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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.

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


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. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. 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. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Picture of a Lombard legislator

I suppose the time comes in most early medievalist’s lives, periodically, when they find that they must deal with the ghost of Patrick Wormald. For me this presents comparatively little threat: I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist, I just play one in class, and though his work ranged across most of the West at times, I mostly escape any areas where I’d actually have to argue with him.1 All the same, the piece of work I most recently finished at the time I wrote this began in part as an answer to a question he asked on one of the two occasions I was lucky enough to meet him, and though there’s no knowing how he or the fields he worked in would now be if he were still alive, I’d still quite like to have told him what my answer had turned out to be.2 More immediately, though, to my great shame—any erstwhile students of mine please skip on to the next paragraph—despite knowing more or less what it argued from people’s references to it, I actually only just read (in September 2012, when I first drafted this) his 1977 piece, “Lex scripta and verbum regis“, and it prompted me to share a couple of characteristic bits.3

The first of these is the reminder that Patrick’s scholarship was full of edges, some of which could be quite blunt. Some of us might agree with the following, for example, but perhaps no-one else would have gone to this rhetorical effort to express it:4

“… it is not easy to account for the existence of much barbarian legislation in its extant form, simply in terms of the needs of justice and government. Some of the difficulties were implicitly acknowledged by Boretius, the editor of the Frankish capitularies for the Monumenta:

‘I take it for granted that, even if the understanding of particular details in the outward expression of the public life of the time escapes us completely, we are better able to recognize and distinguish the essentials of the matter, the underlying forces, than contemporaries. In fact, I am convinced that today we are better able to understand the legal sources of the Frankish period, to appreciate their meaning and implications, than the scribes and compilers of the period.’5

“In other words, we know what the Frankish legislators were trying to do and why, even if the texts themselves do not entirely support our views. Boretius was far from the most distinguished member of the Rechtsschule6[,] but a convoy is exposed by the speed of its slowest member….”

5 Quoted by Stein 1926, pp. 291-2. The judicious Plummer was less confident: ‘The study of the Anglo-Saxon laws often reduces me to a state of mental chaos. I may know, as a rule, the meaning of individual words; I can construe, though not invariably, the separate sentences. But what it all comes to is often a total mystery’; Plummer 1902, p. 102.

6 For criticism of his edition, cf. Ganshof 1957, pp. 40-1; and of similar assumptions by his colleagues, Goebel 1937, pp. 1-61.”

I mean, in terms of edge, that’s a seax, sharp side first then a surgically-placed blow with the bone-breaking back of the blade, done with great style but not what one of the scholars in Wormald’s footnotes here would call “comradely”. (I also note that to sustain the metaphor to full extent makes the weapon of choice, in fact, a torpedo, and Patrick therefore a submarine.) This doesn’t prevent the chapter going on to be incredibly interesting, of course, even if one of the strange things about it in retrospect is how readily he attributed incompetence to modern scholars because they had not attributed competence to the authors of the sources

One of the busiest submarines ever fielded by the Royal Navy, the Second World War HMS Sealion

The scholarship of Patrick Wormald as represented by one of the busiest submarines ever fielded by the Royal Navy, the Second World War HMS Sealion, image from Wikimedia Commons

But what drove me to put fingers to keyboard this time was a passing reference later on, in discussion of the Lombard laws, to the fact that some of the manuscripts have portraits of the kings in. I did not know this, and anyone who has ever tried Googling for images of things Lombard will know that there is suprisingly little out there one can use, but the edition he cited for details of this is the earliest series of laws in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and this of course means that it is now online!5 Now, of course, this is not the same thing as copyright-free, though I guess Wikimedia Commons would make an argument, and in any case it turns out that the only one of these images actually replicated in the edition is from the Codex Cavensis which the then-editor dated to 1005, so it’s not what you could call contemporary. Nonetheless, it’s still cool, so I put a small version below and invite you to go and look at the real site linked through. Lombard law-giving, as seen during one of Italy’s sporadic attempts to have its own king maybe!6 Worth a squint.

