Category Archives: General medieval

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-’As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-’As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9


1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth’: examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia

I hope that this again delayed conclusion to the series of posts in which I try and work out my position on the importance of different agencies in frontier settlement in the early Middle Ages needn’t be as long as the last one. I’m also planning to concentrate it much more deliberately on Catalonia than the previous four, and if it talks to the Escalona and Reyes case about Castile that started me off on this it will do so more by setting up an alternative and implicitly inviting consideration than by actual address.1 That all said, its first and most important question is one to which their answer is important, which is: whom do we consider a lord in these situations? My answer, however, as usual takes a lot of words, so here’s a picture and you may if you choose pursue the text below the cut.

Miniature of an oath of homage from the Liber feudorum maior of the counts of Barcelona

At least one of these people is a lord even though one’s a lady. “Maior8” by Anonymous – http://www.mcu.es/archivos/MC/ACA/Miniaturas/miniaturas/llibre02/007.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Name in the Book Somewhere II

[This is a repost of a piece of one of the sticky news posts above, now unstuck and free to assume in its rightful place in the chronological scheme. I repost this bit because I have just got to the point in the backlog where it would originally have occurred and it still seems worth celebrating! There are some light edits to supply larger context.]

In May 2013, there was also a rather large chicken finally come home to roost, to wit Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013). There’s no secret here about the labour I’ve poured into this; it was in fact the thing I subsisted on after finishing the Lay Archives work previously referred to, and it was mostly wrapped up and ready to go in 2006 when I got the full-time job at the Fitzwilliam that would, in the end, keep me going for four and a half years. When explaining to people some of the reasons why the volume still then took seven years to appear, I have taken to starting with, “Well, the two surviving authors…” Death, life-threatening illness and then death, divorce, pregnancy, unannounced changes of contact details, unemployment and over-employment (especially this last) have all played their part in delaying the work of the various parties involved, even to the very last minute—a launch party had to be cancelled because of the aforementioned illness, but unbeknownst to authors or editors the book was already on sale anyway—and I think the most amazing thing is that all parties involved have always been reasonable and pleasant to deal with, whatever the new problem was that had arisen. Anyway, it exists, and this is a great comfort to me, as not only do I actually have my name over two small parts of it (well, one small one and the Bibliography, which I think I contributed about a tenth of) but at some point or other in my role as copy-editor and then series editor I’ve probably changed or moved almost every word in it. It’s not my work, but it has been one of my labours, for sure.

Those curious about such matters will probably also want to know how things stand with the rest of the series, and to that I can say from the inside, with suitable caution, that volume 12, which covers Northern Italy and is by Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, is scheduled to be next and is in its final stages now, and that volume 10, on Scandinavia, by Jørgen Steen Jensen, has been making reliable and steady progress for years and will also soon be finished, we hope, after which it becomes a contest between Britain and the Low Countries to be next. What’s the timescale, you no doubt ask, and fair enough, but you understand that in 2006, there was no way, it was quite frankly impossible to conceive that MEC 6 was seven years away from publication. What could possibly go that far wrong? If I had not lived and worked through those seven years, I would now say: there is no way the next volume can be more than a year away. But I did, so I won’t, because if I do it probably can… [And that paragraph, sadly, I didn't have to edit at all...]

Bringing Scotland to Oxford: the O’Donnell Lectures for 2013

The medieval history of Britain outwith England is not terribly well covered at Oxford. I got into the habit of saying that by virtue of my appointment there I was now England’s only professional historian of the Picts even though I haven’t worked on them since last century: this was to stupidly forget Dr Meggen Gondek, but it was still far truer than it ought to have been, especially in the largest history department in the world outside Moscow.1 And this is all very mystifying, because every year in Oxford there is a lecture series on just such matters, the O’Donnell Lectures, in 2013 they were on the theme of Early Medieval Scotland, and they were absolutely packed with interested Oxonians, including of course me. This was a half-day event, organised by Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and the running order was as follows:

Alex kicked off with a typically controversial paper that opened with a typically controversial statement, which was that the term Celtic Scotland was rubbish: when it was Celtic it wasn’t Scotland and Scots is a dialect of English anyway. He went on from there to argue that in fact the whole concept of national languages is anachronistic for this period and area: while everyone would agree that there must have been many dialects across the area we now call Scotland, what was missing was any acrolect, the ‘official’ or master language of which they formed versions. If there was one of those, after Christianization it would have been Latin, effectively disconnecting the vernaculars from each other. Alex argued for Pictish as essentially being several dialects in a P-Celtic continuum of various sorts of Brittonic that had nothing to bind them together, yet still shared changes due to pressures from Old Irish or Old English that didn’t come from any controlling centre. Some kind of British acrolect seems to be evident by the seventh century that may have been centered on the Severn basin in the fifth, when that was the richest and least affected part of the old Roman province and apparently also generating pennanular brooches, but even that had lost its centre to the Anglo-Saxon culture by the time we can see it in names and texts. There was lots to think about here, and many parallels from elsewhere, but the lack of simple categories is not going to make it easy to work with however accurate it may in fact be.

