Category Archives: Currently reading…

Immune from criticism

When I wrote this at the end of August 2013 I had just finished reading one of the very many books I really should have read a long time ago, partly because I’ve owned it since 2008 or something but mainly because of the number of people who told me I should during my doctoral work. The book is Barbara Rosenwein’s Negotiating Space, and I can’t help feeling I may have missed something.1

Cover of Barbara Rosenwein's Negotiating Space

Cover of that selfsame book

Professor Rosenwein writes agreeably and sets out an interesting stall by beginning with the old adage that ‘an Englishman’s house is his castle’ by way of instancing the idea of legal immunity, a position or extent within which the law cannot reach you. By the time of the adage, this could be claimed as a general right, but obviously ’twas not ever thus and in the period with which this blog is usually concerned, immunity was more something you got for your properties from local authorities, who by excluding themselves and their subordinates from your jurisdiction effectively made you lord of all you could claim in the limits they’d given you. Now, absolutely there has been a lot of stuff and nonsense hung off this idea, in which kings mortgaged away their rights for immediate support and weakened the state in consequence, and Professor Rosenwein goes a long way to showing, in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth centuries in Francia and the tenth in Italy, how this need not have been so, because going to ask for such a concession as well as being awarded one bound one tightly into a relationship with the issuer, to whom after all one would have to look to make it official. As Professor Rosenwein points out, the Carolingians made this explicit by linking such grants with their protection, placing the recipients under heavy responsibilities towards the kings if they wished that protection to be useful. That is all good, and it probably needed saying in 1999.

Royal immunity charter of King Charles the Simple for the abbey of Sant Joan de Ripoll

If I have such a thing as a favourite immunity it’s probably this one, King Charles the Simple’s 899 grant to Abbess Emma and Sant Joan de Ripoll

It may indeed be that the take-up of this book was just so rapid and thorough that, as with so many things although this time second-hand, I’ve met so many people using this work that I no longer find these ideas surprising.2 It may instead be that it doesn’t surprise me because it is an argument cognate with that that says that royal grants were made mostly because people asked for them, not because the king bestowed them at whim, and that any grant thus represents a successful and plurilateral negotiation concluded.3 But I can’t help feeling that it is also not surprising because it’s almost the only commonality that Professor Rosenwein was able to draw out of her material beyond the obvious one that what immunities were changed all the time and varied with each use. The extreme malleability of this political tool makes it hard to characterise and I felt at many points that paragraphs slipped from one definition to another rather than actually joining them up.4

Einsiedeln, Klosterarchiv Einsieden A BI 1, a confirmation of privuleges and immunity to the house from Emperor Otto I, 947

One has to admit that this is a bit more splendid, though, and not just because the seal is still attached. This is Emperor Otto I to the monastery of Einsiedeln, 947, Klosterarchiv Einsieden A BI 1.

It seems to me, from fourteen years down the line and benefitting from a lot of people’s thought about what the early medieval charter was actually for of course, that this may be a category error of sorts. Professor Rosenwein, when she wrote this book, clearly saw immunities as a category: she has appendices of exemplary ‘immunity’ documents, the whole book assumes that immunity is a diplomatic or legal thing that ranks alongside sale, donation, and so forth. Yet it seems to me that it is not so, that it is rather part of those categories. A royal precept of the kind I’m used to, which is to say, Carolingian, might include immunity, but that would be only one clause of several, and a grant of property without immunity would not look any different; you’d have to read it before you knew whether the special category applied.5 It would be late on in the document, too, after the goods had been conceded, described and all the rest, and there would be goods, even if they were only being confirmed rather than given. One could be forgiven, I think, for thinking that the goods were the main act and immunity only an aftershow. In fact one of the few things that would follow it apart from signatures might be the grant of free elections to a monastery (as in the Ottonian privilege above), often travelling with the privilege of immunity but not always. We don’t speak of election grants; why then does immunity need to stand separately from the donations and confirmations of which it always formed part in this period?6


1. B. H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: power, restraint, and privileges of immunity in early medieval Europe (Ithaca 1999, repr. 2000).

2. I didn’t get all of it second–hand, in fact: part of the lack of surprise may be coming from my having already read Rosenwein, “Property transfers and the Church, eighth to eleventh centuries. An overview ” in François Bougard (ed.), “Les transferts patrimoniaux en Europe occidentale, VIIIe-Xe siècle (I). Actes de la table ronde de Rome, 6, 7 et 8 mai 1999″ in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome: Moyen Âge Vol. 111 (Rome 1999), pp. 563-575 of pp. 487-972, online here, coming out of the same research.

3. Mark Mersiowsky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25; of course that was already obvious to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els Primers Comtes Catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històric 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), since the Carolingian kings could not easily affect Catalonia for most of the time that area sought such documents from them, and thus to me who read Abadal long before I did Merswiowsky.

4. This may of course be my fault, for reading it in dribs and drabs and always while soaking up enough morning caffeine to function. I can’t help feeling that the fact that the book acknowledgedly (p. iv) reuses material from six separate previous article-length publications, none apparently wholly or unedited, probably also contributes to this feeling of conceptual and syntactical cæsura it gave me.

5. The ones I’m used to are of course most specifically the ones to Catalonia, edited together in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), repr. as Memòries… 75 (2009).

6. Possibly different in Merovingian or post-Carolingian periods but Rosenwein, Negotiating Space, pp. 81-89 and 144-146 suggest that she had trouble with the refusal of rulers then to stick to her category. See esp. p. 145: “The word ‘immunitas’ does not appear in this charter. Nevertheless, the phrases are clearly patterned on an immunity….”

Volcanoes probably don’t explain everything

I have mirrored on my various computers a huge directory called ‘toread’, in which get stuffed willy-nilly the various PDFs of academic writing that I come across while out and about the net, and every now and then I make a short-lived assault on it. At the time of writing this had just brought me into contact with an unusual article from Speculum of 2007, in which notable medievalists Michael McCormick and Paul Edward Dutton team up with a climate scientist by the name of Paul Mayewski and ask, more or less, can we achieve anything like precision in assessing how the weather and changes in it affected the societies of the early Middle Ages?1 And this is a thing I care about, sort of, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I read this with a sharp eye and have an opinion about it.

