By now, I am not only ready to admit that there is a lot of useful ‘theoretical’ work out there, even if amid a sea of stuff that serves no purpose other than to badge its producers as belonging to a group, but to complain that we need more theory and even, tentatively, to start trying to work it out.

It was in more or less this case that I had one of several avid conversations early last year on such matters with an archæologist, who would not thank me for naming them. I had at that point just read a piece by Chris Scull which struck me as being an excellent case of the adaptation of theories: it tries to understand the formation of kingdoms in southern Anglo-Saxon England in terms of systems theory, finds that inadequate and modifies it with some ideas on peer-polity interaction to produce a result that seems to me to make sense.1 It is, however, an explicitly processual appproach, which we are of course supposed to be over now, and so I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised at said archæologist’s reaction, which was basically to tell me the approach was too old to be valid.

Now, perhaps I’m just a historian and thus automatically interested in the idea that knowledge of the past can inform the present but that didn’t seem to me to be a priori true. Surely an idea is an idea is an idea however old it is, and while the context in which it was generated will be important to it a good one might still be transportable. Further argument about this established that said archæologist believed that processual models were to be discarded because they had often been proved to be wrong by later work, which perhaps simply exposes my vulnerability here: since we will, really, never know how kingdoms actually formed in southern England in the sixth century, by finding Scull’s version plausible all I’m really doing is stating a preference in the secure knowledge that it doesn’t matter a damn one way or another. The archæologist’s position here was implicitly founded on the axiom that there is actually a right answer, about which the historical discipline can waver towards the agnostic to say the least, but in this case that right answer is probably beyond recovery, making all guesses much more equivalent in worth. But even if the archæologist here wasn’t doing it, there are others out there who think that novelty is sometimes too important a factor in interpretation.

Now, this is a thing to which medieval historians seem especially vulnerable. I have taught on methods courses where nothing published in the last twenty years was involved except from the literature side. Marx is still a big force on us (and rightly so, in my view; even if we don’t like his answers any more, he asked the right questions). Our anthropologists of resort are still Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bourdieu, where they’re not E. E. Evans-Pritchard or even James Frazer (a situation to which an anthropologist I used to be attached to reacted with the words, “Oh, it makes the Baby Jesus cry!”). And where frontiers come under discussion, the name of Frederick Jackson Turner still gets invoked, bewildering any Americanists we know, they having forgotten the man years ago. We are awfully outmoded. But it is a question at least partly of ‘mode’, in the French sense, I think, not utility, because the reason we keep these tools around is because they are useful to us. The reasons for that use may often be somewhat ugly and political, but one could be cynical and say that so is our work, again whether we realise it or not.

So I suppose this is one of those posts where rather than having opinions of my own, I’m interested in yours. The unnamed archæologist’s critique of Scull’s piece is as close as I’ve so far met to an argument against ‘old’ theory that wasn’t fundamentally about fashion-currency: when its results are found wrong old theory must be deprecated. Fair enough, except that as I say, just because Communism failed and the working-class revolution seems further away than ever doesn’t mean that it’s not important to ask who controls the means of production, does it? Do you feel guilty whenever you cite Bourdieu or Geertz for knowing they’re dead and that you’re ignoring two generations of subsequent work by people presumably as brilliant? Or will those tools still serve, and if so for what? Are our enquiries themselves two generations out of date, and is that a problem if so? What do you think about what you think?


1 C. Scull, “Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 17-24.

Seminar CLXXII: roads to nowhere?

I’ll have to beg still more forgiveness for the sudden drop-off in posting here. I sent in the final version of an article the day before yesterday, finished a late review yesterday, hope to finalise another chapter today, and that still leaves me three pieces of work to get done before the end of the month, one of which I didn’t know about two days ago… It’s a bit like that at the moment. I can already see that there’s no prospect of my getting as far as last year’s Leeds before departing for this one, which is a bit embarrassing. Since the only thing that can make this worse is not posting, however, here is another backlogged seminar report, from 24th April 2013, when I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford to hear Professor Andrew Fleming of the University of Wales Trinity St David give a paper entitled “Exploring the History and Significance of Early Medieval Roads”.

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap, certainly an old road – but how old? Image from Wikimedia Commons

I might, I suppose, given that I was still in Oxford, have expected that this would turn out to be solely about England, but it was still interesting, because Professor Fleming has been working on landscapes and how you get through them, and specifically on this with regards to Dartmoor in Devon, where there has been comparatively little to change routes since prehistoric times, for a long time. Rather than reprise the paper, given my lack of time, I’ll just draw out the points that particularly interested me.

  1. There was great stress on the difficulty of putting an archæological date on a road. Since what a road most fundamentally is a space, the bottom limit of which people wear away by using it, really all one has to work with beyond place-names and surveys (so, for early medieval purposes, charter boundaries and Domesday Book) is stratigraphy where the road intersects with something else. On the one hand, because roads are linear and long that does mean you get quite a lot of such intersections, but on the other you can’t necessarily expect all the road to have been built, maintained or replaced at once so even on the rare occasions where you have a date to work with, it’s not usually clear how far down the road it will travel.
  2. It is apparently a big argument of Professor Fleming’s that medieval roads did not join places, but joined regions, being long-distance routes rather than the short-distance ones eventually joining up into a system that Hoskins, invoked in the first sentence of the paper, saw in the English landscape.1 Places are then jointed to these long routes by their own little roads, leading up out of the valley or wherever to meet the main track along the high ground. I don’t know how true that is everywhere but I could certainly think of places where it is, in fact it would be true of a good distance of the A404 which must be the single road of any size I have travelled the most. So that was interesting to think with as it implies that roads need not necessarily go where people wanted to go to them on, and that guessing those destinations may therefore be harder than it appears.
  3. That said, roads, especially military or transhumance routes, tend to generate supporting settlement, especially at junctions. What started as a few huts seasonally occupied gets a bit more established, sooner or later someone puts a church up and suddenly you have a community locus where before settlement was dispersed. It still is, at that point, probably, but even so the road, though a line not a point, can give places a centre. This all made me think about things in my area like the strata francisca and the Camí Ral, which certainly weren’t intended to link the places I’ve been to on them to anything else but may explain some of why those places are where they are. (Roda de Ter is older than the Roman bridge across the Ter there, but that bridge has certainly focused subsequent settlement, not least as someone built a church at one end of it2)