A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Badge of an acrolect? A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Professor Broun, whom I’d not met before, followed in the noble tradition of G. W. S. Barrow (who I now discover sadly died a few months later, unconnectedly) by looking at the high medieval Scottish kingdom’s structures and wondering how old some of them might be.2 He focused particularly on the officer known as a mormaer, who from a Carolingian perspective looks a lot like a count: he seems to have held a court with a bishop, collected fines, coordinated military service, or at least he seems in the twelfth century to have done such things. This was not part of their family status but it was that status that made them appointable to the rôle, and they could be quite hard to manage without. On the other hand, the kingship provided a centralised aspect to this system that nothing else did, which meant that the king was important to these people as a link to any wider importance. Again, this all looks pretty much like a thinly-resourced Carolingian system and as tenth-century as it is twelfth when you look from across the Channel, but how tenth-, or even eighth- or ninth-century, might it have been here? Well, we have basically no evidence, but we can see firstly that Pictish kings could raise large armies, and secondly that mormaers had rights and lands that were not associated with kindred in an age when almost everything else was, suggesting that these were relics of some older system into which new leading (and presumably Gaelic-speaking) kindreds had moved.

If that was true, then (argued Professor Broun) Pictland would arguably have been more of a state than Scotland for a good while!3 And that is so, I guess, but it means we have a picture of a system running on ‘public’ obligation to rulers who had nothing to offer to their distant subordinates except not drowning them, which shouldn’t be a sustainable model without some kind of pull factor too (which is probably what is marked by the symbol stones, as Professor Broun and I seem to agree,4 but what significance travelled with their masons dammit?) Here, questions mainly raised the possibility that in the phases of either Pictish or, let’s call it Alban kingship that were less successfully centralised mormaers would probably have been able to be kings or at least reguli of their regions, especially (said Alex with good reason5) if that region was Moray, whose ruling line eventually became kings of the whole kit and caboodle. But I still feel as if we are missing a mechanism that attached those regions to the centralising operation: I think that mechanism is the development of what we classify as Pictishness, and I don’t understand how it worked. At least by the end of the day I could be sure that Professor Broun shared this frustration…

The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside

Monuments of membership? The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside (Moray)

Then there was Thomas’s paper, ably if sometimes sceptically read by Richard Sharpe. This was much more agonised about our state of knowledge than the other two. Basically, it argued for a plurality of competing churches in what is now Scotland in the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish, Northumbrian and Pictish, although the sources that tell us this are arguing about things we just can’t see and are overweeningly concerned with purely local matters when they talk about Scotland, all of which sounded very reasonable to me of course, but that then between 800 and 1100 we just know nothing. Even the very few hints of structure or change we have in the exiguous sources are more confusing than helpful: royal involvement in the tenth-century Church is later claimed by Dunkeld and Abernethy among others, but is there anything in this or were they just then competing for the earlier origin myth? By the time our sources speak again, the Celi Dé, an ascetic monastic order who nonetheless tended to run in families, are obviously very important, and the reform movement is busy trying either to stamp them out or co-opt them, but when did they start to become influential, or even start at all? When we see bishops turning up in this area in records of the tenth century, what or whom are they bishops of? We just don’t know. About as far as we can safely get is that the kings of the tenth century back some Church foundations and that the Celi Dé may be part of this.

There is some hope for a better texturing of the local church, too, by better, finer-grained work on place-names, especially hagiotoponyms, place-names based on the names of saints, and names in Kil- and Eccles-, both of which seem to be specific to areas where Old Norse and Old English influence was felt, respectively. But even then it’s not simple, because of how late they are recorded and what their other components are: we wind up with Old English names Gaelicised under Old Norse influence, which is hard to think about. It all suggests that the system was still varied in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that any royal system of big houses (dare we say minsters? the paper did) is bigger dots in a landscape full of other dots of older or newer and different colours. Alas, even after so long working on this stuff, Thomas felt he had much more still to do.