The Icelandic volcano of Eldgjá

The Icelandic volcano of Eldgjá, blamed here for an eruption c. 939 on the basis of tephra analysis. “Eldgja” by Andreas TilleOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly it needs to be stressed that this is not an article about climate change, per se, though there is a certain amount of that in it as background. Cautious work I’ve seen on climate change has stressed that while it deals in overall trends of up or down a degree or two, the actual experience of this would have been far less comprehensible because of a huge range of local and chronological variation. If, for example, the winter temperatures where you are range from -18° Celsius to 13° Celsius over ten years, when a century earlier it had been -13 to 18, then yes, the median drop is already pretty severe but perceiving the actual pattern in any of those ten-year slots is going to have been pretty difficult given that maybe one January all the rivers froze and then maybe four years later your vines grew a second harvest because it was so sunny.2 And this article is interested in that short-range variation, the experience of individual years.

Ice core SO4+ and Cl- time series covering the period A. D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950

“Ice core SO44+ and Cl- time series covering the period A.D. 650–1050 and historically documented multiregional climate anomalies between 750 and 950″, they say on p. 877

The way they take this on is relatively simple, though it must have required a lot of work: McCormick and Dutton, both of whom have pedigree in this kind of question, separately compiled lists from documents of especially extreme winters in the years 750-1000, while Mayewski pulled a huge dataset from a Greenland ice core extracted in the 1980s and went through it looking for spikes in the deposition of chemicals associated with volcanic eruptions, whose aerosol effects in blocking out sunlight and lowering temparatures the authors work hard to show are widely accepted in meteorology.3 Then they compared their findings, chucked out anything that wasn’t certain and still had nine episodes where the dates for bad winters in the documents married up closely with dates for volcanic deposits.

For me, a historian, the best parts of this article are the documentary extracts that make it clear what kind of consequences such weather could have and just how bad it could be. For example, read this, their summary of two probably-related chronicles from Constantinople about the winter of 763 to 764:4

“Some 2,000 kilometers to the southeast, a well-informed observer at Constantinople recorded that great and extremely bitter cold settled on the Byzantine Empire and the lands to the north, west… and east. The north coast of the Black Sea froze solid 100 Byzantine miles out from shore (157.4 km). The ice was reported to be 30 Byzantine ‘cubits’ deep, and people and animals could walk on it as on dry land. Drawing on the same lost written source, another contemporary, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, emphasized that it particularly affected the ‘hyperborean and northerly regions,’ as well as the many great rivers that lay north of the Black Sea. Twenty cubits of snow accumulated on top of the ice, making it very difficult to discern where land stopped and sea began, and the Black Sea became unnavigable. In February the ice began to break up and flow into the Bosporus, entirely blocking it. Theophanes’ account recalls how, as a child, the author (or his source’s author) went out on the ice with thirty other children and played on it and that some of his pets and other animals died. It was possible to walk all over the Bosporus around Constantinople and even cross to Asia on the ice. One huge iceberg crushed the wharf at the Acropolis, close to the tip of Constantinople’s peninsula, and another extremely large one hit the city wall, shaking it and the houses on the other side, before breaking into three large pieces; it was higher than the city walls. The terrified Constantinopolitans wondered what it could possibly portend.”

As well they might! And of course, all this matters a very great deal in a society where the principal source of wealth and indeed subsistence is agriculture. Firewood can’t be gathered, new crops can’t be planted or are blighted by the temperature, animals die, wine freezes in barrels and is ruined, famine is grimly sure to follow.5 There certainly should have been big consequences of this kind of climatic variation.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style ‘miles christi’, by Hraban Maur, not visibly taking any responsibility for the climate. “Ludwik I Pobożny“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first problem, though, is that it’s very hard to determine these consequences in any consistent way. The article opens with the suggestion that the harsh winter of 763 caused King Pippin III of the Franks to suspend his campaign against Aquitaine; it very nearly closes by suggesting that the run of bad winters and harvests from 821 to 824 helped plunge the Frankish Empire into war. So hang on: are wars more or less likely when the winter’s bad? Presumably it depends on other factors. And so on. The one thing that seems pretty certain is that people would have read the bad weather as divine punishment for someone’s misdeeds, but recent work on Louis the Pious makes it more than clear that that could be seized on and used to political advantage; we just can’t agree on whose advantage it was to…6

Causation is one of the problems I have with this article, and in fact I sense that the authors did too. There are a lot of ideas put forth then qualified in the concluding section, as if one or other author was happier to hypothesize than their counterparts. They note that the Roman Empire suffered very few of these events till its closing centuries, but then immediately say, “few would maintain that volcanically caused climate anomalies determined the course of empires and civilization”. Much larger jumps out and back are visible here:7

“A child born in 765 could die at the ripe old age of fifty-five without having lived through such a winter. One born in 820 would experience five such crises in the same span. Charlemagne was more than vigorous and smart: he was, with respect to volcanic aerosols and rapid climate change, a very lucky ruler.  Not so his son Louis the Pious, who, perhaps not entirely  coincidentally, in August 822, after the terrible winter of 821–22, ostentatiously expiated before his assembled magnates his and his father’s sins. Unfortunately, his act of public  penance would have little effect on the volcanic aerosol that produced yet another terrible winter, famine, and disruption but a year later. The reigns of his sons Louis the German and Charles the Bald would suffer from three such bad climate years each; in between two of them, Louis invaded Charles’s kingdom.”

If I’d submitted that to a journal like this I’d almost have expected it to come back stamped with “CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION” and indeed, if this had gone to a science journal I feel sure this would have been redacted. “Perhaps not entirely coincidentally”? Come on… This doesn’t diminish the factuality of their observations, but it certainly does need to be carefully considered just what this data explains.

The paragraph quoted also exposes another problem with the method adopted. In terms of volcanic aerosols, yes, Charlemagne may have been lucky, but the ruler who lived through the famines of 792-793 and 806 might have been surprised to be told so.8 If volcanoes caused bad weather, they certainly didn’t cause all of it, nor even perhaps the worst of it. This is something the authors of this article willingly admit, not least because their proxy for volcanic activity is located to the west of the most likely volcanoes, in Iceland, and the area they’re studying is to the east, though the Gulf Stream makes that much less of an objection than it sounds.9 Nonetheless, when the recent ash-cloud closed the Atlantic to air travel, I personally didn’t notice any shortfall in local autumn apples in the UK, did you? And so on.