One of the questions we didn’t really touch on was who maintained these routes, and I’m surprised at myself there given how much I would usually be all over any questions of agency. There were lots of other questions, though – this seminar was always good for that as I would duly find out myself – and they raised the further points that private property could be on a large enough scale to account for some of that, in as much as a lot of the Dartmoor places that had been mentioned had some connection with Tavistock Abbey, who might well have wanted to join up their properties and move sheep between them. Other questions took this question of livestock down to the micro-level, asking about how roads that might have been intended mainly to move animals interacted with field boundaries that might be even older, but given the dating problems little that was substantive came out of that. There was a question about roads imposed by élites for rapid communication and how those might differ from drove roads but Professor Fleming contended for overlap here. It all made for some interesting thoughts the next time I was being driven anywhere, anyway, and perhaps it will for you too. Now, back to the grindstone!


1. Referring to W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Cambridge 1955, 2nd edn. 1973).

2. See Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda (Vic 1995).

Gallery

Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

British Chilterners

Enough backdated self-publicity! Here instead is another of those posts where I take a sober, careful and reasonable set of deductions made from patchy evidence by a suitably cautious and reputable scholar and just keep pushing well beyond the evidence, and again, the topic is the formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It’s not just me this topic interests, as a couple of good essay volumes show,1 but it certainly does interest me; when I got the Oxford job it was partly with a presentation on that subject, a presentation that then became a lecture three months later, and I repeated that lecture with adaptations the two subsequent years, so there’s no point pretending I don’t have views. Even if I did so pretend, anyway, for readers of this blog it would be too late.

Now, if you’ve followed that link or remember it, you’ll know that one of my pet interests is whether we can countenance the survival of whatever sub-Roman British political organisation had been improvised in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Rome into the Anglo-Saxon period, and if so where and how far, something with which one has to be careful as somewhat wild theories abound at the far end of this spectrum.2 There are a few more-or-less accepted cases of this, the northern kingdoms of Elmet and Gododdin being the obvious ones, and some arguments to be made in favour of both Lincoln and London (the former rather more so) having survived as centres of sub-Roman authority long enough to coordinate some sort of settlement of Anglo-Saxon-cultured federate troops around themselves as defences before, presumably, becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Lindsey and Middlesex, if the latter ever was a kingdom.3 If it was, it can’t have been for very long as Essex seems to have taken over London and already lost control of some of it to Kent by 602.4 But since there was a name, the idea that there was a unit there which could be described in terms of `Middle Saxons’ must have been reasonably widespread for a while even if any actual polity lasted no longer than a mayfly.

"Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571", reproduced from John Hines, "The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia", fig. 11

“Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571″, reproduced from John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia”, fig. 11

So, this post is occasioned by having read a chapter in one of those essay volumes by John Hines.5 The case he wants to make is for the Cambridge area having for a while in the sixth and seventh century been a region of some local importance controlling a border area between two cultural zones that later distinguished as Middle Anglia and East Anglia, though by then Middle Anglia’s centre had been sucked westwards to its bishopric at Leicester and its border with its new Mercian masters. This is interesting, but it’s not what caught me because, about two-thirds of the way through, Professor Hines introduces the above map and tries to use it to argue for identifying the four centres on it, all of which bar Eynsham are at crossings of the Roman road known as the Icknield Way (Eynsham being a Thames crossing) and all of which are said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have fallen into the control of Cuthwulf King of the West Saxons in AD 571, as likely points of a decentralised British-identified group of settlements. This is not very near Cambridge and what it is doing in his argument is initially hard to see, but he lingers on it just long enough to link it tentatively to St Albans, a centre of British Christianity that Bede admits still existed in his day but won’t tell us any more about.6 Now, Hines does not put a name to this grouping of settlements, but we obviously could, and it would be Cilternsæte, ‘the people of the Chilterns’, which is in the Tribal Hidage and given its geographical referent would more or less have to be close to this zone or in it.7

The particular genius of Hines’s chapter, I think (and so does he, I think, as he emphasises it at the end) is to argue for a number of these decentralised groupings (and he sees Cambridgeshire as another, which is the link) that actually did so well for themselves, by virtue of achieving stability and relative prosperity, in a local and supra-local economy we can sort of see in metalwork distributions, that they did not in fact develop into kingdoms, remaining cheerfully established as decentralised groupings while the big neighbours who would eventually swallow them were slogging it out between élites of which only one group would eventually triumph (as with the previous one of these posts, about Kent). As he says, this implies, “that progress towards state-formation under strong monarchial [sic] government may at its very source in the early Middle Ages have been more revolutionary than evolutionary”.8

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage; click through for an interactive version!

