Category Archives: Currently reading…

Some more of that critical diplomatic

The first Leeds conference I went to was in 2005, and although I was not exactly in the money at that stage (not least because of having only been involved at very short notice to fill a gap in an acquaintance’s session) I did allow myself to buy one or two books. By now I know very clearly to avoid Brepols‘s stall unless I’m feeling very rich, their books simply can’t be afforded by normal people, but on this occasion I bought two, one because it was surprisingly cheap and one because it was brand-new and clearly vital to what I was working on. This latter was Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle) by Benoît-Michel Tock.1

Cover of Benoît-Michel Tock's <Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle)

Cover of Benoît-Michel Tock’s Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle)

So, OK, let us not discuss how I was only reading this obviously vital book after owning it for more than eight years, after even meeting the author and in the meantime writing what I think is a pretty good round-up of current study in diplomatic; the answer would be something inadequate like, ‘the article I need it for has always needed so much more work than my others that it keeps getting put down the list compared to things I can finish sooner’.2 I did it in late 2013, and I could tell straight away that I had been right that it was vital, even if only giving me a good basis for things I already thought, and so you will be hearing more about it here for a little bit. For now, I’ll just give you a short extract so you can see why it caught me. M. le Prof. Tock wisely begins his book with a short round-up of issues backed up with a rather longer section of discussed examples, talking not just about the signatures on the documents but their diplomatic as a whole. In the case of his earliest example, though, an 848 donation to the cathedral of Rodez, these two overlap, as witness.3 I translate:

“The order in which the signatures were applied is not clear. The four autograph subscriptions constitute a sort of group in the middle of the signa: this is doubtless not by chance, and without doubt they were emplaced together. Was there a blank space left for them in the middle of the signa? No, because the signa at the end of the line are well adapted to them. Were they written before the signa? No, because they themselves are well adapted to the signa at the beginning of the line. In fact, the last line of signa runs very close to the penultimate one, doubtless so as not to impinge too much on the scribal signature. One must therefore deduce that the scribe wrote his own signature first, then that of the actor (the reverse also being possible) and those of Fréderic and Sigsimond. He then left the pen to the four autograph signatories, and took it back to insert, where he could, the six signa that were left for him to write. Why were Fréderic and Sigsimond entitled to this favourable treatment? Was the aim aesthetic, or was it perhaps because they were playing a particular rôle in the transaction (were they heirs of Allibert [the donor], for example?)? We do not know.”

Rodez, Archives Départementales d'Aveyron, 3 G 300 no. 1 R 162

This is the charter in question, Rodez, Archives Départementales d’Aveyron, 3 G 300 no. 1 R 162. M. le Prof. Tock benefitted in his research from the massive ARTEM database of all French-held charters from before 1121, which went online a few years ago, but inspection reveals that they have yet to add in the images that were the root of the whole thing, so this is scanned from Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins, p. 26, ill. no. 2, because the text is only fully comprehensible with it in sight.

“It is probable that the scribe wrote the actor’s subscription at the same time as the text of the act, and added those of Fréderic and Sigsimond to it at the time of the donation ceremony. This is at least what is suggested by the line spacing – normal before Allibert’s subscription, larger afterwards – and this corresponds to what one would imagine: the scribe obviously knew that the donor would be present at the donation (how could it be done otherwise?) but could not foresee what other persons would be present.”

This is very much the kind of reading of documents I think is important, and every now and then I try it here. It’s one of the reasons that working with original documents is so rewarding: from such tiny details one can get at the actual nuts and bolts of how people made these texts that we rely on and what the procedures of creating them may have been. I find this an unusually clear explanation of what the visual clues are that tell us such things, though, and am now very much looking forward to finally reading the rest of the book.


1. B.-M. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle), Atelier de Recherches sur les Textes Médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2005).

2. That round-up being J. Jarrett, “Introduction” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 1-18, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101674..

3. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins, pp. 25-29, quote all on p. 29. The charter is printed in Antoine Bonal (ed.), Histoire des évêques de Rodez (Rodez 1935), 1 vol. only published, pp. 500-501, but of course now it’s online as Acte n°3958 in Cédric Giraud, Jean-Baptiste Renault et Benoît-Michel Tock (edd.), Chartes originales antérieures à 1121 conservées en France (Nancy 2010), http://www.cn-telma.fr/originaux/charte3958/, last modified 3rd February 2014 as of 14th September 2014.

Feudal Transformations XIX: change before the year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Just after arriving in Birmingham, I finished reading Guy Bois’s provocative book The Transformation of the Year 1000 and was actually quite impressed; it represents a far better saving throw for the transformation theory than I’d anticipated.1 Seeing a problem with packing almost all the change required by the theory of Duby and Fossier and the like into a few decades shortly after 1000, Bois comes up with a quite complex paradigm of change in which he manages to have both slow change and a ‘revolution’ at the end of it.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Go on, one more time won’t hurt

This he does basically by saying that what we have in the tenth century is the final slow settling into ruins of the ancient state, with public government and justice, towns driven by a parasitic state apparatus administering those systems, and slave agriculture. This had been increasingly unsustainable as time went on and efforts like the Carolingian reforms to prop it up with new structures (and here’s the subtlety) actually accelerated its collapse by making more possible locally-concentrated power at the same time as a coincidentally burgeoning economy made that economically viable. Inside the old structure of society, therefore, new bases of importance and power were emerging centred on the market and on local territorial domination, all of which in fact made it harder to maintain the older bases of power as a monopoly. The revolution came when, with the end of the Carolingian state and withdrawal into the Île de France of its Capetian successor (because this is a paradigm about France, don’t think otherwise), the exterior structure of public power finally collapsed into dust, ceased to operate as a brake on the forces of social change, and what was left standing was this incubitic set of new power bases, now free to grow, around which the opportunistic (and here most of all the monks of St-Pierre de Cluny) coordinated their operations. And thus feudalism.2