Map of volcanically-linked climate anomalies of the Frankish period with dates

Map of relevant events with dates from their p. 875

When one looks more closely at the chronology, in fact, this gets rather odder. There are acknowledged problems with the chronology here; the texts, though subjective, are at least reasonably chronologically precise, and it’s useful to see it all together, because it means that even when things with chronology as shaky as the Irish Annals are being deployed, they’re being correlated with unconnected texts that give one some confidence in the dates. Not so the ice-core, unfortunately; that was sampled every two and a half years and the possible error of each sample is somewhere between one and six years.10 When one notices, then, that the volcanic deposition evidence that correlates with the 763-4 ‘event’ came from the slice for 767, obviously that possible error is important; either the sample’s dating must be emended, or the bad weather was well in force before the volcano did its stuff. The authors seem too comfortable about this for my liking and I agree with them very much that it would be nice to get a new core with the more precise dating that is now possible.11 That would also refine cases like bad winters in 855-856 and 859-860 which correlate with deposition spikes in 854, 856 and 858. It does fit quite nicely but whether or not, as the authors prefer, this was one long volcanic event, the fact that it apparently got better in the middle again monkeys with any simple causation from volcanic eruption to economic and climatic distress. I do think this article shows that something was going on here that deserves to be considered, and I am myself still very much of the persuasion that such factors do need to be considered as explanations for social change, but despite the extra precision attempted here I still don’t think we have anything as simple as A causes B causes C here, and I don’t honestly see how we get it, however much the technology may improve.


1. Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton & Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950″ in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 865-895.

2. There’s lots of examples of freezing rivers (and occasionally seas!) in the article; the second harvest of grapes is something that repeatedly comes up in Gregory of Tours’s Histories, though it’s never good: see Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints), VII.11 or IX.5.

3. McCormick’s and Dutton’s work on such matters is in fact encapsulated in the same volume, in the forms of M. McCormick, “Molecular Middle ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century” and Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, both in Jennifer R. Davis & McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97 & 167-180 respectively. On the methodology, see McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, pp. 867-878 and esp. 876-878.

4. Ibid. pp. 880-881, citing “The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, A.D. 284–813, trans. Cyril A. Mango, Roger Scott, and Geoffrey Greatrex (Oxford, 1997), pp. 600–601″ and “Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, Short History 74, ed. and trans. Cyril Mango, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 13 (Washington, D.C., 1990), pp. 144–49, here pp. 144, lines 1–16, and 147″, along with full edition refs for Theophanes and some discussion of the connection between the sources.

5. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, and their refs at e. g. pp. 879 (blight), 882 (impossibility of planting), 883 (death of beasts), 885 (more blight and death of beasts, also freezing wine).

6. Ibid. p. 867 (“that surely explains the suspension of the major effort by the king to conquer Aquitaine the following summer”) cf. p. 892, quoted below; on debate over Louis the Pious see 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) or François-Louis Ganshof, “Louis the Pious reconsidered” in his The Carolingian Empire and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971), pp. 261-272, versus the various studies in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on Louis the Pious (London 1990), especially Stuart Airlie’s and Janet Nelson’s.

7. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 892.

8. Adriaan Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge 2002), pp. 123-124.

9. McCormick, Dutton & Mayewski, “Volcanoes”, p. 869:
“Those same complexities mean that not every volcanic deposit in Greenland will translate directly into climate impact on the European continent, for instance, if an eruption occurred on Iceland at a moment when atypical atmospheric circulation conditions carried the aerosol westward toward Greenland.”

10. Ibid. pp. 869-870, inc. p. 869, authors’ emphasis:

“The maximum possible absolute dating error for our period in this core is approximately six years. However, within any section of the core, say 100–200 years, the relative internal error is much less, since absolute error accumulates with depth. The closer the annual layer is to a securely identified volcanic event, the more likely the error is zero.”

11. Expressed ibid. p. 891. I discovered after first drafting this a newer paper by one of the same authors and a bunch of others, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, Paul Leahy, Enda Murphy, Paul A. Mayewski, David Taylor, James Killen, Michael G. L. Baillie, Mark Hennessy and Gerard Kiely, “Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 CE”, in Environment Research Letters Vol. 8 (Bristol 2013), pp. 24-35, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024035, which takes the same essential data over a longer range, using however only the Irish Annals, excluding ‘unreliable’ events but not engaging at all with the difficulties of their year-by-year chronologies, and winds up essentially using those to add precision to dating of events from the same Greenland ice-core sample. I haven’t read this in detail, nor have I read much of the recent work by McCarthy on the Annals that they cite, but their approach to the texts makes me wince pre-emptively even so. Anyway, the article is Open access and can be found here, and it is picked up by the BBC here, bless them linking to the actual article unlike some, whence it was reported by via David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe where I read it, and to whom therefore a tip of the hat!

Ghost voices in the first person

When I wrote this, in May 2013, I was working my way through Patrick Wormald’s post-mortem Festschrift, which has some excellent stuff in it sharing space with several things that are only just papers.1 I won’t name any of the latter, but there is among many other good things a new treatment of the Fonthill Letter by Nicholas Brooks which does exactly what I would do when given a tricky and well-known document to squeeze something more from, to wit, look for the participants in other charters, and it works out well.2 In the course of doing it he opened one of those problems I hadn’t realised was a problem, though, and I want to turn it round a bit. [Of course, when I wrote this, he wasn't dead, and I might have hoped to turn it round in conversation with him, but I didn't, now I can't, so I can only hope there's nothing here he would have minded. It seems unlikely that he would have.]