This has an enjoyably Marxist-eschatological tinge, with its implication that the Revolution can only come once everyone’s doing badly enough to actually rise up, and for Cambridge at least I would imagine that the discovery of the Trumpington ‘princess’ and Anglo-Saxon remains (albeit late ones) under the University’s Old Schools may necessitate some re-evaluation of Cambridge’s only being one among many similar centres in its area, but a question remains for me about the Cilternsæte, which is, what did they have that made them a people to the outside point of view that the Tribal Hidage must represent? Why was this one people rather than many? Could it just have been a surviving British cultural identity (or even language)? Well, if we were in Gaul at this point rather than Britain the obvious answer would be staring us in the face, as Hines suggests, in the form of a bishopric at St Albans. There was once such a bishop, we know, and we also know that there were British bishops, plural, when St Augustine came to England, or at least Bede reports a folkloric story that presumes such. There has been some argument about whether they could ever been as close to the ‘English’ zones as this, but someone must have been in charge of the cult site whether they had a crozier or not. That would presumably have given some kind of thing to identify with, though if it had been the absolute key it’s strange that we don’t find the people called *Albaningas or *Verlamwe or something more pinned to the site, and it is a way east of any other centres we might put in this zone. Nonetheless, what else could there be to link all these various groups together? Should I put the Chilterners on the notional survival map if I ever do that lecture again? What do you all think?9

View of Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire

Gratuitous English scenery at Dunstable Downs in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty—or do we mean British scenery?


1. Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986); Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999); one should also mention Barbara A. E. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990, 2nd edn. 1997).

2. A sane round-up in Thomas Charles-Edwards, “Nations and Kingdoms: a view from above” in idem (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 23-58; a more British-generous view than most in Christopher A. Snyder, The Britons (Oxford 2003), pp. 73-138. The canonical patron of such views is Ken Dark, whose From Civitas to Kingdom: British political continuity, 300-800 (Cambridge 1994) is a beast to obtain but widely cited, and whose more extreme Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud 2001) is somewhat less so; there is also Nick Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester 1994), which is on its own path in the same wilderness.

3. For Lindsey, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey”, in Bassett, Origins, pp. 202-212, then Kevin Leahy, “The Formation of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 127-133; for Middlesex, see Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons” in Bassett, Origins, pp. 108-122; also worth comparing in that volume are John Blair, “Frithuwold’s Kingdom and the Origins of Surrey”, pp. 97-107, and David N. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia in the South-East Midlands” and “The Origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British Background”, pp. 123-140 & 213-222, which affect the areas mentioned as well.

4. Barbara E. Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 14 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, updated in eadem, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 45-57; cf. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia”.

5. John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 135-149, map here used from p. 147 and hopefully fair use since it’s part of the discussion here and low-resolution.

6. Ibid., pp. 145-146; for Bede’s reticence on Britons see M. W. Pepperdene, “Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica: a new perspective” in Celtica Vol. 4 (Dublin 1958), pp. 253-262; W. T. Foley & Nick Higham, “Bede on the Britons” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 154–185, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2009.00258.x, and cf. Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 27-41.

7. See Yorke, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 1-24 on the Hidage versus other sources; Hines references Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, but gives no page reference.

8. Hines, “Middle Anglia”, pp. 146-148, quote from p. 148.

9. Edit: I am reminded by Howard Williams in comments below that there is at least some historiography (or archæography?) on the Chilterns for those interested to follow up, and I had meant to cite it but when I got to that footnote couldn’t remember what was meant to go there… Foolish boy. The standard reference, for those few who can find a copy, is Kenneth Rutherford Davies, Britons and Saxons: the Chiltern Region 400-700 (Chichester 1982), but there is also now John T. Baker, Cultural Transition in the Chilterns and Essex Region, 350 AD to 650 AD, Studies in Regional and Local History 4 (Hatfield 2006), of which at least some is visible on Google Books. I can’t claim to have read either of these but the former at least I have been meaning to for a very long time, being a child of the Chilterns myself…

Seminar CLXIX: Spanish palaces in Winchester

The next seminar in my backlog of reports, horrifyingly lengthening not shortening despite the regular updates, was another visit of Anglo-Saxon England to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, in the form of George Molyneaux from Oxford with a paper called “The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century” on 13th March 2013. I went along, by way of showing the flag, but I’m not going to cover it here, for one thing because Magistra et Mater did already, and for another because it was quite acknowledgedly more or less the same paper I had earlier seen George give in Oxford and which I already blogged here. George did suggest I cover it anyway, with such phrases as “remarkably little development in the speaker’s thought” and so on but what can I say, I’m too far behind, and anyway if I miss that one out I now get to talk about me, always a hard temptation to resist.

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, looking rather newer on the inside as I discovered

I have been quite looking forward to writing about this one, because it marked the first time I’d got up in public to talk about my work for quite a while. Reaching it thus marks some kind of exit from the slough in which I’d temporarily found myself at Oxford and my starting to gather myself for whatever was coming next, and apparently I did this by accepting the kind invitation of Dr Kate Weikert to host me at the Winchester Seminar on Comparative Medieval Cultures the very next day, on 14th March 2013. The word ‘comparative’ carries more strength here than usually it might, because the set-up with that seminar series was (is, perhaps) that there would be two papers in each evening, chosen to complement each other and provoke, well, comparison. So I stepped up first with “Brokedown palaces or Torres dels Moros? Finding the fisc in late-Carolingian Catalonia” and then local hero Dr Phil Marter followed on with “Archaeological Investigations at the Medieval Palacio de Ambel, Aragón”, and this actually worked really well, it was one of the more fun seminars I’ve been part of.