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection
Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864×77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Who even knows what they thought that monogram meant three hundred years later? Evidence of high medieval numismatists, as with so many other things, is easiest to find in Spain…

The first bit about this that caught my critical imagination is the idea that those who were interested in patching up the ancient state actually undermined it; that is, the Carolingians in trying to make things better actually make things worse. Bois exemplifies this using the monetary system, which is probably why it caught my attention. In brief, the Roman system of gold and silver coins struggled on till the sixth century, whereafter the gold coinage was debased until it more or less ceased to exist, in the course of which it was struck by hundreds and hundreds of semi-private issuers all over Francia. After this the whole system atrophied and a desultory and poor silver coinage of a very various standard was all the money there was. The Carolingians, faced with a mono-metallic system, reformed it several times until there were a restricted number of royally-controlled mints striking a more-or-less good coinage but only in silver. This was lower-value, thus more accessible, so that greater monetisation resulted than had been so for a while, enabling market exchange and the collection of revenues in coin at new levels. And that meant that when the royal hands came off the tiller in the early tenth century that resource was available to the new local powers, who start minting their own silver coin in profusion (here again, nost least the monks of Cluny).3 I think there are problems with this as an actual account of the history of the coinage – that local minting in silver takes much longer to start happening than Bois’s chronology of change implies, suggesting that it is a result of market growth not a cause, for one thing; for another, Cluny got a royal license to strike coin, and it was otherwise outside any useful royal jurisdiction so one could read that as an increase in royal power and it’s certainly hard to see it as the opposite – but it’s an excellent illustration of Bois’s more general model of damaging attempts to preserve a dying social system.4

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny. “Cluny Transept exterior” by RTPeat / Richard Peathttp://flickr.com/photos/rtpeat/1086420685/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem I have with arguments like this that run, ‘O well they tried, poor dears, but the whole thing was doomed, quite hopeless, they were spitting in the rain’ about the Carolingians, which in some ways go back to Louis Halphen and his contemporaries, is that they benefit from the fact that the Carolingian Empire’s fall is there to be explained. Most of us would not, however, put this down to critical internal systems failure, but to a prolonged civil war more or less due to the royal family’s inability to stick to an equable division of power followed by a long series of assaults by raiders for north and east further destabilising transregional solidarities.5 A counter-factual approach that could accurately remove the effects of the Viking attacks and, if not eliminate the Brüderkrieg at least make it more like the equivalent, and very long-lived, Merovingian system in which the important thing was not so much the periodic war as that that war was always between rival Merovingians, perhaps by predicating a reasonable supply of healthy male heirs, would quite possibly entirely vindicate the Carolingian reform efforts, which after all did at least at first make them much stronger kings.6 An analysis that relies on an absence of competent legitimate operators of a system isn’t really assessing the viability of the system itself. Likewise, Bois’s argument is proven by the eventual collapse of the ancient state, but there’s a species of teleology involved when he says that the Carolingians’ own measures worked against their interests, which forces him to define the things they did that endured as part of the new world, if only because they survived. Given the collapse was to happen, there’s no successful innovation that Bois’s theory would actually credit to the Carolingians except ones that they abandoned.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Now, let’s take it to the March! Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

This is all the more paradoxical because the same problem exists in reverse with Catalonia and the scholarship of the feudal transformation. As Bonnassie famously argued, Catalonia (where a strong and (I would argue) even strengthening public power was maintained up till very late, there was then a political vacuum caused by a double minority in the rule of Barcelona forcing other motors of power to pick up the slack and after a short civil war the public power recovered only by adopting these other motors and abandoning its old ones) is an almost perfect archetype of the feudal transformation, but because it so clearly revolves around the power vacuum of 1018-1035 and before that the public power seemed to be riding the serpent of progress really pretty well, people don’t like it as a general model.7 There’s also the problem that this was the only area of Latin Europe with much of a gold coinage, because of raiding and trade with al-Andalus.8 But Bois’s argument also revolves around a dramatic state collapse at the same time as an economic take-off. Is this somehow not the same?

Gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76)

Sticking with the metaphor, this is a gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), by way of illustrating that at least some things were not quite the same in Catalonia

Bois was of course writing a micro-study of Burgundy, not Catalonia, and it’s the anti-transformation lobby who have preferred to ignore Catalonia’s apparently indissoluble example of the phenomenon.9 All the same there is a problem here because Bois’s model doesn’t work for Catalonia. Firstly, it’s very unclear how much Carolingian reform was in fact applied here: the local law was left running, the final currency reform of 864 was never enacted here, the intellectual culture arguably stayed fairly Visigothic and the counts operated as independents from a very early stage. Secondly, as said, public power here did not atrophy: the counts, despite various troubles, remained militarily effective and towards the end of the period, fuelled no doubt by the various reveues of the frontiers, were even overhauling and improving the apparatus of state power and their control of it. Only when that effort was slackened did stuff go wrong. It is hard not to see Borrell II’s and his son’s creation of numerous castle-holding dependants as the seeds of their own undoing, but it’s not undoing but lack of doing that let them grow.10