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, part of the estate concerned in the Fonthill Letter

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, which the Wikpiedia entry on the Fonthill Letter reckons part of the estate concerned and therefore uses to illustrate the entry! “Great Ridge wood near Chicklade – geograph.org.uk – 465121” by Andy Gryce – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

First I should probably explain what the Fonthill Letter actually is, which has not always been certain. It seems safe to say that it is a letter written to intervene with King Edward the Elder of the English (899-924), son of Alfred the Great, over a land dispute of Alfred’s time, which one of the parties was now trying to reopen. The landholder, one Helmstan, had been challenged over it because he’d stolen someone’s belt, and the challenger presumably thought this would weaken his network of support and make him vulnerable to challenges on other grounds. In the event, the author of the letter, Helmstan’s godfather, rallied round and interceded for him, even when Helmstan, having been securely reaffirmed in his rights over the land, then threw it all away by getting caught cattle-rustling some time later. The godfather’s interest in this was that Helmstan had promised him the land in question in exchange for his support, Helmstan to carry on holding it under his lordship. By the time of the letter, this had all taken place, Helmstan was presumably dead and the author had shifted the ‘hot’ property on to the cathedral of Winchester in exchange for other less contentious estates, and really didn’t want the whole thing challenged. He entreats Edward: “Sir, when will any suit be ended if one can close it neither with money nor with oath? Or if one wishes to alter every judgement that King Alfred made, when shall we have finished disputing?” All of which is very true and poignant but fails to hide the fact that Helmstan had been able to get away with theft twice because his godfather was in with the kings. It is, as ever, tough to be up against the Man in the tenth century.3

But who was this godfather? The author of the letter doesn’t explicitly name himself, but in it Helmstan is said to have held land from Ealdorman Ordlaf of Wiltshire, and such a man is also listed as present at the final settlement of the case which is recorded on the dorse of the document, along with a Canterbury scribe’s note that the whole document was useless, ‘inutile‘, and should presumably have been thrown away. Nicholas made a good case, using the charters as said, that Ordlaf is the author, and this has been argued before, but a problem with it is that Ordlaf is referred to in the third person and the letter is written in the first. Split personality? Nicholas thought not, and points out: “Such variation between the first and third persons is in fact a common feature of the most nearly comparable extant documents, namely Anglo-Saxon wills.” Which is where I come in, because in the wills of tenth and eleventh-century Catalonia I occasionally see the same thing, as witness (with my emphasis):

In the name of God. Men of these names, Borrell the priest, Ermegell and Dacó, who are executors of the late Avendi, we together as one are donors to God and to the monastery of Sant Benet, which is sited on the Riu Llobregat. By this same donation we give 1 modiata of vine, which came to me Avendi by purchase…

This is not the best example I could give but it is maybe the shortest and it was certainly the first one I could find.4 There are a few of these documents where suddenly the voice of the dead testator comes back to haunt it, and up till now I’d always assumed this was a relic of the elaborate testamentary process used here, where an initial will was sacramentally published before judges or at least churchmen and then individual bequests carried out by the executors, or almsmen, as would be a fairer translation of their title, elemosinarius.5 This obviously opens the possibility that people writing up the latter parts of the process would refer to the initial will and quote it direct without adjusting the grammar, and I’m sure that’s what happened in this case of 987.

But can this explain Ordlaf’s elusiveness in the Fonthill letter? Nicholas went a bit round the houses here, suggesting that there might be a distinct semantic register of documents where the use of the third person for oneself was more appropriate than the first, and that such a document may have been involved here, the local reeve’s judgement that the land Helmstan held from Ordlaf wasn’t forfeit because it wasn’t really his. And I can’t work out if this step about the semantic register is necessary. Certainly, in the Catalan cases, if such a respect for the original will is why it’s quoted direct, it’s not done consistently even within documents (though Nicholas referenced an observation of Mechthild Gretsch’s that the same could be said of King Alfred, or at least whoever wrote the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis in Alfred’s name).6 The Fonthill letter is anything but an accomplished piece of writing, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting (and so hard to edit and translate); if there was a written antecessor here I’m not sure that the author would have thought to change the grammar to fit the new context. That such a thing would be in writing to quote is itself slightly surprising but perhaps not impossible. But between mistake and respect, I find it hard to choose, and wonder whether we even need to: to the recipients and audiences, in all cases, the meaning would presumably have been clear anyway. All of these documents are, after all, at some level reported speech anyway, and we’re as happy now to quote direct or to report speech as this would require. That a nobleman would address the king by letter anyway already suggests a familiarity with writing; I’m not suggesting that this should automatically breed contempt, but we could possibly underestimate the readiness of such a writer to adapt texts to his whim, even if he wasn’t Wessex’s top redactor. A charter, yes, is a special piece of writing, a scriptura, Scripture, but this was not, even if it now is to us, and greater freedom may have been available for the author in which to trip up…


1. Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009).

2. N. Brooks, “The Fonthill Letter, Ealdorman Ordlaf and Anglo-Saxon Law in Practice”, ibid., pp.301-316.

3. Following Brooks’s translation, ibid. pp. 302-306 with quote p. 304.

4. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1522.

5. The easiest guide to testamentary practice in Catalonia is Nathaniel Taylor, “Testamentary Publication and Proof and the Afterlife of Ancient Probate Procedure in Carolingian Septimania” in K. Pennington, S. Chodorow & K. H. Kendall (edd.), Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on Medieval Canon Law (Vatican City 2001), pp. 767-780, online here, last modified 9th December 2006 as of 24th June 2007.

6. M. Gretsch, “The Fonthill Letter: language, law and the discourse of disciplines” in Anglia Vol. 123 (Berlin 2005), pp. 662-686 at p. 669, cit. Brooks, “Fonthill Letter”, p. 313 n. 26. On doubt over the authorship here, see Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum Vol. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215. Brooks referenced other work on the Letter, but one might add more generally Patrick Wormald, “Charters, Law and the Settlement of Disputes in Anglo-Saxon England” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 149-168 and Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257.

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…

Building states on the Iberian frontier, III: who’s a lord and who’s not?

[The below post was originally written in February 2013, more or less in one go. I've been holding off on posting it partly because it was in the queue, but also because it and the next one in the series have subsequently come to form the basis of an article which will be published, online and open access, within a fortnight or so.* Now that it's been through review and editing, there seems to be no harm in letting the original out, with the proviso that this was very much a first stab at the ideas involved and that the actual article is much better-founded and more worked-out.]