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

I’ve been trying to work out what to do with my paper ever since, because it was something of an attack piece and I already have too much of a reputation as a negative scholar. All the same, you know, dear reader, that sometimes I feel scholarly outrage rather keenly and this paper was one of those. It was about places in Catalonia which bear a name in the form Palau- or Palou-, of which there are many and which are not fully understood. As long-memoried readers may remember, even some of the ones that are explained turn out not to be when one looks… The root is very clearly Latin palatium, which is what gives us English ‘palace’, but that can’t be what is meant here unless, as I said, conscious that there would be Anglo-Saxonists in the audience, you remember that sites like Cheddar have been called palaces, that is, big halls with some supporting sheds.1 A team led by Professor Ramón Martí at the Università Autonòma de Barcelona have made these names their own and come up with ninety-odd across the counties of old Catalonia, and some of those I’ve come across are only a matter of miles from each other; they’re just too thickly spread to be major élite settlements. Up until quite recently, there was only really one going explanation of these sites, that favoured by Pierre Bonnassie, that they were fiscal estate centres that probably went back to the Romans, but Bonnassie’s sense of the word ‘fisc’ was so broad, applying to properties the counts bought and then sold again the next day, for example, that this doesn’t actually explain as much as it might.2 And perhaps thus, it was in Bonnassie’s Festschrift that Professor Martí published the first version of his alternative theory, which he and a team of researchers have been filling out ever since, that they are in fact the relics of Muslim garrisons from the period of Islamic rule in Catalonia between 714 and 785.3

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Although I did so in the seminar, I don’t want to reprise either Professor Martí’s arguments for this or mine against it here, partly because the open web is not where to start such arguments, but mainly because as I say, I don’t know what I’m doing with this paper yet. A basic problem that is worth expressing openly, however, is that as far as I can discover, the map above is as close to a list of their ninety-odd sites that Professor Martí’s team has published, which makes even agreeing with them quite difficult. One really wants to know what the evidence is. So, for the seminar, I made a list. I went through all my various charter notes and the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia and Atles Històric de Catalunya that I have and found forty-eight such sites, not too bad considering that I could barely touch the counties of Barcelona, Cerdanya or Urgell. The main thing I learnt from that was something that Professor Martí’s team would also acknowledge, I’m sure, that no one explanation will deal with all of these sites. The idea of them as fiscal complexes or ancient Roman centres runs into immediate trouble when one realises that the earliest recorded one in my list was a new-build, put up before 832 by Abbot Castellano of Arles in an area he’d just cleared from wasteland.4 And in fact, the only reason we can be sure that any of these sites were not new-builds, however unlikely it seems that they should be, is archæology, and here we mean actual digging since the eight sites that have been surveyed by Professor Martí’s team all produced ceramics that could be early enough for their argument, but equally could not.5

Archaeology underway at l'Aiguacuit de Terrassa

Actual digging underway at l’Aiguacuit de Terrassa, site of a Palacio fracta

Well, here again fuller publication of results would really help, but as far as I can discover, including from the Martí team’s own publications, only three of these sites have been dug: Palofret in Terrassa, Les Palats in Carcassonne and l’Hort de Pelat in Riudoms.6 The first of these was at least active in the right period, and the latter two of these produced unusual burials, one of which is in fact almost certainly Islamic, though I’m less sure about the crouched burials at Les Palats, which the original excavators thought Visigothic and which have now been lost. All three of the sites, however, and a number of others, were once Roman villas, and until we get something more like a list of sites with their evidence from Professor Martí’s team I do feel as if that might be a simpler explanation of these place-names, although I do note that many of these places do appear to have had fiscal connections and operated as estate centres.7 That is, however, firstly not incompatible with them having previously been villas, and secondly what we would expect from similar work in Castile and the Carolingian world where palatium is exactly what you call a rural complex at which renders are collected.8

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, this is also plausibly the case in Aragón, because the Palacio de Ambel, about which Dr Marter was talking, is or at least was indeed a rural estate centre where renders were collected. That rather minimises its very complex history, though, the earliest parts of which are pretty obscure. What you are looking at there is, functionally, the outside of a really posh nineteenth-century block of flats. The trappings of that have been stripped away, however, to reveal a Renaissance grange of the Hospital of Saint John, for whom its Preceptory died in the siege of Malta of 1515, which seems to be depicted in a few surviving wall-paintings inside the building. And it really is inside, too: the current roof, complete with arcade, is directly over three small towerlets invisible under the tiles, between which it’s actually possible to clamber on top of the vaulting that used to hold up the old roof, and now just holds up the ceiling on its underside. Before the Renaissance phase, this was a complex of buildings rather than the single quadrangle arrangement, and one of those buildings was a Gothic church, erected by the Knights Templar from whom the Hospital got the place when the Order was suppressed. Its rood screen is still there and behind it is Islamic decoration in geometric interlace, and internal decoration that includs fake bricks painted over the stone courses, but all of this is Templar-period, not Mudejar. The church, though, is probably the oldest bit of that complex, because it reuses a circular tower, which is reckoned a Torre dels Moros (as almost everything early in Spain seems to be) but which, being built of packed earth on a stone lower course, isn’t giving away much with its architecture. It is probably ninth-century, which is still Islamic in this area, but the dating evidence is basically guesswork, so other schemes could be considered.

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Dr Marter and his team, or teams of which he has been part, anyway, have been working on this place for years, and what they are mainly doing is trying to stop it falling down and slowly restore it to its medieval configuration, which has involved such things as removing trees, finding a sixteenth-century letter hidden in the wall, and so on. But there was also time for some reflection on how the building had gone through its earliest sets of changes, and why the church wears such Islamic decoration. Was there an existing church in the area that this one replaced, and whose existing congregation, presumably Mudejar or Mozarab or whatever one wished to call them, culturally Arabicized, needed to be comforted that the new lords understood who they were and what was particular to them? Maybe, though if so sticking a Gothic rood screen in the way perhaps cancelled that message. Anyway, it seems clear that the place has lots to tell even after so many years’ work. And both of us got to think quite hard with each other’s examples about what one calls a Palacio on the Christian-Muslim frontier of Spain, and what work a palace really did anyway, and what it might once have been so as to wind up performing those functions. It was a good evening and I hope to see and indeed take part in more seminars so well configured in the future.