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait, probably on top of the medieval church of Laggan Mochaid, attested in 1214 but probably older since two Pictish stones have come up here…

As you can probably even tell, part of the problem we seem to be facing here is that of Scotland as an early medieval entity. The current national division encompasses rather a lot of cultural zones and the divisions between dominant cultures, languages, Church organisation and whatever else were not just shifting throughout the early Middle Ages but did not match up at all. Indeed with the Church structures a distribution map might be the only way to catch it, not anything zonal. When we know that there were, nonetheless, kings of Scots and of Picts who apparently ruled these areas, one is forced to ask how such a disjointed uncharacterised polity could be ruled at all and what stuck it together, and at that point one either does as Professor Broun did and argue for a very very light-weight definition of ‘polity’, or remember that there were also subordinate rulers we hardly see and worry that the whole thing is probably a tombola of variegated and mingling relationships between the powerful that didn’t stay put for two minutes together. Both are in fact possible! But one of the nice things about studying early medieval Scotland right now, as Professor Charles-Edwards pointed out in his introduction, is that the field has advanced as far as it has in the last decade or so—even if what that means is that our ignorance is so much better constructed now—largely because it’s being led by these three people and a few others all of whom talk to each other a lot and get on, without which we wouldn’t have even this much of a coherent picture. There’s a lesson here for the Academy at large, but there were also lots of new things to think about early medieval Scotland! Just, a strange place to be hearing them…


1. Such, at least, had been the claim of Chris Wickham at my induction. But seriously, folks, the Picts and Catalonia before the year 1000! How did I manage to wind up with two specialisms about which no institution in England gives a stuff?

2. Referring mainly to G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 2003).

3. Cf. Wendy Davies, “States and Non-States in the Celtic World” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 155-170.

4. Largely, it seems, on the basis of Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967) and “Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture” in Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 97-167.

5. See Alex Woolf, “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2000.79.2.145.

Seminar CLXXVI: buying control of Norway

I feel as if I ought to be catching up on backlog with this posting frequency, and yet I remain in May 2013 with the seminar reports, on the 6th of which month the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was graced by one of my academic friends of longest standing, Dr Elina Screen. Although almost every time I see Elina I badger her for more of her work on Emperor Lothar I, as I know only too well can happen, sometimes numismatics gets in the way of Carolingian studies, and at the time of this seminar Elina had just seen emerge from the presses under her auspices the first of two volumes cataloguing the Anglo-Saxon coins that survive today in Norwegian collections.1 Her paper, “Norway in the Age of Cnut (d. 1035), through the Coinage Evidence”, thus functioned not least as a kind of advertisement for what one can do with such work, once that work shows one what the evidence actually is, and it led to some surprising conclusions.

Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023x1029

Obverse and reverse of Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023×1029

The thing about coinage, you see, and especially Anglo-Saxon coinage in Scandinavia, is that there’s a an awful lot of it. I was fond of telling students that there is more coinage of King Æthelred the Unready in Stockholm than is known in all of England, which I think is true though we can’t be sure as they’ve never managed to count the stuff in Stockholm. Norway isn’t quite so favoured, but nonetheless, Elina’s two volumes catalogue 3,200 actual coins, including some previously unknown types, as well as a myriad of fragments that were surely one of the most grumpily impossible source material any medievalist I know has ever tried to work with. Almost all of this is from hoards, because Norway doesn’t allow metal detecting so the mass of single finds that we have from England or Denmark isn’t available (and it must be said that much of Norway is not exactly detector country). So the question is less what does this all tell us, as the sample is just too large to evaluate in aggregate, but more what are the patterns and oddities? So here some suggestions from the paper.

  • Despite their number, the English coins are a poor second to Islamic dirhams even this far west, and German coins are very close behind the English ones; the English ones have the great advantage, however, that their manufacture can be dated to within about five to ten years because the English coinage was called in and renewed so frequently.
  • Some of the coins found are pierced, as if to be worn as jewellery, but it’s not that many, only 46 in total, and most of those early, so we seem to see Norway getting used to coinage here (it didn’t start striking its own till the reign of Harald Hardrada).
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area of Norway closest to England, Rogaland, shows 64% of the English coin finds, but it also shows 59% of all early medieval coin finds, so it is obviously different.
  • Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002x1014

    The quantity less known… Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002×1014

  • Among the finds in general, the Pointed Helmet type of Cnut (as in the first image above) shows an unusual proportion of die-links. That is, the dies used to strike the coins (hand-cut, and therefore identifiable) recur more frequently in this coinage than in the others, 47% of the finds being ‘linked’ by at least one die to other finds, and specifically 61% of the coins of this type struck at London, which led Elina to suggest that at least one part of this sample was a big batch of coins fresh from the London mint, hardly circulated before they went into the ground.
  • Coins do seem often to have been used as foundational deposits when putting up churches, and there was some discussion in questions of the possibility that this was because, being marked with a cross, they were considered Christian objects, but Elina reckoned that little else in the way that they were treated suggests this and thought that this behaviour was probably more to do with the fact that they were an available form of wealth that could easily be sacrificed.2

While the hints and suggestions about conversion to Christianity that Elina pulled out of this evidence (since that was ongoing in Norway at this period and ought, one feels, to be visible somehow) were thus a bit ephemeral, the concentration of hoards in Rogaland led to an unexpected yet surprisingly sustainable conclusion. We know, you see, from a variety of written sources, that Cnut’s efforts to gain control in Norway involved money, which after taking over England was something he had an awful lot of.3 Elina’s handout has the following bits from the Occasional Verses of the skald Sighvat, for example, apparently relating to the threat Cnut presented to King Olaf Haraldsson (1015-28):4

“The king’s enemies are walking about with open purses
Men offer the heavy metal for the priceless head of the king.
Everyone knows that he who takes gold for the head of his good lord
Has his place in the midst of black Hell.
He deserves such punishment.”