Statue of Count Fernán González of Castile, in the Sala de los Reyes, Alcázar de Segovia

We can be fairly sure this man was a lord… Statue of Count Fernán Gionzález of Castile, in the Sala de los Reyes, Alcázar de Segovia

A long time has separated this post from its two predecessors, because of an especially frantic holiday followed by an unprecedentedly heavy term made still the more heavy by the pressure to apply for roughly one job every week. Recovering what was supposed to be involved in this series of posts really needed a few clear hours to sit, read and think while sucking down Earl Grey and these have been hard to find. Having just had a couple, and spent part of them once again skimming the chapter by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes that first set me off and then part scribbling squirrely illegible process diagrams till I felt fairly sure of being able to hold on to what they meant, I am ready to resume.1 The first post in the series, you may even recall, was about the historiographical traditions of Castile and Catalonia and how the latter was probably ineluctably more likely to feature peasant agency in its account of the expansion of Christian territorial organisation into the frontier zone between the principality and al-Andalus. The second explored the options available to peasants for taking part in such processes, largely from my own work, because what originally set me off on this was that Escalona and Reyes leave little room for peasant initiative in their picture. “Castilian expansion must be seen as a conscious move by a limited number of aristocrats,” they say.2 There is, of course, always the possibility that Catalonia is weird (or, as suggested here before now, that Castile is) and that by starting from there I am just more likely to find peasant agency for real as well as in the historiography. This is hard to refute, but we can at least compare like with like when it comes to the other end of the metaphorical gun barrel of political power, at which stand that limited number of aristocrats. Just who are these people and what did they do?

Process diagram

You see, I wasn’t kidding about the process diagrams…

This is one of the questions on which the Escalona and Reyes chapter is really really good. It gives numerous examples of aristocrats at work and assesses them against each other. The first approximation answer would be, I think, anyone socially lesser than the king and greater than a member of a local élite, and that latter point certainly needs some elaboration but hopefully it can stand for a moment. (I’m not entirely clear whether secular status is a requirement of their definition of aristocracy. They seem to think of these people being able to find dependent priests, but of course that could also be said of bishops and abbots… but let’s let that drop for now too.) Within that range, of course, there is room for immense variation. They point out the counts, of whom several seem to have vied in a ‘Race for the Duero’ in the late tenth century and then died, men with widespread territories that they were spreading wider and court connections that gave them a way into places (more on that, too, in a minute).3 Beneath this titled level they distinguish people by ‘scale’, mapping properties and comparing the geographical range of their scatter. In this respect they’re doing with Julio’s preferred toolkit the same kind of thing as Wendy Davies did for Brittany with range of travel and I did with comital Catalonia using a terminology of layers and reach which is in many ways just new local cladding for Wendy’s model; the point is that aristocratic status comes in many different strengths, and we all find geographical distance a useful way to ‘scale’ it.4 These aristocrats held land or rights in many places, even if they may have had a focus, and one of the interesting things that Escalona and Reyes suggest is that by expanding southwards they could transcend that focus by decreasing their reliance on it, while at the same time using its resources to ensure they could exercise power that could bring in new territories.

Visualisation of political range of various figures of tenth-century Osona

I struggle to represent these ideas about political range visually… This was from a job presentation in 2011, and obviously wasn’t enough by itself!

Now, in what they write that last part is not actually explicit. If one asks how these aristocrats used their muscle to get recognised as authority in these new territories, which were to a degree already locally-organised (what degree being obscure and presumably highly variable),5 the closest one gets to an explicit statement is (emphasis mine):

“The southern local communities were seemingly subjected by methods not too different from their northern counterparts [sic]: a general notion of collective political subjection enabled leading aristocrats to exercise a sort of subsidiary authority on community resources, as well as to obtain specific pieces of property….”6

I immediately baulk at this. The picture is supposed to be that the counts rock up with a warband in tow and say, “Hi, I’m the count!” and the community says, “What? We don’t have one of those,” and he says, “Yes you do, it’s me; king’s honour!” and they say, “What do you want?” and he says, “Well, you know, counts get pasture rights and hospitality, military service, all that jazz” and they say, “Like fun you do”, or a vernacular equivalent, he reminds them about the warband, some kind of compromise is reached where they admit he’s the count and has rights and he goes away? Some of these people operate out of hillforts. In any case, what does the aristocrat who is not a count, and thus cannot reasonably claim rights on behalf of the king or the old notions of public authority do? Claim to be representing the counts? How far down the scale can this plausibly devolve? I’m reluctant to adopt this as a general picture. And indeed, Escalona and Reyes have other possibilities in play, as further on they consider a bottom-up model:

“One obvious possibility was that local elites seized the occasion and reinforced their local dominance over their communities. However, the context was also open for local elites to try to supersede their community contexts and join the lesser ranks of the emergent Castile-wide aristocracy.”7

And here, again, arise these local elites. They do a lot of work for the scholars in this volume, and it’s never really worked out who they are, but their participation appears to be crucial, so more needs to be said. Elsewhere, at the earliest stage of this process, as said in a previous post, the word `chieftains’ seems to be appropriate for these people, which gives us something.8 At this end of the chapter, we learn that Escalona and Reyes see these people as free, as capable of military service, perhaps with horses, but also as people who can be under obligation to do that and to build and maintain castles. They may also be capable of and interested in raising churches, though other agencies are possible for that, including, “the collective initiative of local communities; individual decisions from some of their leading members”. Since they go on immediately to say, “However, the role of local elites has been relatively overlooked,” it would seem that those leading members are not members of these local elites.9 You see why I find these people hard to pin down. I suppose that we are talking headmen, clan chiefs, ancestral lords of hillforts, local judges, and so on, but exactly what ways these people need to be subject to public responsibilities that the counts and aristocrats can enforce and how far they are themselves in charge is something of a sliding scale here, even in any given case.

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

Now, I think I know exactly who is meant here, in at least one case, albeit a Catalan one. I have before now written both here and elsewhere about a man called Centuri, a personal name apparently derived from a Roman military rank (centurius) or perhaps a post-Roman community representative (centenarius, centenus), which is surely to say, a local headman.10 We see this man once, in 887, when he was among a number of people from a hilltop settlement (no fort, but a guard-tower, and possibly a late Roman burial ground too) called Tona, in Osona, who sent to the local bishop to get their new church consecrated. Tona is pretty close to Vic, whence this bishop, Jordi, came, but for all that there’s no further documented contact between the area and Vic for another forty years.11 Centuri seems to have been one of the major locals here: he was providing a good chunk of the endowment of the church, and his son Albaro was to be the priest of it. Nonetheless, he was not alone, several other citizens of the villa also made gifts and some twenty of them witnessed the document (assuming, what is not at all certain, that this was actually written up at Tona and that those present were thus the new congregation and not, as it might otherwise be, the day’s crowd of gawpers at Vic cathedral). Now, I am happy with looking at this man as the sort of local élite member that Escalona and Reyes need for their picture. I imagine that they could find many who occupied that role, even if not many exactly like him, as one of the points I was making when writing about Centuri was the imaginativeness and isolation with which some such local communities appear to have individualised their self-expression.

Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

The original act of consecration of Sant Andreu de Tona, Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, Arxiu, pergamin núm. 9135 (2-VIII-2)

Nonetheless, two big questions arise out of it. The first of these, which Escalona and Reyes more or less answer, is what would such people get out of involvement with the aristocrats? They also say that the sources to assess what the balance between top-down and bottom-up initiative was in such cases basically doesn’t exist, and I wonder if that can really be true given how Wendy Davies manages to find such people interacting with San Pedro de Cardeña in this area; perhaps Escalona and Reyes’s scale just doesn’t come down small enough.12 I am, myself, inclined to see the two as inseparable; if the counts couldn’t find willing collaborators wanting such opportunities they’d have to enforce their position by recruiting someone else to apply local armed pressure whenever they wanted something, and given the fact that Escalona and Reyes quite convincingly see these power-grabs as being carried out competitively, that could quickly wind up serving someone else better. There is a subsidiary question, of course, which is in exactly what way are these local élites not aristocrats, if on that smaller scale, and maybe that would help collapse this problem of devolved ability to exact ‘collective political subjection’ somewhat, even if it means seeing something perhaps worryingly like the sort of clannic authority envisaged by Barbero and Vigil for them.13 But ignoring that one, the more important question I want to ask is, over whom do the local élites have power? Who is helping them build these churches, maintain their castles, and comes with them when they go fighting? Who pays attention to their judgements? And what are they doing in this grand frontier endeavour? Because this post is already 2000 words, perhaps this means I should stop the unrolling of the thoughts there for now. But we haven’t got to the bottom of this. What we are approaching here is a need to separate out the things of which authority over such a community might be composed, and ask who has them and on what basis. Then, and perhaps only then, can we start to ask how someone coming in from outside can change that, and whether such changes necessarily need such intervention to occur. So, there will be another one now. Stay curious!


* J. Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere”, Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2.2 (Leeds forthcoming).

1. Julio Escalona & Francisco Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border: the county of Castile in the tenth century” in Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 153-183, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4772.

2. Ibid. p. 164.

3. Ibid. pp. 168-173 and see also p. 157 Map 15.

4. Ibid. 165-168 and Map 16, e. g. 167-168: “Overall Avitus seems to have held property over an area of about 90 x 75 km…. This may well represent a maximum scale for this area and period.” Cf. Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach”, ibid. pp. 9-29, and idem, “Mapping Scale Change: Hierarchization and Fission in Castilian Rural Communities during the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Wendy Davies, Guy Halsall & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), People and Space in the Early Middle Ages 300-1300, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 143-166, DOI:10.1484/M.SEM-EB.3.3751; cf. also Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1988), pp. 105-133; J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), passim.

5. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 161-162; cf. Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West”, in Escalona & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 87-117, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4769; Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi“.

6. Escalona and Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 171.

7. Ibid. p. 175.

8. Ibid. p. 165.

9. Ibid. p. 178.

10. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi“, pp. 105-108.

11. 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. no. 9; cf. doc. no. 78.

12. Escalona and Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 175; cf. Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, community, and Church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), pp. 106-108, and Davies, “On Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia” in Escalona & Reynolds, Scale and Scale Change, pp. 133-152, DOI:10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4771.

13. A. Barbero & M. Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cantábros y vascones desde fines del impero romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de le Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339.

A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…


1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.

Almodis, by Tracey Warr: a review

A long time ago I wrote a post that tried to tell the story of the specifically-Catalan feudal revolution, in purely political terms: a collapse of governmental initiative, a move towards independence by the frontier magnates dependent on the revenues and status they derived from the border raiding that was no longer being coordinated, and the eventual recovery of power by the young Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I, aided not all by his grandmother the Countess of Girona who was flatly sure he had it all wrong and wouldn’t give up her regency. He was aided not just by the idea of institutionalising a feudal structure in the nobility, but by a controversial wife, Almodis de la Marche, twice married already and this time abducted from her second husband. She doesn’t appear to have regretted this, as she appears with him in many documents and received as nearly as many oaths as he did. In general, she seems, somewhat ironically, to have been exactly the same right hand of comital government that her obstinate grandmother-in-law had once been for her new husband’s grandfather, Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell. The couple eventually forced grandma, in her seventies, to surrender and there must have been a final meeting between the beaten old countess and the controversial young one, which I’ve always imagined would film tremendously. Indeed, I said as much in that post. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would base a novel on the events.

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The author of this novel, Dr Tracey Warr, contacted me with a view to organising some kind of book launch talk. I didn’t know how that would work out and decided I’d rather not, but said that I would certainly review the book if she cared to send me one. She did, and I so far haven’t, but in very late 2012 I finally got that far along my to-read shelves and lighted on it. And at last, here is the review.

Cover of Tracey Warr's Almodis: the Peaceweaver

This is, first of all, not a book to be judged by its cover. The woman in a modern top and flamenco dress disappearing into neo-Classical architecture tells you nothing at all about either plot or historical accuracy: the former is imaginatively woven through the known threads of Almodis’s life, which are enough to start with, and the latter is really fairly impressive. Many of the same names feature in Dr Warr’s historical note as do in my footnotes here, and she attempted to work in their words where possible, which sometimes results in slightly unlikely exposition, but exposition that isn’t out of place in the lead character’s mouth, as she is,or becomes, a politician first and foremost. Despite this, as said, the events of her life cry out for, cannot indeed really be explained, without considerable drama and tension:

“Almodis de la Marche was a real person. That she was repudiated, kidnapped and murdered, that she was three times married, had twelve children, played an active role in the government of Toulouse and Barcelona, and was literate, are all documented facts. It was a story that needed writing!” (‘Historical Note’)