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), where as you have read some of that castle-ceding was done

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if you have a feudal transformation in one area and an explanation for it, but another one in a different area whose relevance you have to dismiss because its explanation is clearly different, this is kind of like ignoring that your theory has been falsified. Of course there are factors in CataloniaBurgundy’s changes of that era that Catalonia did not share, so the problem exists both ways, but this suggests to me that the problematic has been placed at the wrong level. If you accept both then feudal transformation becomes only one way that states of a certain kind might respond to the end of effective state governance in an ‘ancient’ or ‘public’ mould. After three years of teaching this subject to graduates, I came to conclude that the correct question to ask about the phenomenon it assumes is not, “Why is all of Europe going through a social crisis c. 1000?”, which is fairly easy to disprove premise by premise and then ignore, but “Why do so many and various polities of the post-Carolingian world finish up so similar in social articulation and governance despite their different situations and paces of change?” This turns it less into a question of modes of production or public versus private than into one of cultural transfer and the appropriation of ideas between governments, which is maybe not as exciting, but might have a lot more application to other situations.


1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992).

2. Ibid., pp. 161-167.

3. Ibid., pp. 165-166.

4. Philip Grierson, “Coinage in the feudal era” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 949-959.

5. See François-Louis Ganshof, “L’échec de Charlemagne” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Vol. 91 (Paris 1947), pp. 248-254, transl. as “Charlemagne’s Failure” in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy: studies in Carolingian history (London 1971), pp. 256-260, taken up by e. g. Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977).

6. Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” in Peter H. Sawyer & Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29.

7. 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, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, as ever; cf. Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

8. Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543; J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243.

9. Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, where see p. 773 n. 17; the whole article later repr. as “Note critique” in idem, La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles (Paris 1997).

10. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010).

Nearest neighbours in the pre-Catalan foothills

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois’s Transformation of the Year 1000

Another thing that Guy Bois’s book The Transformation of the Year 1000 has made me think about is the coherence of the village community in my area. For him, the villages of the area of the Mâconnais in Burgundy about which he wrote were quite discrete entities, outside of which hardly anyone lived, except in a few relatively-substantial grange-like affairs run by a small staff of slaves or other dependants.1 He gets some quite heavy theory out of this (and apparently only from this), that this is the natural state of a relatively flat social hierarchy in a time of light lordship, they will band together for mutual support whereas dispersal presupposes some kind of structure to which to connect.2

The church and the centre of modern-day Lournand, Burgundy. By Ludovic Péron

The church and the centre of modern-day Lournand, Burgundy. By Ludovic Péron (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There is so much literature on the formation and structure of villages, most of which I haven’t read, that the only way I can really come at this idea, which you may guess sits wrongly with me, is to test it in the context of the society I know best, tenth-century Catalonia. Here, of course, there was a fairly strong political authority: it may not be exactly clear what the counts could actually do, but they turn up almost everywhere as landholders, transactors, or judgement-givers. Very occasionally, too, we see signs of their ability to coordinate military power, though when the main source is land charters that just doesn’t come up much. Nonetheless, most theories about the development of this area hang on the idea that this lordship was less burdensome than the more local castle-based one that would come to replace it by, say, 1050.3 I have also mentioned before that the tenth-century documents frequently mention what appears to be an allotment of public land near castles, probably dedicated to their upkeep, identifiable because of not having an owner, being referred to as just ‘the benefice’ or similar. In that case it’s hard to guess what exactly the local castle asked from its supposed subjects, and one has to wonder what exactly drew these communities together.

Probably Sant Llorenç prop Baga in Osona

Sometimes the castle is more local than at other times… I think this is Sant Llorenç prop Baga in Osona, but could easily be wrong and would welcome any better suggestions

This is an issue because it is definitely my sense that these communities didn’t have very distinct boundaries. There were certain areas on the edges of castle jurisdictions where the scribes seem to have been uncertain in which jurisdiction to put it.4 If it were under obligations of some kind to that castle, I don’t see how this could happen, at least not if that were geographically determined which Jerusalem, as ever, reminds us it need not be.5 Nonetheless, this was not an intensely-divided zone, it seems to me. People usually knew where their estates and properties ended, but even that could be open-ended (“on the margin”, “on wasteland”).6

Sant Vicenç de Malla

Sant Vicenç de Malla, in the tenth century in the term of Orsal or that of Taradell depending on which scribe was writing your charter (NB this building is later)

It’s also quite hard to point at centres of communities, in the tenth century at least. The church is an obvious one, but not everywhere had one; my favourite example from my territory is a village called Montells, which has at least two bits (Upper and Lower) and also some settlement in between. Their nearest church, as far as I can tell, was the cathedral at Vic or Sant Vicenç d’Orsal in the under-managed term of Malla, but they did not live in either of those places as far as the scribes who wrote their documents were concerned.7 Then, to the north in Vallfogona the unusually rich documentation shows us a community that got a church put in by the nunnery of Sant Joan de Ripoll over the ridge to the north, which was obviously therefore acting as a kind of focus in itself, and yes, that church is more or less in the middle of the valley, but the settlement wasn’t; the church went where it went because the main mover in the affair, a chap called Arigo, lived there. But there were about fifteen other hamlets in tenth-century Vallfogona and when the counts moved in on the area towards the end of the century one of the things that they did was to put another church up at the east end of the valley and scrounge half its parish away from the older one, showing us that those hamlets looked to a further centre, not one of their own. And the Vall de Sant Joan itself, as we know in almost-unique detail, had at least twenty-three settlements in by 913, of which some were groups of fifteen to twenty families but others basically a homestead.8 Their centre was obviously the nunnery, but that area was, as I’ve suggested, organised much more obviously in dependence. Does this mean that Bois is right and dispersal follows lordship, and that other areas should be more centred?