Obverse and reverse of Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029x1036, probably struck by Eadred at London

I should probably point out that as far as we know Cnut didn’t strike in gold! This is the obverse and reverse of a silver Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029×1036, if I’m reading it right struck by Eadred at London

“The king of England calls out a levy, but we have got a little army and smaller ships.
I do not see our king afraid.
It will be an ugly business if the men of the land let the king be short of men.
Money makes men break their faith.”

An ugly business it was, in the end, as in 1028 Cnut took a fleet to Norway and drove Olaf out, and when Olaf returned in 1030 to retake the kingdom he was killed fighting his own people.5 But how was that achieved? Well, probably with bribery of recalcitrant aristocrats in Rogaland. Not everyone in Norway was keen on the rise of kingship there.6 This could be exploited by Cnut, and we seem to see him do so; he spent more time in Rogaland than anywhere else in the country, of those recipients of bribes the sources let us identify all but one were based here, and the period of such activity matches that of the issue of the Pointed Helmet type, 1023-1029, so it does seem quite likely that the reason we have so much of that issue apparently uncirculated here is because Cnut arrived with sacks of it, some fresh from London, and handed it out. I thought this was pretty clever history, and it is nice to be able to work from such large samples down to a specific action. Not quite a smoking gun, but rather more than 30 pieces of silver


1. Elina Screen, Norwegian Collections, part I: Anglo-Saxon coins to 1016, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 65 (Oxford 2013) and Norwegian Collections, part II: Anglo-Saxon and later British coins 1016-1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 66 (Oxford forthcoming). As for this paper, I believe it’s under revision for publication as Elina was giving a new version of it at Leeds just gone

2. For this kind of aspect Elina relied explicitly on the work of Svein Gullbek, to wit his Pengevesents fremvekst og fall i Norge i middelalderen (København 2009), which I not only haven’t read but, I confess, couldn’t read if I tried.

3. The classic piece on this is D. M. Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018″ in Kenneth Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, since which time it’s become clear that, yes, we can.

4. Taken from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), nos 18.16 & 18.19, my line-breaks (sorry, Sighvat).

5. Elina’s reference here was Timothy Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: conquest and the consolidation of power in Northern Europe in the early eleventh century (Leiden 2009), which I haven’t seen.

6. I imagine the Bolton must cover this, but what I know of that does is Sverre Bagge, “Early State Formation in Scandinavia” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der Frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 145-154.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

Next in the now-thinning pile of things I went to in Oxford that I still haven’t reported here is when Dr Michael Featherstone gave a paper entitled “The Great Palace of Constantinople: tradition or invention?” to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar there on 1st May 2013. This seems to have been an update of a piece Dr Featherstone published in 2006, but it also seems to have been more dependent on the visuals than is good for my recall: my notes refer blithely to buildings with Greek names I can’t reconstruct and hang arguments off sources I didn’t note down, and so this is a fairly shaky account of what was, nonetheless, an interesting paper.1 Given that, it seems best to start with a visual from somewhere else, to wit Wikimedia Commons:

Reconstruction map of the imperial district of Constantinople

Constantinople imperial district” by Cplakidas – Image:Constantinople center.svg. Translated and added more detail. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two important things about this map, which is ultimately drawn from the works of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and Cyril Mango (or so the Wikimedia Commons page for the original French version says). One is that it is cumulative: you’re looking there at the work of emperors over about six centuries and a great many periods of prosperity or crisis that made architectural display or administrative rehousing seem wise. The second, and perhaps more important thing is that it rests on really very little archæology: large parts of this now lie under the Blue Mosque and not much of the rest has been dug either. So what we are essentially being asked to accept this map from is careful work to reconstruct it from mentions in historical and literary sources, and here most of all Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos’s De Ceremoniis, ‘On the Ceremonies’, part of that unlucky ruler‘s general attempt to uplift the symbolic state of his imperial government by calling on ancient precedent and tradition wherever he could find it.2 Given how much else that was old or disused he seems to have reactivated, how much of what he says about the palace can we take to have been important to anyone else or true before (or even during) his reign?