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005; click through for a link to the full-size original drawing in context at the dMGH


1. I have dithered a lot about whether to use the first name of a man I met all of twice and who probably wouldn’t have recognised me subsequently; I really didn’t know him that well. But ‘Mr Wormald’ just sounds awkward and dismissive, and seems to deny the force of personality that those who knew him still remember: witness the first few papers of Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), especially Stuart Airlie, “Patrick Wormald the Teacher”, pp. 29-35, and of course, Jenny Wormald, “Living with Patrick”, pp. 37-43. So, Patrick, and I hope he wouldn’t have minded. Should you need a short guide to his scholarship, there’s also there Sarah Foot, “Patrick Wormald as Historian”, pp. 11-27. As for ranging across the West, I had also lately read, at the time I first wrote this, a clutch of essays responding to Chris Wickham’s The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005) in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009): almost all of them cite C. P. Wormald, “The Decline of the Western Empire and the Survival of its Aristocracy”, Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 66 (London 1976), pp. 217-226, which must be almost his first paper and is also, technically, a review. That’s not bad for long-lasting influence, is it?

2. He asked, “What formulary are the scribes in your area using?” and the answer became, more or less, J. Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-126.

3. P. Wormald, “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138.

4. Ibid. pp. 105-106. His refs to: S. Stein, “Lex und Capitula: eine kritische Studie” in Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Vol. 41 (Wien 1926), pp. 289-301; Charles Plummer, Life and Times of Alfred the Great (Oxford 1902); and François-Louis Ganshof, “Recherches sur les capitulaires” in Revue historique du droit français et étranger Vol. 4 (Paris 1957), pp. 33-87 & 196-246. Goebel 1937 is not in the volume’s bibliography, but is presumably Julius Goebel, Felony and Misdemeanor: a study in the history of English criminal procedure Vol. I (New York 1937, repr. Philadelphia 1976).

5. F. Bluhme (ed.), Leges Langobardorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges in folio) IV (Hannover 1868), pp. xxx-xxxiv, plate inter pp. xxxii & xxxiii.

6. In 1002, on the death of Emperor Otto III, Arduin Marquis of Ivrea had been raised to the kingship of Italy, in eventual opposition to Otto’s successor in Germany, King Henry II (1002-1024). Henry eventually came and drove Arduin back to his home territories, getting himself crowned King of Italy in 1004, and Holy Roman Emperor in 1014, after which Arduin finally gave up and retired to a monastery. (On all this see Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History III: c. 900-1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 346-371, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521364478.015, at pp. 364-368.) 1005 is therefore an interesting time for someone to be copying up the ancient laws of the Lombard kingdom. There is presumably recent work on the Codex Cavensis that either refines the date or makes this point, for example a quick search throws out Francesco Senatore, “La storiografia cavense dall’Ottocento ad oggi. Storia del Codex Diplomaticus Cavensis” in Rassegna storica salernitana, New Series Vol. 18 (Salerno 1992) pp. 131-160, but until such time as I have a need to read that I’ll leave this poorly-founded speculation lying around.

Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

Cover of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

I am now, nearly, finished reading Michel Zimmermann’s huge book Écrire et lire en Catalogne that has given me so much difficulty along with its information, only the bibliography and appendices (themselves two hundred pages) to go.1 One of the problems with understanding what is going on with this work is its pedigree. It is a version, little revised, he says at the outset, of his thèse d’état, a huge-scale thing akin to a German Habilitationsschrift that doesn’t really exist in the UK or US systems and doesn’t, any longer, in France either. Firstly, this means that a lot of it dates from a long time ago and when one comes across references to ideas published ‘recemment’ in 1978, one begins to wonder how much it was updated to reflect Zimmermann the learned professor as per 2002 rather than Zimmermann the young scholar as per 1982.2 Furthermore, these beasts could easily be the fruits of a decade’s work and then here he is updating it in the 2000s, so there’s prospect for quite a lot of change of opinions and knowledge even between its chapters. This may explain a thing I found in the last chapter which I didn’t expect, either from the material or the writer, and which for balance I thought I had to mention here.