Portal of the church of Sant Pol, in Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Portal of the old parish church of Sant Pol, in Sant Joan de les Abadesses

I certainly don’t think that there was ordinarily no village community as such, not least because we have reason to expect there to have been some common land in most places, which means a group that could decide who was entitled to use it and who wasn’t.9 There was also a reasonably distinct body of people who turn up in court hearings for a given area as boni homines, ‘worthy men’, a term only used in this context but often correlating to a certain landed importance in the transaction record.10 Such a status presupposes, I think, other fora in which it could be reckoned by the person’s fellows before it could be definite enough for a scribe to record; I don’t see how it could really be the scribe’s decision. But it does make one wonder, when if ever was this community together to make such decisions? If the hamlet is the basic unit, church is not the answer: we don’t, in any case, know how often people went to church in this period, but it seems that it would always have involved the people of many (small) settlements. Unless we imagine that each church meeting dissolved into a bunch of small board meetings, some more local setting seems likely. (Churches are more common than castles, so it wouldn’t be the castle either.)

Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Of course, sometimes church and castle later got hard to separate… The Castell de Sant Llorenç del Munt, Osona

Beyond imagining the local ‘big men’ having more or less formal meetings at each other homes, for which there is no evidence at all, I don’t have an answer to this, which is frustrating because, Guy Bois or no Guy Bois, this is the level at which change would have been recognised, discussed, met and contended with, and it is invisible even though it must have been there. The invisibility of the informal is probably the biggest single problem with which the early medieval social historian reckons, and though I may not like the way Guy Bois imagines it (for an area that he knows vastly better than do I, of course; I merely don’t like it for my area) it’s very hard to do better than imagination.11


1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 117-120.

2. Ibid., pp. 119-120:
“Peasant dispersal was no doubt a possibility wherever a strong political authority, inherited from Rome, had been maintained. Where this was lacking, the hamlet became the structural framework which no peasant would think of leaving. The basic reality consisted of a network of hamlets, each binding the conjugal units into a cohesive group. The more society lost any central power, the stronger the knots in the mesh became….”

3. Most obviously 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, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols; Josep María Salrach i Marés, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987).

4. See J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 90-91, for the example of l’Esquerda.

5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there borders and borderlines in the Middle Ages? The example of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105-118.

6. In Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 158, 496, 941, 1111, 1128, 1184, 1218, 1236, 1243, 1367, 1595 & 1870 feature boundaries “in ipsa limite” or some other form of the word limes, whereas nos 760, 910, 960, 1128, 1381, 1402, 1428, 1435, 1504, 1547, 1664, 1683, 1710, 1821, 1852 & 1854 have “in ipsa margine” or similar. This seems to suggest either some shift in fashion from the former to the latter, or else that the limes was fixed somehow and that the edge of settlement had moved beyond it after the 970s. Interesting, isn’t it?

7. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 75-77.

8. Ibid., pp. 30-42.

9. Gaspar Feliu, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in J. Farré and Flocel Sabaté (edd.), Els grans espais baronials a l’edat mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica: I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40.

10. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 35-36 & n. 55 with ref.; more widely, see Karin Nehlsen-von Stryck, Die boni homines des frühen Mittelalters unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der fränkischen Quellen, Freiburger rechtsgeschichtliche Abhandlungen Neue Fassung 2 (Berlin 1981).

11. One person who may do better than me (or Bois) on this is Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, whose Masters thesis, “Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: la Plana de Vic, 872-936″, unpublished Master’s thesis (Universitat de Lleida 2011), for a copy of which to read I must thank her, touches on such issues and whose doctoral work now completing may carry it further. She looks at the documents in a different way from mine and this is one enquiry where that probably helps!

Feudal Transformations XVIII: what’s behind it all

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois’s Transformation of the Year 1000

During my first days in Birmingham, while short of online access that wasn’t immediately swallowed by professional e-mail and bibliographical searches, I was making my way through Guy Bois’s little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000. Since, at its core, this represents a more extreme version of the theory of a ‘feudal transformation‘ even than that proposed by the originator of the idea, Georges Duby, I had been expecting to find it basically mad, and certainly it’s fairly opinionated and largely inhabits an intellectual space well beyond the evidence, but still it is more subtle than I had expected, not least because it separates cause and effect in such a way as to get over the awkward constriction of the the chronology the focus on the year 1000 causes.1 Yes, he says, there was huge and violent social change around the year 1000 in this one bit of the Mâconnais (which is to be taken as typical at least of France, even though he often stresses how something else would have happened in other areas), but this was the result of a wide range of other changes going on since the sixth century if not before, while the ruling class tried to shore up the failing ancient society by increasingly removing its surviving foundations and replacing them with more viable ones. And one of these big changes is the growth of agricultural production, which as he rightly says is not very well understood.2 Now, Bois has views on this, in which, it must be said, it is far from alone, but they are worth reading and they go like this:

Before a problem so vast, we should mistrust unilateral interpretations based, in most cases, on an exogenous factor. I am thinking in particular of demography, the most convenient and also the laziest of ‘explanations’. Certainly, the demographic approach is essential and indispensable. The number of persons is the best indicator of agrarian growth, and it is also a factor in this growth, providing that it is located within the chain of causality of which it forms a part; otherwise, we have only an illusory interpretation. How can it be imagined that shortage of food ceased to bear on mortality? What factor could have produced such a situation? Similarly, one certainly cannot deny, a priori and on principle, the possibility that improved climatic conditions might have had some influence. But it is still necessary to demonstrate their impact on grain yields in the temperate zone, and then establish precise correlations between the chronology of climatic fluctuations of grain production over the long term. This is very far from yet having been done. In the actual state of affairs, it is to be feared that this line of research betokens a refusal to confront the complexity of the endogenous factors, that it is essentially a sort of retreat in advance. It remains dangerous, however, in that it appeals to a popular taste, specialised or not, by giving the illusion of opening up new horizons, by investing itself with a scientific aura through its recourse to the exact sciences and, above all, because it is a gesture in the direction of contemporary ecological awareness. In sum, it is easy to ‘sell’, but it will be understood that such a criterion will not be given high priority in the orientation of our discussion.3

You may guess that I am happier here with his slagging off of the demographic explanation than his attack on climate as a factor. Demography is not a good answer, because like so much in the feudal transformation debate, it could be either cause or effect: if you have too many mouths to feed you may open up more land for cultivation, but on the other hand if you are opening up more land for cultivation, you may now be able to have more children, whether beforehand you were practising what passed for contraception in the Middle Ages or whether you were, as some have suggested, resorting to infanticide.4 This kind of problem, and not just with that factor, is exactly why I rather like climate as a primum mobile; it must certainly have had an effect on society, but it’s hard to see society affecting it, in the tenth century at least.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

It’s never not time for my Feudal Transformation teaching diagram!

On the other hand, Bois was not wrong that the case was far from made in 1989, when he wrote. I also do feel that he has some justice in seeing people grabbing on to it as a current bandwagon in order to make their research ‘relevant’, although I would actually find it hard to point to medievalists getting into climate science rather than climate scientists getting into history, where I’ve seen.5 In fact, if the case must be made as he suggests, it may be impossible to close. We already know (I think) that almost all work on grain yields of the Frankish era is basically wrong, based on a misreading of the sources (and yes, I am still working on that for publication, nearly done now actually), and since those are most of the sources there are before the twelfth century, all we can do is demonstrate that yields certainly grew between the second and twelfth century, not really the kind of subtlety we need (though as subtle as many of Bois’s number tricks, it’s gotta be said).6 Archæology helps but the amount of time it would take before enough preserved grain of the right periods came to light and got analysed that we actually had any meaningful numbers, if that could even be done—you’d need some very long-phase settlements with a fixed amount of arable land, wouldn’t you, which in a period of clearance is basically unlikely ever to be possible—still drags a very long way into the future. On the other hand, as our climate continues to warm up, we may be in a position to do the kind of long-term experimental work that’s been done at l’Esquerda on a cycle long enough to actually test the difference that an averagely-higher temparature, and consequently less rain, makes on yields, though I do note already that drought was the problem they experienced most seriously there in the 1990s, not over-watering. You’d expect that on a Catalan hilltop, of course, and some experiments elsewhere would also be nice, but it may technically be feasible. Meanwhile, we do these days know an awful lot more about the climatic fluctuation, and it seems as blinkered to me to ignore the effects which that must have had on agriculture, as it certainly did in the fourteenth century, as it did to Bois in 1989 to ignore the internal factors of social change.7

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia

Vineyards of the Miguel Torres company in the Penedès, Catalonia, now drying out, grabbed from here

The answer is, of course, that we need both: everywhere in Europe got a climate change leading up to 1000, probably, but not everywhere manifested the kind of rapid change that Duby, Bonnassie, Bois and others dubbed the ‘transformation’. That is exactly where Bois’s internal factors are important, and not least among them the eventual collapse or fragmentation of the Carolingian state of course; as our learned commentator Carl Anderson has observed here, the feudal transformation is really a post-Carolingian phenomenon (as long as we can wriggle Castile-León out of it somehow).8 We have a number of big social or economic pressures (if there’s a difference) acting on a whole range of areas from 900-1100, and it’s what those areas were like in themselves, including such micro-level differences as who was in charge, how effective they were and what they could see of the problems (which is where I really get interested), that probably determined how it all played out. The struggle will be, if I ever do crystallise all this, to write this up in a way that makes sense but still says more than, “well, it differed from place to place, basically”…


1. The fiercely critical review by Barbara Rosenwein linked above, in Speculum Vol. 69 (Cambridge 1994), pp. 749-751, doesn’t get as far as dealing with such matters as whether the book actually has a case or not, so upset is she with Bois’s use of evidence and general slapdash chronology (including picking up on the unfounded dating of Saint-Laurent de Collonges mentioned a couple of posts ago). All that is of course very problematic; if his case rests on anecdata and thery’re all misread, he probably doesn’t have a case. But I feel that that point could have been made explicitly if she was confident in it.

2. Although a very good crop of studies on it arose from a conference in 1988, published as La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), in which Bois himself took part.

3. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992), p. 99.