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul

The so-called Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the biggest single reason why there is relatively little known about the imperial palace complex on top of which it was built, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Featherstone took the information of the De Ceremoniis and tried to unweave from it the various sources of information Constantine VII had to write it with and that we have to check it with. Constantine’s sources must have included the standing fabric of his day, of course, but also seem to have included some rather older texts, whose testimony came from times when perhaps more was standing or had not yet been rebuilt, and which may have reported uses that were centuries outdated or even perhaps no longer possible. A particular example seems to be the hall of the 19 Couches (’19 Accubita’ on the map above), in the sixth century the palace complex’s private banqueting hall (with nine couches a side and one in its apse for the emperor) but later relegated to ceremonial use only as the emperors moved their residences down the hill to the south and left the old ‘upper palace’ as a more occasional resort. By the ninth century the 19 Couches was considered to be outside the palace, because the focal point had moved so thoroughly, leaving the old buildings higher up the hill as more or less disused space, although was was remarked in questions, still with guards on the entrances (as we know from Liudprand, not least).3 Constantine VII however re-roofed it (showing what state things were in), found somewhere an account of what had used to go on in it (here we had a mention of a Philotheos, I think probably Philotheos of Selymbria though this would be a much later source for an early source if so…) and started using it for official promotions, despite the fact that as far as we can tell that was not something the building had previously housed. He also restarted chariot racing, revived a bunch of old costumes and so forth; it’s not at all clear that the Constantinople he created had ever existed before all together, however, and it must have had something of the historical film set about it. None of that makes it seem any wiser to use Constantine VII’s works (dare we say, scripts?) as guides to the ancient past…

Ornamental pier supposedly from the Great Palace of Constantinople

It’s not that there is no remnant of the palace complex now… But even this rather excellent pier, apparently now on fairly uncaring display in Istanbul, doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Image from Wikimedia Commons, though the contributor’s suggested attribution to the second century does leave me worried that it is in fact somewhere else entirely…

What we wound up with, therefore, was a picture of a kind of ghost palace, a large set of buildings constructed to earlier political agendas which subsequent ones had found expensive, impractical or irrelevant, in which occasionally spectacles might still be staged, where it was safe to do so, but whose use quickly became exceptional. Given the quality of their building, they presumably mostly stayed up, but things like lighting, access and so on must have been problematic. Dr Featherstone suggested that the worst of the damage and deterioration was probably hidden with hangings, but all of this is a kind of make-do-and-mend that doesn’t seem at all appropriate for the image we are conventionally given (not least by Constantine VII) of the glorious and ever-wealthy Byzantine Empire, especially at its absolute heart here in Constantinople. But one of the things this paper emphasised was that it was probably one of the ways in which Constantine VII was unusual that he had his heart in these old buildings; for most emperors before him, their homes down the hill had been where their heart was, and the actual government was quite possibly somewhere else entirely.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

Writing about this now puts me immediately in mind of the above as the best parallel I have for what this might have been like. Sir Christopher Wren built this place in the late seventeenth century and for a while it was the place that trained up the bearers of Britain’s proud naval tradition etc. but when I first met it years ago, on the way to a rather nice restaurant, it was maintained but disused public space utterly devoid of a function. The creation of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site has now woken it up and stuff is going on there by way of events, conservation, visits, tours and so forth. You can find out lots more about that online, but what you can’t find out about on that official website is anything really at all about what the buildings used to do. It’s no longer relevant: they want people to come and see them because they’re still splendid, not because they were once important. But I remember wandering round the site before it was renewed, with everything dull, grey and locked up behind railings, and saying to my then-companion, “My gods, this is where the empire died and was buried, isn’t it?”

Taking the parallel back to the tenth century, did Constantine VII manage this kind of revamp, in the parts of the complex he decided were reactivable, do you suppose? Or was it, for his audiences, somewhat more like standing in a mausoleum of dead achievements he would never equal and which weren’t really anything to do with the problems of the day? Should we put Constantine VII in the same box as I have put King Charles the Simple of the Western Franks, eager to revive the traditions of his ancestors but not realising that times had changed? Or does Constantine’s dogged progress towards sole rule suggest that he knew a trick his colleagues didn’t? If so, the old palace buildings may have been part of it, but even then perhaps, then you saw them, soon you didn’t…


1. Jeffrey Michael Featherstone, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis” in Franz Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von Herrschaft. Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen: Gestalt und Zeremoniell. Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, Byzas 5 (Istanbul 2006), pp. 47-61; see now also Featherstone, “Der Große Palast von Konstantinopel: Tradition oder Erfindung?” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 106 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 19-38, DOI:10.1515/bz-2013-0003, fairly apparently this paper.

2. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall (transl.) Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012), 2 vols.

3. Liudprand visited Constantinople for the first time in the reign of Constantine VII and seems to have been exactly the kind of impressive but impressionable foreign audience the emperor wanted, as we can tell from his account in his Antapodosis. I’ve just given references to all Liudprand’s works, so I won’t do that again, but you might like to look at Constanze M.F. Schummer, “Liudprand of Cremona – a diplomat?” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 197-201.