1. Obviously I have not yet got bored of citing John Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 144-153.

3. Ramón Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) : hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-69.

4. Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXX (Barcelona 2006), doc. no. 17.

5. When I gave this paper, the most recent publication of the team’s theories seemed to be Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, “Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium” in Estrat Crític Vol. 5 (Barcelona 2011), pp. 364-377; there is also Gibert, “La integració a al-Andalus dels territoris a ponent del Llobregat” in Butlletí de la Societat Catalana d’Estudis Històrics 16 (Barcelona 2005), pp. 39-72 at pp. 50-55; Ramón Martí, “Palacios y guardias emirales en Cataluña” in A. Riubal (ed.), II Congreso de Castellología Ibérica, Alcalá de la Selva, 2001 (Madrid 2005), pp. 293-309; and Ramón Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, among other publications that more or less replicate these, though there might be newer ones I’ve missed.

6. The data for the latter two sites have to be strained from the publications in the previous note: there is no stand-alone publication of them that I’ve discovered, and these articles give you little more than a few lines on each. For Palofret, there is Joan Soler i Jiménez and Vicenç Ruiz i Gómez, “Els palaus de Terrassa: estudi de la presencia musulmana al terme de Terrassa a través de la toponímia” in Terme Vol. 15 (Terrassa 1999), pp. 37-51, online here. This article was written in the liught of Martí’s first publication of his theory, so that the interpretation of the site as Islamic is partly following him.

7. I get the Roman data also from the articles cited above, which is a bit master’s tools, but presumably the data is all equally valid.

8. See for example José Angel García de Cortázar & Ester Peña Bocos, “El palatium, símbolo y centro de poder en los reinos de Navarra y Castilla en los siglos X a XII” in Mayurqa Vol. 22 (Mallorca 1989), pp. 281-296; Josiane Barbier, “Les lieux du pouvoir en Gaule franque : l’exemple des palais” in Carl Ehlers (ed.), Deutsche Königspfalzen: Beiträge zu ihrer historischen und archäologischen Erforschung. 8: Places of power, Orte der Herrschaft, Lieux du pouvoir (Göttingen 2007), pp. 227-246; Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243-264.

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Seminar CLXVI: debating with John Blair

The next seminar in my backlog pile is not about Anglo-Saxon England, it being when Marie Legendre spoke to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 27th February 2013 with the title, “Neither Byzantine nor Islamic? The Dukes of the Thebaïd and the Formation of the Umayyad State”, and that was really interesting, but the thing is, I’m fourteen months behind with these posts and Magistra et Mater already covered that one. So I thoroughly recommend you go and look at that, and meanwhile I will write some more about John Blair’s Ford Lectures. But what? I hear you say. You dealt with the last one only four posts ago! True, but there is, it transpires, also a Ford Lecturer’s Seminar, in which the year’s lecturer is invited to discuss his findings with his audience, and that happened on 1st March 2013 with the same title as the lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and I was there.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The format this took is that John had distributed a handout that gave a seven- or eight-point summary of each lecture and then after a very short introduction simply took questions for an hour, and whatever discussion kicked off out of them was followed as far as it led. There were certainly lots of people with questions to ask, but the biggest focus of interest was on the organisation and planning of settlements for which John was arguing in the Anglo-Saxon world. In particular there was discussion about the shift of paradigm that he had proposed from central places to central zones: I wondered how much the concentration of sites in such zones differed from that outside them, to which John said that the important thing might not be concentration so much as the links between the sites, and Mark Whittow wondered if the burh in these complexes of sites wasn’t still the centre, to which John countered that as far as he could see the different elements in these complexes were as important as each other in as much as none of them shared functions, so were all indispensable to the whole. As Mark said, there’s a model here that could work in a number of other places where someone was organising the landscape to this much effect.1

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill, supposed site of the hermitage of St Modwenna and certainly site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, just across the River Trent from Burton-on-Trent

That leads us onto the other question that really had people going, which was that of who was organising these landscapes and how. John had argued, as part of his section on the grid-planning he had detected in many Anglo-Saxon settlements, that the key knowledge involved here was probably preserved and transmitted through monasteries, but of course monasteries were themselves large landowners so it was hardly locked away, and their links to the nobility and to kings were such that their knowledge would have been available for most of the people we can imagine planning sites. Nonetheless, we see little if any such sign of organised planning in the early trading ports or wics that have long been seen as the lynchpins of economic development in middle Saxon England and whose organisation is usually attributed to the kings.2 John pointed out that some of Hamwic, the site of this type across the River Itchen from modern Southampton, was in fact gridded, but reckoned that this was probably a monastery within the town.