4. I struggle with references for early medieval contraception, I’ll admit, but Julia Smith has some neat remarks on it in her Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), pp. 70-71, and in the Further Reading pp. 321-322 recommends John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge 1992). For infanticide I go back to Emily Coleman, “Infanticide in the Early Middle Ages” in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia 1976), pp. 47-70, which is also referenced by Smith p. 321 with a useful list of reactions to its controversial argument.

5. A rapid websearch suggests that our new cite of reference for the so-called medieval climatic anomaly is now N. E. Graham, C. M. Ammann, D. Fleitmann, K. M. Cobb & J. Luterbacher, “Support for global climate reorganization during the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly'” in Climate Dynamics Vol. 37 (Berlin 2010), pp. 1217-1245, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-010-0914-z.

6. P. F. Brandon, “Cereal Yields on the Sussex Estates of Battle Abbey during the later Middle Ages” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 25 (London 1972), pp. 403-420, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1972.tb02184.x; Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, last modified 4th December 2010 as of 8th April 2011, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), mostly online via Google Bookslast modified not available as of 8th May 2011, pp. 121-128.

6. Bruce M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della ‘Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi’ 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32, online here.

7. Cf. José Ángel García de Cortázar, “Estructuras sociales y relaciones de poder en León y Castilla en los siglos VIII a XII: la formación de una sociedad feudal” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 497-563 with discussion pp. 565-568.

Raising up the enemies of Mercia

The St Andrews Sarcophagus is one of the more splendid pieces of artwork left to us from Pictish Scotland. Some might say the most splendid; I would always hold out for Sueno’s Stone, myself, simply because a twenty-foot high cross slab with a three-line battle cartoon full of decapitated corpses and ravens is hard to top, in several senses, but even I would have to admit that the Sarcophagus is a bit better executed. More importantly for many, it draws on a huge range of iconography, Biblical, Insular (let’s not use the word ‘Celtic’ here), Oriental and Classical, and thus helps show that the Picts, or at least the late Picts, were in no way cut off from the wider cultural currents of Christian Europe, but could play with and use them as well as any other people of the period.1

Current state of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The Sarcophagus as currently displayed, and as pictured on the website Undiscovered Scotland, from which here linked

What the thing actually is, as it survives to us, is the front, three corners and one-and-a-bit sides of a box shrine or tomb, about one-and-a half metres across the front, which is the long side. The front shows a royal hunt, with various odd hybrid beasties lurking in a tree past which the hunters ride, and elsewhere David killing the lion, and the sides and corners are heavily decorated with interlace and animal and vegetal motives. It’s done in extremely high relief, so that you can see the other side of some of the hunters’ heads, and it’s generally quite special.2 Most and perhaps all of the surviving bits were discovered buried in St Andrews Cathedral churchyard in 1833, perhaps in use as a cist.3 We don’t know what the back was like, if there was one and it didn’t originally just sit against a wall, and we don’t know what the lid was like: a flat slab and a pitched roof have both been suggested on the basis of parallels elsewhere. Most people have concluded, given its quality and its connection with St Andrews, which long ago was called Kilrymont, ‘church on the king’s hill’, that it once contained a royal entombment, and the art-historical dating and later medieval traditions have made King Unuist map Uurguist, or in Gaelic, Oengus mac Fergus, second of that name, who ruled the Picts more or less from 820-834, the most commonly-suggested candidate, though the first of that name, circa 729-761, remains in the frame too (as do presumably the kings between them, albeit with less support in tradition).4

Front panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The front panel, during dismantlement in 19965

What, however, has all this to do with Mercia, you may be wondering, and fair enough. The answer lies in that phrase “parallels elsewhere”, because the Mercian kings of the mid- to late-eighth century seem to have put quite a lot of store by impressive entombments. The interesting thing is that these were not necessarily of the kings themselves, though there was a Mercian royal mausoleum at Repton that the Vikings took over in 873, still sadly not fully published.6 Instead or as well, they often seem to have set up burial cults around their enemies, moving them into Mercian border territory to do so. The classic example of this is St Oswald, King of Northumbria whom King Penda of Mercia killed in 642, whose body was moved in the reign of King Æthelred of Mercia, who had married his niece, to Bardney in Lindsey.7 That was presumably a peace-making move; rather less so was King Offa’s burial of King Æthelberht of East Anglia, whom he had just executed for disloyalty, at Hereford on the Welsh border. This was presumably meant to prevent any royal cult growing up around the dead king back in East Anglia, in which respect it failed, but Hereford seem also to have been quite glad to have him.8

St Alkmund's Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund's Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museum

St Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire, now in Derby Museums, whose website has a more enlightened reuse policy that just requires me to point out to you that the image is copyright to Derby Museums

This all takes on a sharper relevance to St Andrews when this item is considered, this being what’s left of what you can see was a substantial, full-length ornamental sarcophagus from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire. (There is a fantastic photo of its discovery on the church’s site here, looted since goodness knows how long.) In some ways this is not what we have at St Andrews—it is single piece, not built out of parts, and its carving is much less ambitious—but in other ways it is, because of the identity of St Alkmund.9 This is believed to be King Ealhmund of Northumbria, who lost his struggle for the throne in some of Northumbria’s darker days (darkly alluded to in Alcuin’s letters, indeed) and retreated to Mercia as an exile, where however the forces of his rival Eardwulf found him and killed him in the year 800. The coffin fits with this date, and since it was obviously made for display there seems little a priori reason to doubt that it was meant to house the saint of the church, this royal sort-of-martyr, in which case presumably we see here King Cœnwulf of Mercia doing something slightly different with royal entombment, attacking the current royal family in Northumbria by celebrating as a saint the rival they’d murdered.10