The last chapter, a mere slip of a thing at 140 pages, is about what people learned in Catalonia and how, ninth to thirteenth centuries. This work gave rise to several other articles for its author in the eighties and if you put them back in somehow this would be a respectable little book by itself, and a useful one. It ineluctably duplicates some of the rest of the book as well, though not as much as the previous chapter, almost all of which is already present in the first volume somewhere.3 Here the author worked harder to eliminate what was redundant, and the citation is also more thorough and it generally reads more easily. I don’t know whether this makes it earlier or later in the book’s process, but it’s pleasant. There is, anyway, a substantial section on cathedral schools and teachers and one of the first things this does is to analyse the titles that are used of teachers in the documents. Caput scolae is the one we see most of, as below, ‘headmaster’ almost, but behind that (and I would say, largely later) we also see scholastici (advanced students?) and grammatici, and the surprising thing is that among that latter group there are two women.4

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297

A gift by the Archpriest Ermemir to Riculf, caput scolae of the cathedral of Vic, named on the first line (Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297, with my fingers at the corner

These records are not quite as unambiguous as one might wish.5 We only have the name of one of them, Guisla grammatica, and the other appears as only homo domna gramatika, which looks as if it must be a scribal error in some direction or other, possibly for Hemmo, Emma; the Greek spelling of ‘gramatika‘ gives me strange memories of a lady I met once in Cambridge but also makes me wonder if the scribe thought the word couldn’t be declined, like Hebrew terms, though in that case why did he only know it in the feminine? Moreover, the first is potentially to be identified with a Guisla who was the wife of one Guillem, and he may be one of the other grammatici around the cathedral of Vic at this time, as they certainly had one of that name. In other words, Zimmermann suggests, she might be a grammaticus‘s wife using the family title, rather than actually having any teaching role herself; the cathedral’s grammarians certainly seem to have passed the title down to their heirs, but those heirs presumably also inherited the teaching? We don’t know for sure. But it’s interesting, and it’s also something that based on other parts of the book I wouldn’t entirely have expected M. le Prof. Z. even to have mentioned. Vic was somewhere with a history of encouraging female learning and study in a small way, and it’s nice to think that might have briefly been institutionalised as lay instruction took off more widely in the mid-eleventh century.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles, Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., II p. 889 notes work published in 1978 by Colette Jeudy as having been made public ‘recemment’. Now, I struggle myself with admitting that the 1980s no longer counts as ‘recent’ (it’s still a horrible memory for me) but I think my working practice now is, don’t call anything recent which didn’t come out during the youngest likely readership’s lifetimes…

3. We do, admittedly, get the third run-through in the book of the inventories of the libraries of Ripoll and Vic, which also appear in the appendices, but here it’s just for books containing scientific material that Gerbert of Aurillac might have been able to see. This includes MS Ripoll 106, which we discussed here a while back; it’s kind of nice to think that he probably also flipped through it. (Though, to him, it would have been ‘recent’…)

4. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, II pp. 870-886 and here esp. pp. 878-881 for what follows.

5. Even in citation, alas: Zimmermann references these documents as Arxiu Capitular de Vic, nos 1052 and 1060, and gives a date for one of them that seems to preclude these numbers being dates, not shelfmarks. They’re not complete shelfmarks, however, says I as one who knows the ACV a little bit, and though the documents may be in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2006-), I haven’t gone and looked, I admit, as for some reason no library in this country has more of it than fascs 1 & 2, even though I know darn well the thing is finished because I got given its plates in an adventure I have yet to tell you about

A theory on Kent I would have taken further

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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