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

This bit of the discussion didn’t really reach a conclusion that my notes record but John was again keen to emphasise chronology in what he saw, in as much as while settlement gridding was for him a phenomenon of the eighth and late-tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and often very short-lived indeed, to the extent that he thought it might have been more symbolic than functional (very interesting), the basic organisation of settlements as dispersed houses each with their infield for cereals and outfield for animals goes on throughout and doesn’t change until well after the various things that are supposed to kick off economic take-off in the tenth century. That take-off thus precedes the things that English historians have tended to blame for England’s medieval economic miracle, open-field settlements and three-field crop rotation, but the change in settlement pattern does coincide with that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries primarily.3

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford; note the shape of the enclosure. I think someone involved may have been present at these lectures…

There were also smaller issues raised: Lesley Abrams wondered about the spread of the ‘egg-shaped’ fortified sites John had detected in the later part of his study period and their relation to the villages of which they were part, to which John responded that so far they were all in the East Midlands (though we know that Allan McKinley thinks others could be found further west…) but that their relationship to villages differed a great deal, being built on top of them, within them or outside them; this may be a matter of their functions, which are not yet clear. There were also a number of questions about minsters as centres of organisation which didn’t really add anything to what John has already written on the subject.4

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire, of a typical type that may be one of the few things that seems to have transmitted from British to Anglo-Saxons; image from Wikimedia Commons

The other question, that might in some ways be the biggest one, was that of the West. Most of what John had discovered in the archæology was at its most evident in what he had termed the Wash Catchment; this is good in as much as our texts favour the South and the North and not the Midlands, but the West Midlands, the North-West and anywhere British had still been very much missing from these lectures, and that basically because material culture remains have been far less frequently discovered there. To some extent, this is a matter of lowland versus highland with the economic intensification possible in the one leading to scales of wealth and structure not visible in the other, but since John had been at pains to stress that much of Anglo-Saxon wealth was expressed in portable and transient forms, and the British West was no stranger to such goods, there’s still some mysterious gaps to account for. John’s work and that of others have already taken some steps to guess what’s in those gaps, but gaps they remain, and yet as you know if you’re a long-term reader I feel that these zones, where British met English and held them off for quite some time in some cases, must be an important part of the story of how the one became the other and I wish more would come out of them to make that story possible to tell.5


1. Of course, one could argue that this model was already out there in the form of Glanville Jones’s concept of multiple estates, in his “The multiple estate: a model for tracing the interrelationships of society, economy, and habitat” in Kathleen Biddick (ed.), Archaeological approaches to medieval Europe (Kalamazoo 1984), pp. 9-41, and Rosamond Faith raised this; John’s counter here was that Jones argued essentially for the long-term survival of Roman settlement organisations with devolved functions, whereas John sees a wave of new creation of such sites from the eighth century onwards.

2. The basic integration of wics into a scheme of history is still that of Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn. 1989); cf. relatively current discussion in Tim Pestell & Katherine Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in early medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003) or Mike Anderton (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres: beyond the emporia (Glasgow 1999).

3. E. g. the unquestioning use of this paradigm in C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5; cf. the various international perspectives presented in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. In J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), more or less passim to be honest.

5. Christopher Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A. D. 400-600 (Stroud 1998); Steven Bassett, “How the West Was Won: the Anglo-Saxon takeover of the West Midlands in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 11 (Oxford 2000), pp. 107-118; J. Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013); Chris Wickham’s vision of Britain in this period in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 306-333 & 339-364, rather involves assuming that these zones did not impede access of English to British and this is one of the few places where I think that book’s ideas might need revision.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.


1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381″ in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!

Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IV

Continuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been well-covered at Magistra et Mater, which means that five in six of the last posts will have been about Anglo-Saxon England one way or another. Looking back at this, it does become a bit clearer why I was finding it so hard to make progress on things Catalan in Oxford… Anyway, after Zubin’s paper came school half-term, which meant that I unfortunately had to miss one of John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “From Central Clusters to Complex Centres: economic reorientation and the making of urban landscapes”, and whatever was following it the next week in various places, and resume seminar attendance with the fifth of those lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape (5): landscapes of rural settlement”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The subject of this lecture was basically the village, and how and when it moved from being a relatively loose association of linear enclosures to the houses-all-facing-one-road croft-and-toft layout that the English now think of as being typical for an old village. One way at this is via boundary ditches, and there are lots of these known, but eighty per cent of them date from after 1050, and the remainder from the seventh to ninth centuries, with nothing in between! If you buy John’s idea that use of grids and standard measurements bespeaks monastic involvement in laying out the land, even if they just provided consultant expertise when divisions were needed or something (as John thinks detectable at Stotfold in Bedfordshire), then there is presumably rather a lot of less orchestrated settlement that we are simply not seeing here, and in the ninth to eleventh century gap it’s almost all of it.

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire; the Anglo-Saxon settlement was located south of the roundabout at bottom right

Stotfold actually makes a good example of how such a community might develop. The place-name derives from a very large cattle corral (a stud-fold) that seems to underlie the early settlement; in this was later built a church and three farmsteads, with one more outside, two of the farmsteads inside having been divided on a grid plan. Each of the farms seems to have had a circle of ‘inland‘ around it, but the old corral puts them all in the same gathering somehow. Was this a village? Is it nucleated? Is it dispersed? Are these even real categories? What it’s not, anyway, is toft-and-croft down a road with common fields: that all seems to be eleventh-century or later, here around the Norman church, and then to have endured until the ninenteeth!1 Before that, however, we’re not looking at anything that would be sensibly called a ‘manor’ or similar; John prefers Rosamond Faith’s terms warland and inland, free warrior tenancies versus slave-farmed reserves, the latter of which have no documentary presence of course.2

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar again, because it’s good

The revival of planning in settlement layout is also almost entirely within the area John had earlier noticed as significant, the catchment of the Wash understood in broad terms, or in other words the east and south Midlands and northern Home Counties extending towards the Thames Valley. In this area we have plenty of what might be warland settlements, but what is oddly lacking is much sign of very large estates such as might belong to major aristocrats. Even the supposed palace sites we have are in relatively minor estates as far as can be told, leading to Cheddar’s description as a hunting lodge.3 As had been discussed in one of the earlier lectures, early and middle Anglo-Saxon high status just doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of immovable expression of hierarchy.