Ninth-century ornamental panel from Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

Ninth-century ornamental panel from SS Mary & Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. Photo by Walwyn, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0), taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/overton_cat/4017050229/ with thanks

It would maybe be possible to attribute a high-minded sense of right that just happened to be politically convenient to Cœnwulf of Mercia at this point were it not for what Steven Plunkett, who specialises in Mercian art history, thinks probably happened to Eardwulf, Ealhmund’s rival. What we know happened to Eardwulf is that he was exiled himself in 806. Plunkett therefore brings the Mercian church of Breedon-on-the-Hill into the argument at this point, and indeed has already done so in the relevant chapter because of it too having some unusually high-relief sculpture showing a royal hunt and some Classicising figures that all bear very strong comparisons to the St Andrews material, though he fights shy of actually proposing a connection in either direction.11 Here, however, the question is of Breedon’s dedication, which is to SS Mary and Hardulf. Hardulf? This saint is apparently unknown elsewhere. Surely it could not be… Eardwulf? Plunkett suggests that it could, which leaves me boggling somewhat at Cœnwulf’s mindset, if we assume that he was once again involved with this high-status centre.12 Did he decide he had been wrong about Ealhmund? Was he trying to pacify Northumbria? Is it that a king was a king and worth culting as something special whatever one’s relations with him in life? Or did he just decide that what was worth doing once was worth doing twice and carry on with cynical lack of regard to his earlier position on the Northumbrian crown? We will, of course, never know, but as so often, I wish we did. Are there any other cases of both sides of a violent contest being celebrated as holy men by the same agency? Over to you if so, I can’t think of any!


1. A point made throughout Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1997), which I was reading when I wrote this post in September 2013; the wider contention that Pictland was not some cut-off neverwhere is also the basic case to prove for many of the writers in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Europe: the proceedings of a day conference held on 20 February 1993, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1994).

2. Detailed description in Isabel Henderson, “Descriptive Catalogue of the Surviving Parts of the Monument” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 19-35; followed up with much more analysis in Henderson, “Primus inter Pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture”, ibid., pp. 97-167.

3. Sally M. Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display”, ibid. pp. 36-62 at pp. 36-41.

4. Ibid. pp. 42-45; Dauvit Broun, “Pictish Kings 761-839: integration with Dál Riata or separate development?”, ibid. pp. 71-83; Charles Thomas, “Form and Function”, ibid. pp. 84-96. Henderson, “Primus inter pares“, makes a spirited case for Unuist map Uurguist I on the basis of a range of fairly closely-dated art-historical comparisons. On him, see Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125 but also online here, and Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex‘ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill & Martha Worthington (edd.), Æthelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42.

5. I have found it surprisingly hard to locate images of the Sarcophagus licensed for reproduction, not something I anticipated when I set up to do this post and now, of course, have no time to fix by writing people for permission etc. So, this is from Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, plate 5, with some slight colourisation added by me which I think technically but probably not defensibly makes it a new work, but which in any case I shall replace with my own or some licensed picture of the front as soon as I’m able. I’m pretty sure that having free 600×480-pixel pictures on the web will not hit your postcard sales that much, guys…

6. Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, “Repton and the Vikings” in Antiquity 66 (London 1992), pp. 36-51, is about as good as it gets for publication.

7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III.11 (an old translation online here should you not have access to one of the newer ones); Steven J. Plunkett, “The Mercian Perspective” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 202-226 at p. 206.

8. Morn 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, pp. 260-273, is the fullest discussion; cf. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 224-225.

9. There is basic go-to stuff on this that I haven’t yet read, I must confess, among it C. A. Ralegh Radford, “The church of Saint Alkmund, Derby” in Derbyshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 96 (Derby 1976), pp. 26-61 and Alan Thacker, “Kings, saints and monasteries in pre-Viking Age Mercia” in Midland History Vol. 10 (Birmingham 1985), pp. 1-25; here I run instead from Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 222-223.

10. David W. Rollason, “The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1983), pp. 1-22 ; Capper, “Contesting Loyalties”, pp. 362-363.

11. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, p. 223 & 215-220, esp. p. 220:
“The carvings [at Breedon, Peterborough and elsewhere] are evidence for the systematic endowment of primary Mercian sites by an elite patron employing a master-craftsman…. The St Andrews Sarcophagus is in no way a product of this atelier, but embodies a comparable initiative, in a context where there is stylistic evidence for cultural exchange between the two regions.”

I do find this frustrating as it suggests a relationship and then argues that the cultural context is probably pretty general across northern Britain. In that case this sort of stuff might be expected to turn up anywhere yet plainly has not. One wants there to be a connection and Plunkett is too cautious to hypothesise one, yet sets out all the material that makes it seem necessary.

12. It has to be admitted that that isn’t strictly necessary. Not least, we don’t know when or how Eardwulf died; it might have been rather later, and Plunkett justly notes the general crisis of the Mercian realm in 825 when such readjustments of politics might have been useful. (On what we know about that see Capper, “Contested Loyalties”, pp. 416-428.) I still wonder, though, as below, what this meant for the cult of Ealhmund.