Well, it has been well written here. I was initially somewhat deterred by the way in which it’s done, which is first-person present tense internal monologue, usually but not always from Almodis’s perspective. The device of a loyal (but complaining) servant from the North of France gives an outside perspective somewhat like the one that Bernard of Conques gives us on the cult of Saint Faith that I once talked about here, as well as a character more amiable than the countess (who is more admirable than amiable), and when the countess and her servant argue a lot of social information is squeezed through their conversation. It sort of has to be, because Dr Warr is careful enough to avoid her characters going too far towards breaking out into lyrical descriptions of the countryside—these are here but kept more or less under control—so conversation between the characters is vital for conveying contextual information. A lot is done, perhaps inevitably, by making Almodis a devotee of Dhuoda’s, which lets the Carolingian background in through in occasional shafts of light, though as we’ve mentioned here there is at least a Barcelona connection there…

Given the restrictions of the style, though, this sort of revelation is handled very well. My only eventual problem with the narrative technique was the way that the present-tense narration tends to collapse chronology; it’s just as well that each chapter is headed with place and date, as I frequently had to check back on finding that we seemed to have jumped quite a few years. By the end of the novel, in fact, the jumps get very large indeed, so that Almodis’s life and death in Barcelona get very little space after the drama of getting her there, leaving her effect on the government and the civil war in Catalonia almost untreated, perhaps because we’ve already seen her at work in these ways in Toulouse. Just for that reason, though, I’d like to have seen what difference there was in Barcelona, and Catalonia getting more narrative time generally. So I was a bit deflated by the end, which doesn’t leave Almodis’s murder explained very well (though of course she stops narrating at that point and obviously hadn’t seen it coming, so it’s hard to do more in a story told this way). All the same, I read to the end very avidly despite my initial reservations. I can’t allow for the effect of me being familiar with the characters in a way, and being delighted with how they were imagined, but I finished the book in two late-night sittings because I didn’t want to stop reading, and was pleasantly surprised by the way that the story wasn’t told as I expected it. None of the scenes I’d imagined as part of it were present in this version except the confrontation with grandmother Ermessenda and even that didn’t play out as I’d always figured it would. Yet as far as reimagining historical figures’ lives and loves go, I’m now more convinced by Dr Warr’s version than I am by my old one, so hopefully it’s as interesting also to someone who doesn’t think they know what’s coming.

Depiction of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona and Countess Almodis de la Marche from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Ramon Berenguer I and Almodis again, in happier times than her final ones. High five! Again, from the Liber Feudorum Maior via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Warr makes Almodis into an extraordinary but plausible character and most of the supporting characters are also very well-drawn, although even though our narratrix is a woman in a man’s world, the men are often somewhat less developed as characters. Churchmen, especially, get little depth, and one of the things I did find implausible was how little truck Almodis seemed to have with worship. More could have been done with that, if it was deliberate. Again, this is partly technique: Almodis works through women first and foremost, and her family next, and the Church last of all, and that makes sense in the story’s terms. If there’s a deeper historical agenda here it is to make the eleventh-century Midi clear as a world where women could and did hold the reins of power, even if only as far as the men in their family let them. One of the things that’s clear about her era, however, is that while widows were best placed to wield political power really, many men in power did rely on their wives to help them with it, and Almodis and her grandmother-in-law are as said the best examples I can think of of that working in practice.

That the lack of Church was the thing I found most implausible, however, means that not only did that agenda not dominate things enough to bother me, but that Dr Warr got away with an episode in which some of her characters wind up embroiled in a battle while disguised as monks, so for that alone I would recommend this book, but there is more to be said for it besides. It doesn’t pull its historical punches, it delivers a fair few unexpected twists, the writing can be affectedly beautiful but the emotional content is delivered raw and ungarnished and the period and country of the narrative are given enough space to remove any doubts one might have that their struggles have purpose. So, don’t be misled by the cover; this is a serious entertainment…

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…

In praise of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society

Among the things I was doing towards the end of 2012 that made me stub blog posts that are only now appearing was finally taking stock of one of the monuments of the field of medieval history, Feudal Society by Marc Bloch.1 It’s a fair guess that whatever bit of medieval society you’re interested in, you’ve seen this book cited somewhere or other, so universal is its impact, but it was written before the Second World War and its very title enshrines a concept that we’ve been trying to discredit for the last four decades, good ol’ feudalism, so what I mainly wanted to know was why does it remain such a big deal? And, since I have a copy loaned to me by a man now dead but whose heirs may some day want his books back, and because it does keep coming up even now, I finally made time to read it.

Portrait photograph of Marc Bloch from Wikimedia Commons

The man himself, from Wikimedia Commons

Part of the appeal of Bloch’s work and reputation is his career trajectory itself, of course: this was a man who fought in the trenches in the First World War, became a professor at first because the German academics had been thrown out of Strasbourg University and then, when the Second World War started, rejoined the army as a reserve captain, aged 57, experienced defeat and eventually joined the French resistance, in whose service he was captured by the German occupying forces in 1944, tortured and eventually shot as the Germans prepared to withdraw. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his work is full of interest in the underclass and the downtrodden; perhaps more surprisingly, it is also not entirely about France, though much of it is. But despite the drama of his life, there are others with similarly amazing lives who have made less of an impact, you can’t read that experience back out of his work without knowing it’s there anyway, and in Bloch’s case I think we can honestly say that it wasn’t just his good fortune in being based in Paris and helping to start a transnational longue durée school of historical study in the form of the Annales just as the world was about to become very very ready for a history that didn’t deal primarily in competing nationalisms that has ensured his immortality.

Cover of volume I of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of volume I of the English translation of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, still in print today

So this book, what does it do? Well, it divides into two volumes, even in the original French, and the first more or less attempts a total picture of medieval society in the post-Carolingian world. The underlying premise here is that with the disintegration of state power in the tenth century under the pressure of invasion and economic collapse, the result was an increasing tendency for society to be defined by ties of dependency rather than ties of solidarity, a shift to vertical social relations away from horizontal ones protected and endorsed by public power, and that this shift became so fundamentally embedded that it came to be the defining characteristic of almost all medieval social organisation. So he covers law, kindred, vassalage, servitude, land organisation, and fits all this into his schema. Then in the second volume he deals in the power interests that kept it this way: nobility and noble aspirations, the conformity of the Church to these structures, the localisation and isolation of power around castles, and finally the beginnings of a recovery of state power that might combat this.