Reconstruction drawing of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho

Reconstruction drawing (and a highly fanciful one) of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho as proposed by its excavator

In settlements like Stotfold and the more famous Goltho, with whose dating John has strongly-expressed issues, he sees then the housing of the rising low-grade nobility, the thegns vying for social promotion, and sees this as a fairly late phenomenon. What we have here is the burhs that the tenth-century laws required such men to have if they were to claim thegnly status, which raises the question of whether there are fortified examples of such houses.4 To this John’s answer was so characteristic that I wrote it down verbatim: “The answer seems to be, yes there are and they’re egg-shaped!” You may blink somewhat at this but Goltho, and also Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, another and perhaps better candidate for a late Anglo-Saxon ‘castle’, and Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, all show ovoid ramparts around relatively small halls that fit this expectation, and there are probably more under later Norman motte-and-bailey overlays. That however takes the lectures into something quite like a new society, and this was left for the last one the next week.


1. John had a clutch of references that kept coming up for later medieval villages and settlement, and this time I wrote them down. They were: B. K. Roberts & S. Wrathmell, Region and Place: a study of English rural settlement (London 2002); A. Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes: a study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in Southern England, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 509 (Oxford 2010); and Tom Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: time and topography (Woodbridge 2013), the last of which he must have had in draft I assume!

2. I’ve linked to Rosamond Faith’s The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (London 1999), which covers this formulation in great detail pp. 15-136, but another work of hers that kept coming up was eadem & Debby Banham, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming (Oxford forthcoming) which is obviously going to be pretty good news for those who are interested in such things when it finally emerges.

3. See once more J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

4. The source here is a tract associated with Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (which puts it in that most dangerous category, draft moral legislation) called Geþyncðo, translated by Dorothy Whitelock as “Concerning Wergilds and Dignities” in her (trans.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 51(a). On it in this sense see Ann Williams, “A bell-house and a burh-geat: lordly residences in England before the Norman Conquest” in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), Medieval Knighthood IV: papers from the fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 221-240, repr. in Robert Liddiard (ed.), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 23-40, and more generally W. G. Runciman, “Accelerating Social Mobility: the case of Anglo-Saxon England” in Past and Present no. 104 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-30.

A theory on Kent I would have taken further

When I wrote the bulk of this post in September 2012, I had lately read an article I should have looked at long previously, by Charlotte Behr, called “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent”.1 It’s is a rather odd piece of writing: it’s thoroughly academic and erudite but it still reads somewhat as if the author had left notes in the margins of things they had meant to mention later and a scribal error had then incorporated them into the main text in the wrong places; it digresses a lot. I read it after a solid week of copy-editing the final version of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, so I itched to do a major hack job on this article, but this is not much good with something in print for twelve years already and it has made me think, so it’s obviously not bad. I just, would maybe have pushed it a bit further.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

What Dr Behr argues is that even though Bede tells us the men of Kent (as opposed to the Kentish men) were Jutes from Jutland, Scandinavian material culture only shows up there with any strength from the mid-sixth century onwards, after we presume any migration to have happened. (Yes, I’m not sure about the assumed links there either, but let’s roll with it for now.) Even once visible, that Scandinavian signal is swamped in Frankish-style goods both imported and locally-made, but it is there. Furthermore, Dr Behr argues that: (a) it is especially to be identified in gold bracteates, which in Kent are almost entirely found in wealthy female graves (though this is not their usual Scandinavian context), (b) these bracteates are related in iconography (and occasionally even in runic text) to the cult of Woden, and (c) that that, as far as place-names can tell us, was confined to one small area of Kent which is also busy with major élite sites, the chief of which are the cemetery of Finglesham, where a ‘founder’ warrior grave became the focus for three centuries of interments, Eastry, where a later villa regalis (royal vill) is well-attested and burial also occurred from early on, and Woodnesborough (‘Woden’s barrow’), presumably the religious site, to which could be added the coastal site of Sandwich as the fourth part of a rather nice little royal development complex linked to Dover and Canterbury by Roman roads.2 Moreover, the bracteates found here and more thinly elsewhere in Kent are all of one specific type, with an identifiably single prototype, suggesting that they were locally-made on demand for a single group who were pushing themselves as Scandinavians in some respect or other.

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden, though a figure in headgear with two things on shafts is perhaps not native to Scandinavia

Now there are bits of this that aren’t logically present in the article but need to be to connect these things up, I think. The conclusion seems perfectly plausible, it’s the sort of thing we’re encouraged to see as behind the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial as well, and it lines up with a lot of work going on at the time Dr Behr was writing that encouraged us to see southern Scandinavia as a kind of alternate locus of power and importance which gets its brief spotlight period in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.3 However, the bracteates aren’t die-linked, so there’s not a lot to say that those showing up outside this little core zone aren’t good imitations. That would also work in terms of showing it was an attractive way to represent oneself, I suppose. The fact that it’s almost always women is also interesting, too; should we imagine this ideology being something men can join in with by marriage? Have we then got a successful (and potentially actually Jutish, I feel it should be said, if that term means anything beyond `from Denmark’) warrior family having established themselves at Eastry and area, with their portus at Sandwich, then making links with other élites in sites like Dover and across the water in Francia too that got cemented by marriage, and shortly becoming the number one power in sixth-century Kent?