Building states on the Iberian frontier, IV: what’s going on

[As with the previous one of these posts, this was first written in February 2013 as part of a single piece of thinking-in-text that has since resulted in an article that should be online for all to see within a few weeks.* That article will represent a more fully-thought-out (and also shorter and better-founded) version of some of the below, but the first thrash-out still seems worth posting.]

In what ought to be the last of these posts, originally inspired by that crucial sense on reading someone else’s work that this is not how you see it, but without the initial ability to articulate what your difference is, I need to try and come to some kind of conclusion about what I think is special about frontier settlement, perhaps in Catalonia and perhaps (I hope) more widely.1 It is a strong feeling of mine that this is not thought about enough, that we have a tendency to pile up case studies about frontier societies without working out what of these cases is common or distinct and in general to talk about these things without theorising from them in a way that might inform others, so, I must put my money where my mouth is mustn’t I? So, OK, let’s start with why anyone opens up a chunk of frontier waste-land at all.

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

Peasants undertaking land clearance in the Sachsenspiegel

The first and obvious thing that seems safe to infer from this happening is that the people in question want more land. There could of course be a lot of reasons for that; the obvious ones are to do with agricultural or other natural resources, but it also seems to me that if we are talking about a genuine frontier situation, these must essentially be gambles; if you have good information about what a piece of land will bear, be it “this seems the sort of place where olives might grow well” or “there’s gold in them thar hills!” then it’s not really a frontier, or not a classical one; if information is available to you it’s not the unknown.2 So, OK, it’s presumably a general desire for more resource, which would need to be provoked either by a problem with the existing situation at home, food shortage or labour surplus, or by a wish to better one’s situation relative to those at `home’ with whom you continue to interact, i. e. a project to obtain wealth and/or status. That might cause some people conceptual problems unless there be a lord pressuring those people to hand over surplus, of course; I probably don’t need to remind readers here about Chris Wickham’s famous opinion that without oppressive lordship peasants would, “work less and eat more”.3 Nonetheless, we have here seen some time ago that, at least on the frontier of tenth-century Catalonia, people of a fairly ordinary if affluent sort were prepared to spend a lot of money in order to get resources that would make them money, sometimes just a share of those resources rather than any kind of monopoly, in the form of mills, and I think that we don’t have to turn the whole central medieval peasantry into proto-capitalists in order for there to be enough would-be nouveaux riches to staff a slow move out into new territories just over the edge of current jurisdictions.4

That said, these are the reasons of the producers, and one main message of the Escalona and Reyes chapter from my reaction to which I span all of this is that the initiative for such expansion could instead be that of the élite, be those élites `local’ or more seriously-ranged contendors.5 One obvious reason for them might be security. One of the first requirements of some of the big frontier concessions by the Catalan counts is the building of fortifications, as we’ve seen here while I was wrestling with whether such concessions could meaningfully be called feudal or not. This might be seen as just a power-grab, ensuring that whoever lives in these zones be properly dominated by people under obligation to a wider authority, but one ought not to forget that it also and genuinely constituted a means of defence for populations `behind the lines’. This kind of concern was a live one in late-tenth-century Catalonia. We have also seen here how people from all over the principality could be rallied to fight in `public expeditions’ when danger threatened from the Muslim south.6 It is also possible to cite a castellan who had been given one of these concessions by the counts, Amat de Gurb who held a tower called Atonell in the area of the current Santa Perpetua de Gaià (and maybe even that tower, since it is held to be tenth-century and is also triangular), paying the ultimate price in defending it against the raid of al-Mansur in 978; sometimes, the obligations of such a position of dominance had to be fulfilled, whatever the cost.7 This, surely, must also have been the case in Castile, famously described as `a society organised for war’ and subject to attacks from the same Muslim power at this same time.8 The enemy need not, of course, be so foreign; the recipients of the Cardona franchise charter of 986 were encouraged to get themselves land from ‘Christians or pagans’, as long as they could defend it themselves, and going rather farther back, this is one of the things I think Cullen Chandler has right about Charlemagne’s and Lous the Pious’s concessions to immigrants from the south on this same frontier; it created a band of serious yeoman soldiery with ties direct to the king who could be used as some kind of counterweight to an otherwise-dominant autochtonous or gone-native counts at the top levels of delegated power.9

The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià

I’ll wager that it was a lonelier place to die in 978 than it is now… The castle complex of Santa Perpetua de Gaià, from the website of an architects’ firm who are apparently now restoring it. If that tower could speak, the first thing I’d ask it is just how many rebuilds it remembers…