Cover of volumee II of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society

Cover of the second volume

A lot of this we might now nuance, especially the causes of the initial collapse of the Carolingian and post-Carolingian state, and we might especially want to try and extract Germany from the paradigm, though Bloch worked to include it, but often having done so we might, I think, I find that we have arrived at the same places where he founded his theory by a different route. You can easily see in this the seeds of the scholarship we now think of as the feudal transformation debate, but Bloch’s chronology was longer, and more subtle, seeing a ‘first feudal age’ taking shape in the mid-eleventh century as all the earlier changes bedded down into a describable structure, and then a ‘second feudal age’ in the second half of the twelfth century caused very largely by a recovery of state power at the same time as, and obviously linked with, the economic boom of the high Middle Ages, these being united by the importance of the personal ties that held them together but rather different in the ways that importance found its expression, and both periods of development rather than of stasis.2

I think that begins also to explain why the book has held its importance so. Some obvious reasons why this should be so, starting with that one, are:

  • it does not require the problematic forcing of all change into a relatively narrow chronological window that the feudal transformation scholarship does;
  • Bloch was always, always comparative, and will occasionally break out quick round-Europe surveys to remind his reader that firstly this is not just a French phenomenon he is discussing and that secondly the French version of it may not be typical, freeing him from many of the tropes that might otherwise have caused his work to be left behind;3
  • he was cautious, and pushed nothing much further than it would go, so that we find him starting paragraphs with the noble sentiment, “Let us not, however, exaggerate. The picture would have to be carefully shaded—by regions and classes.”4
  • Despite this, almost everything in society is in his picture somewhere, joined into a wider structure that, as long as you accept his terms, makes some kind of sense together; he’s drawing a really big picture with tiny detailed strokes.
  • But most importantly of all, I think, is how short the book is, so that nothing is overdone or overstated, especially given that half of each section is qualifications and variations. One goes to it looking for a concept that’s become fundamental to scholarship subsequently such as the idea of kindred as ‘friends by blood’, and finds that he does it in a page and a half, with maybe two examples. It wouldn’t stand up if someone less insightful had written it, but given that Bloch did, instead there isn’t enough of it to make it obviously falsifiable, while the idea still comes through at full force and sticks with you, even in translation.5

Really, after reading it, actively looking for things to object to, the best I could come up with is that Bloch chose to characterise all this as ‘feudal’, because we now think that this is not very helpful.6 But not only is this one of the rare cases where a historian using such language makes very clear what he meant by it (even if that is, more or less, ‘everything’), so that Chris Wickham in his saving throw for the term ‘feudalism’ of which I’m so fond took Bloch’s ‘imaginaire féodale” as one of the three ideal types people usually mean by the word, but he was also very very aware that it was a problematic term even in 1936.7 The English translation has an introduction by Michael Postan who, unsurprisingly, mounts a rigorous defence for the term:

“This is… an approach much wider than the one that equates feudalism with feudum and begins and ends its history with that of the knight service. In Bloch’s definition the fief is only an element, albeit a very important one, of the whole situation. But to him a society might still be feudal even if the fief occupied a more subordinate position. This latitude might strike the orthodox as incompatible with the etymology of the term. But, he argues, etymological rectitude is not the final test of an historical concept. ‘What’, he asks in his Métier d’un historien, ‘if the term is currently used to characterize societies in which the fief is not the most significant trait. There is nothing in this contrary to the practice of all the sciences. Are we shocked by the physicists persisting to apply [sic] the term atom, i. e. indivisible, to an object they subject to the most audacious division?'”8

This is admittedly someone else’s voice quoting from a different work but it’s not saying anything Bloch doesn’t himself say in the book’s very first chapter: the term ‘feudal’ is an anachronism invested with vast ideological loading by the French Revolution and which is subject to several definitions that don’t always overlap, this all seems very familiar to us now, but he was going to use it anyway and came up with a better reason than many for doing so, to wit, his ability to fit pretty much everything he wanted to link together into the structure with which it provided him.9

So the lessons for us as historians after immortality might seem to be: don’t be afraid to take a controversial position if you can demonstrate its worth; in so demonstrating, minimalism will often serve you better than making your points at full strength, and thus making it easy for people to find counters; always remember to consider the places and times and circumstances where what you’re attempting won’t float; and lastly, you’ll need to be really very clever. When I first read this it struck me as a near-perfect example of the contention that historians value caution more than almost anything else when evaluating others’ work, especially when they themselves know nothing much of the subject being written about, but it’s not just caution or choosing as subject something kin which people have continued to be invested for decades, almost in defiance of any explicable factor, that has guaranteed Bloch’s work such a long life: it’s that he managed to combine not going too far with covering almost everything, in a careful and considered fashion and I think that to do that you have to be something really out of the ordinary, as Marc Bloch clearly was.


1. M. Bloch, La société féodale (Paris 1939), 2 vols, transl. L. A. Manyon as Feudal Society (Chicago 1961), 2 vols; all citations below from the English translation.

2. Ibid. I pp. 59-71.

3. So, ibid. I pp. 176-189 is a deliberate tour of his concept round Europe, including two differing bits of France contrasted, Italy, Germany, England, Galicia and some final notes on Sicily, Syria, and Byzantium as places to which feudalism was ‘imported’. Eastern Europe would have been nice but as far as his project goes it’s a pretty reasonable sample.

4. Ibid. I p. 71.

5. Ibid. I pp. 123-125.

6. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); and, with my usual reservations about it, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008).

7. Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nel’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 15-46 with discussion pp. 47-51.

8. M. M. Postan, “Foreword” in Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xi-xv at pp. xiv-xv, citing Bloch, Le metier d’historien (Paris 1948), transl. Peter Putnam (New York 1954), p. 86, presumably of the English.

9. E. g. Bloch, Feudal Society, I pp. xvi-xx, esp. p. xix:
“The term ‘feudalism’, applied to a phase of European history within the limits thus determined, has sometimes been interpreted in ways so different as to be almost contradictory, yet the mere existence of the word attest the special quality which men have instinctively recognized in the period which it denotes. Hence a book about feudal society can be looked on as an attempt a question posed by its very title: what are the distinctive features of this portion of the past which have given it a claim to be treated in isolation?”

Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

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. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.