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons BY-SA

Dr Behr, perhaps because she was going into print in a respected journal and because she knows how to be careful better than I do (I have not met her), did not go so far in this piece. But this is only a blog, so I can, and I can go further, because it would all fit quite nicely. It marries up a lot of things that Anglo-Saxonists used to believe because the sources tell us them (warrior settlement by small numbers of migrants with ancestral connections overseas establishing themselves in new lands) with more realistic, socially-based work about control of luxury goods, manipulation of genealogy and expression of desired identity via material culture and burial etc. But if we also fit it into the time-frame then it helps explain a disjunction in what Bede tells us about the early Kentish kings. He repeats Gildas about the settlement of the Saxons in Kent, basically, that they arrived as mercenary warriors then rebelled and took over, but Bede puts names on them. Those names are interesting: the first two leaders are the legendary Hengest and a son or colleague Horsa (two names meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘mare’, always an unlikely occurrence), but the subsequent kings take their family name from a third generation in the person of one Oisc. How these three are related varies between the few sources, though all the genealogies ultimately go back to Woden.4 (Dr Behr covers all this, but she doesn’t, perhaps sensibly, go where I’m about to go with it. She does, however, point out what I’d never noticed, that the Kentish kings are the only ones whose Wodenic ancestry Bede also records.5) To this we can also add Ian Wood’s stress on the early kingdom’s Frankish connections; even if we don’t go so far as to claim that Kent was actually subject to Frankish overlordship, the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelberht, had a Frankish wife and a father with a Frankish name, and there is all this Frankish bling in the graves of Kent, as said.6

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

So, okay, a hypothetical way to reconcile all this: in the mid-fifth century a proto-kingship was built up in the Eastry-Finglesham complex identified by Dr Behr which was demonstratively (rather than demonstrably, though maybe that too) Scandinavian, and let’s say Jutish, even if I’m not really sure those two things should be assumed to be overlapping sets, and it rapidly acquired dominating links to other power centres like Dover. It may even have been the power that managed to grab Western Kent into the same hegemony. It stressed this Scandinavian identity because there was opposition that identified more clearly as Frankish, which is why we have Frankish kings reporting themselves as rulers of Britain in Procopius’s recollection (however good that may be). And by the end of the sixth century, that opposition won out in the form of King Æthelberht. But the combined kingdom’s identity remained Jutish at some level, not least maybe because Æthelberht himself seems to have wanted to avoid ties too close to the Franks anyway (else why not accept Christianity from them?) so perhaps liked to be able to get a grip on local feeling like this. (Was his father Irminric’s wife one of these women with bracteates on her dress, do you suppose?)

Reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks

I couldn’t get through this post without using a coin somewhere, come on. This is the reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks, image license from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

I like this because it would allow so many things to be true at once: it could accommodate a genuine migrant warrior group moving into a fragmented power vacuum in eastern Kent and a small family quickly becoming powerful by genius of location and resources and by skilful manipulation of a politically-useful identity for which one could hand out almost literal badges of membership and that other people apparently wanted to join. (I do wonder what the men in this group wore, but whatever it was apparently we haven’t found it as such.) It was such a good appeal to legend that by the time they were remembered in the eighth century Bede knew, or his informant knew, that the founder had been a legendary warrior and Hengest was the name they knew best for the time. And his story would then actually be relevant, explanatory and important! These pseudo-Hengests would have pulled together a small but wealthy kingdom in the space of a couple of generations, substantially just by having a good starting position and an obvious Frankish problem for which they could advertise themselves as the solution. (“No more tribute to the sons of the sea-monster! Choose Jutes for Woden!”7) And then one of the family that must have set up in Canterbury somewhen (and let’s call their founder Oisc) got in on the act and, as luck and skill with a blade and a retinue would have it, completely cleared the floor over most of the south of England, sending the political axis skidding backwards and forwards between Francia and Scandinavia until some well-timed missionaries arrived to offer a third way (unbeknownst to them) and the whole game changed scale. This is, of course, completely unprovable (though one could wish for DNA testing of the female skeletons with the bracteates) but it fits very much with how I have long tended to see the Anglo-Saxon settlement: not many people but a few clever and lucky ones in just the right place and at just the right time to make something that became history.


1. C. Behr, “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 25-52, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0254.00058.

2. Most of what i know about Finglesham comes from the short but good picture essay, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, “Finglesham: a cemetery in East Kent” in James Campbell, Eric John & Patrick Wormald (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982), pp. 24-25, but there is much fuller publication, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes & Guy Grainger, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Finglesham, Kent (Oxford 2006); on the other sites mentioned, see most recently Keith Parfitt, “Further Investigation of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eastry” in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 129 (Canterbury 2009), pp. 313-332; Parfitt, “Excavations at Ringlemere Farm, Woodnesborough, 2002- 2006″, ibid. Vol. 127 (2007), pp. 39-73; and Helen Clarke, Sandwich: the “completest medieval town in England”. A study of the town and port from its origins to 1600 (Oxford 2010), all of which citations, I should stress, I have pulled out of databases just now rather than actually read

3. Best exemplified by several papers in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), in which many but not all of the contributors were in fact from Scandinavia; there was also John Hines, however, whose book The Scandinavian character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking period , British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 124 (Oxford 1984) is the starting point for this trend on my side of the North Sea. Hines’s contribution to the Sachsensymposium was, admittedly, not about Scandinavian power foci; as to what it was about, that would be a future post

4. All this is best covered by none other than the late lamented Nicholas Brooks, in his “The Creation and Early Structure of the Early Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 55-74.

5. Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 28.

6. Ian Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Ålingsas 1987), put more lightly but also more easily obtainable in his “The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain” in Britannia Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 253-262.

7. I thought of that just because it jingles nicely but IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT the bracteate type used in this Kentish group is the one whose iconography is actually a monster, defeated and bound, presumably by Woden who is elsewhere depicted in such a combat (Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 37 with illustrations on p. 38)? Or can these things actually be anti-Merovingian campaign badges? OK: if I hadn’t gone too far before, I have now, it’s nice to be sure…