Those concessions did also create dependents, of course, and that can’t be ignored even if the master rapidly became unable to reach or protect his followers.10 Each time Count Borrell II handed over a castle to one of his men, or to a monastery, the securing of surplus from agricultural workers in its vicinity must have been assumed to come with; several (perhaps all) of these castles had nearby units of land called beneficia which probably had this function, and it is not so close to the end of the tenth century when we start to find these being called fiefs, or at least feva, though cases where this word is equated with fiscum do mean that so early we should probably see this as the portion of notionally-public land attached to the castle from which its upkeep and support were to be provided.11 The progress of these allotments and the dues they could command towards becoming wider accumulations of seigneurial rights and abuses that we could lump under the general heading of ‘the ban’ if we loved Marc Bloch enough to brave Susan Reynolds’s unhappiness with our terms, is something that doesn’t need to be covered here; I will say only that Gaspar Feliu’s twenty-five-year-old plaint that Pierre Bonnassie’s work on this needed replacement after standing for more than a decade still wants an answer, which may even be because Bonnassie’s picture was basically right.12 Something probably must be, after all, pace Paul Edward Dutton’s gloomy prognosis that as medieval historians, “the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways.”13

In any case, that frontier settlement by élites must have involved the obligation of people there to support those élites with food or service is pretty basically evident, and while we can see it with the Hispani‘s passage to subjection in the ninth century or tenth- and eleventh-century complanters putting in their work for two on the agricultural margins, we must suppose it in all cases, in varying and changing degrees of formality and structure. We might see this as a simple equation of subjects with power, or we might see a more sophisticated and, I have to grudgingly admit, Foucauldian, attempt to turn activity in these regions into a general recognition of a right to act in the name of power here. This would be the “notion of popular collective subjection” that Escalona and Reyes invoke in their picture of these processes, but while it certainly must have been one of the results of such activity I’m not sure that their study gives us much insight into how it had been created, whereas I hope that the one I’m developing here may.14 With that said, I’m not sure that my élites were conscious of this result of their activities in these areas, because it seems to me that if your aim is to create a recognised space for ‘state’ power by intervening in otherwise ungoverned territories, you don’t hand it out to a dependent as soon as you’ve met with any success. So I might wonder whether this isn’t more cause than effect, at least this early and here. Anyway, this would be an issue for another study and perhaps even another student.

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), a castle donated to the Church pretty much as soon as Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell had got it up and running

So, we have a range of conceptual possibilities for how frontier settlement might be going on, and who might be getting something from it and what, but the question then becomes the more complex, how can we recognise these possibilities in the surviving record on any more than a one-off basis provided by the occasional super-informative document? Can we build anything from this box of possibilities that will survive the shaking of ‘not invented here’? To my mind the best way to do this kind of work is not to try and provide a universal answer or even a universal list of answers, but instead to provide a deeper set of questions, the sort of structure of inquiry that might eventually become material for a flow-chart with possible solutions and formulations at the bottom. Such questions might be: what are the points around which each area is organised? Does it in fact have a castle, as did my case study at Gurb, or an old fort no longer used except by the Church as at l’Esquerda not so far away and about which you’ve read so much here, or indeed a church and nothing more as at one of my favourite, because documented only in archæology, cases, Santa Margarida de Martorell?15 Sometimes, and perhaps more often in other areas, and of them especially Castile where the ‘aldea’ operated in this kind of way if I understand it right, the organising point would actually be a settlement, the village proper and the rights it collectively claimed, and some places would have had none of these things and only the vaguest of unities.16 My favourite case here is the villa of Montells, near Vic and spread out enough to have an upper and a lower portion as well as places that could be described as between those halves, but no apparent church or fortification due to a plethora of others nearby or because the whole place really only counted fourteen people or whatever; I could do more with the documents from here than I have.17 Again, here there is some clarity for Catalonia about what the situation would become—the name of the principality does after all derive from the word for `castellan’—but less about how things were before, when the move into the frontier zones was nevertheless happening.18 Even later, of course, the places that were being brought into control did not arrive under control in this definitive form; that was the result, not the cause.19

That is one important thing that we could attempt to distinguish cases by, not least because unlike many of the things we might look for, this could be archæologically detectable in settlement patterns, assuming a useful ceramic sequence ever comes within reach.20 Questions that we can probably only hope to resolve by even finer interpretation of the documents would be about the processes that were going on that might be controlled and who controlled them. There are a lot of these, once one starts to break it down: any of land clearance, grouping and linking of settlement, defence, worship, the settlement of disputes and representation to other groups or higher authority could be in different hands, some or all of the same hands or under no control at all. There are probably more categories I haven’t yet thought of. But when we have so many variables in play, a clear narrative in which some group, be it bold pioneer peasants, comitally-organised aristocracies or ‘local élites’, was actually creating territory, may well be over-simplistic. Probably each group only controlled some of these aspects and a truly domineering élite would need to have appreciated and been able to interfere conclusively in each of them; this will not always have been the case, and perhaps not even often, all of which would have left some recourses open to the communities control of whom was at issue.21

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop; which of these was dominating whom, eh?