Letting in the lowly in Lournand

In the first chapter of his controversial little book, The Transformation of the Year 1000, Guy Bois mentions a church in the tiny area of Burgundy that he chose for his micro-study, a “tiny, pre-Romanesque chapel… without… any significant alterations”, at Collonge in Lournand.1 Now, in this day of Google Image search, such a footnote is an invitation full of search terms, and especially for me, because the Romanesque rebuilding hit Catalonia very forcefully and there is really not much pre-Romanesque building left up there. (It’s usually assumed it was largely in wood anyway, but there are cases of doubt.2) Thus, if I want to know what the churches of the kind of people I write about were like, I have to start by looking elsewhere, so I did.

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

The chapel of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, Burgundy

Bois gives no reference for the date of the chapel, which seems to be dedicated to Saint Laurent, and the website I found for it thinks it’s actually fourteenth-century Romanesque, again with no authority cited. Looking at the pictures, it seems to me that it’s so basic that it could readily be either, and only the bell-tower is very indicative, that being Romanesque in original style despite its modern patch-up but also quite possibly an addition, as these things often are in Catalonia. So the jury, unless there is a Burgundian equivalent of the Catalunya Romànica of which I don’t know, is probably out. It’s so basic that if all you wanted was an idea of what the tenth-century church would have been like it might serve anyway.

Interior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing altar

Interior of the chapel

However, the date of the chapel is not the big question that Bois is using it for here: his query is instead whether slaves were allowed in in the tenth century. That raises questions that are larger than simply, “was this building even standing then?”, such as “were there still slaves then, or should we be talking about serfs?”, “what’s the difference anyway?” and, what Bois is concerned with, “what human rights did slaves have in this era?” The “what’s the difference” question has a neat semantic answer, to wit, a serf can be sold with land he or she works, but a slave can be sold as goods in their own right, but as with definitions of aristocrat that work on whether the person works land themselves or not, while this may be consistent it’s not necessarily historically relevant to the period in question.3 If a slave has a house and some kind of agreement with her or his master about what work they do on a normal basis, and if a serf isn’t guaranteed that his or her children will inherit the holding, it could be quite difficult to draw lines between their status. Bois does so more or less at control of the children, saying that serfs’ children are their own even if their dependence is hereditary but that a slave’s children are the master’s to dispose of and house as convenient. It’s on this basis that he argues that Lournand pre-1000 was still a slave society, because its holdings are all one family to one homestead which is too convenient to be anything but arranged.4 That seems to me to rest on an idea that all homesteads are equivalent and that we could somehow tell if two were an old single one divided, whereas my limited experience of the Cluny charters suggests that measuring these plots isn’t really possible. It’s not clear to me where a lot of Bois’s numbers come from in this chapter, indeed, but I’ve worked with Cluny boundary clauses a bit and I don’t think you can map them continuously between generations, so I’m inclined to mistrust the logic here.

Exterior view of Saint-Laurent de Collonge, Lournand, showing portal and bell-tower

Exterior view showing portal and bell-tower

However, the question about admittance is one that he raises justly, and does so moreover on the basis of work by Pierre Bonnassie, to whom I am more generally sympathetic. Bonnassie and consequently Bois both make admittance to worship in church a big part of the decline of slavery.5 Even though the Church itself is a big landowner and runs a lot of slaves, albeit often on quite privileged terms, the basic starting point that a slave too has a soul that must be saved makes important breaks in the legal idea that a slave is a chattel, a possession and not a person. Christian doctrine is pretty kind to the humble anyway, so there’s just a certain basic level below which anyone who may approach the altar can’t slip, but there’s also the question of Church marriage, which once applied to slaves seriously impinges on the master’s right to arrange his or her labouring population and their reproduction as she or he chooses. As a good Western liberal, I’ve never really got how people can class other people they live with and see daily as somehow not-really-people, but obviously that distinction is inherent in a slave system, and if such non-people are then allowed to become partakers in your religion’s principal rite of union with your god, that’s something of a blow to that distinction, to say the least. So, it’s a crucial step away from subhuman status to have been able to go to Church in the Middle Ages. (In my area, where slaves were often Muslim prisoners of war, it wasn’t an easy step to take either.) There really wouldn’t have been a lot of room in the tiny chapel at Collonge or, presumably, any precursor it had, but who was in that space would have at some point, be it fifth-century or eleventh-century or somewhere between the two, been a very sharp social issue, and one that we can say almost nothing about.


1. Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. J. Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992) pp. 28-29 & n.

2. My pet case here is the now-twelfth-century Sant Andreu de Tona, where the stone structure located by digging in the 1940s was dated to an otherwise unattested reconstruction in the eleventh century precisely because it was stone, the assumption being that the well-attested building of 889 put up by Romanising notables on a hill basically made of building stone would nonetheless have to have been wood. See Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà, Dolors Arumí i Gómez, A. Cavallé i Crivillers & R. Espadaler i Parsarises, “Sant Andreu de Tona” in Jordi Vigué (ed.) Catalunya Romànica III: Osona II, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1986), pp. 639-44 and cf. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 106-108.

3. The go-to for this terminological discussion for me, because it set out explicitly to compare ancient, medieval and modern usages, is Michael Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (London 1986), where the papers by Stanley Engerman and Wendy Davies (but of course) might be the most use, but I think this definition is my own, all the same.

4. Bois, Transformation, pp. 18-20.

5. P. Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, online here, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59.

Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…


I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…