Once again we seem to be up against the plausible word limit and to have reached a temporary conclusion. That might even have been the big point I have that others can take away to their own frontiers. These are, however, conclusions about lordship and settlement generally, and I’d actually promised them for locally. Reasoning down from a model rather than up from practice is unusual for me, but I do still have some stuff I want to say to reattach this question to what lordship could actually do in these frontier situations where institutions are in formation, specifically in Catalonia, and briefly glance at Castile again with those things in mind, but this looks like far enough for a post and I feel as if I have got over the hump with struggling to express my point of view on the still-excellent chapter that rattled my personal cage on this question. Hopefully it’s not been too dull for you! But if so or if not, one more yet a-coming.


* J. Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in 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. E. g. Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (1999), pp. 55–72, DOI:10.1177/097194589900200104 or David Abulafia, “Introduction: seven kinds of ambiguity” in idem & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 1-34.

3. Chris 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, at p. 224 of the reprint.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalona 880-1010: pathways of power, pp. 92-93, though don’t use what I say there to try and get across the Riu Ter….

5. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, pp. 164-173; cf. my review of that volume in Historia Agraria: revista de agricultura e historia rural Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197 at p. 194.

6. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1771; Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 524.

7. Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: historia del arzobispado de Tarragona y de territoria de su província (Cataluña Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, repr. as Publicaciones del Instituto de Estudios Tarraconenses «Ramón Berenguer IV» 9, 13 & 31 (Tarragona 1954-1959), 3 vols, reprinted again (Tarragona 1981-2001), 5 vols, ap. IV.

8. Elena Lourie, “A Society Organized for War: Medieval Spain” in Past and Present 35 (1966), pp. 54-76, DOI:10.1093/past/35.1.54, repr. in eadem, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), I, and in John France (ed.), Medieval warfare: 1000-1300 (Aldershot 2006), pp. 339-362; James F. Powers, A Society Organized for War: the Iberian municipal militias in the Central Middle Ages (Berkeley 1988), online here; for al-Mansur’s campaigns see Miquel d’Epalza, “Descabdellament polític i militar dels musulmans a terres catalanes (segles VIII-IX)” in F. Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 49-80, online here.

9. Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la vila de Cardona, anys 966–1276: Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Históric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les masies Garriga de Bergus, Pala de Coma i Pinell, Col·leció Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7; Victor Farias, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in Borja de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.) Història política, societat i cultura dels Països Catalans 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Josep María Salrach i Marés (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 112-113; Cullen Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 19-44, DOI:10.1111/1468-0254.00099. Of course, I do disagree with him that Charles the Bald continued with this tactic (and I am not the first), or that this has anything significant to do with the justification of landholding by claim of its clearance known as aprisio, but you can read about that elsewhere (J. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol.18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x).

10. Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands”, pp. 328-330, cf. P. Imbart de la Tour, “Les colonies agricoles et l’occupation des terres désertes à l’époque
carolingienne” in A. Picard (ed.), Mélanges Paul Fabre : Études d’histoire du moyen âge (Paris, 1902), pp. 146–171 at pp. 162-169; cf. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts”.

11. Beneficia in e. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 63, 241, 245, 277, 343, 405, 417 & 767; see Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, or indeed Marc Bloch, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

12. S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994); G. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” in Udina, Symposium internacional, I pp. 81-115, online here, at p. 115, referring of course to Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.

13. Paul Edward Dutton in discussion of idem “Voice over Writing in Eriugena”, paper presented in session ‘The Boundaries of Free Speech, II: silencing the voice, restraining the pen’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 15th July 2009.

14. Escalona & Reyes, “Scale Change on the Border”, p. 171.

15. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 100-128, 81-99 & 44 respectively, and refs there.

16. E. g. Ignacio Álvarez Borge, “El proceso de transformación de las comunidades de aldea: una aproximación al estudio de la formación del feudalismo en Castilla (siglos X y XI)” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 5 (Salamanca 1987), pp. 145–160, online here; cf. Julio Escalona, “De ‘señores y campesinos’ a ‘poderes feudales y comunidades’. Elementos para definir la articulación entre territorio y clases sociales en la alta Edad Media castellana” in Álvarez (ed.), Comunidades locales y poderes feudales en la Edad Media, Biblioteca de Investigación 27 ([Logroño] 2001), pp. 117–155 or Jordi Bolòs, “La formación del hábitat medieval en Cataluña: Aldeas, espacios aldeanos y vías de comunicación’ in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (2013), pp. 151–180, online here.

17. And so could you! They are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 350, 509, 559, 653, 661, 784, 968, 1075, 1130, 1136, 1144, 1258, 1264, 1303, 1315, 1324, 1341, 1347, 1367, 1460, 1462, 1588, 1715, 1724, 1730, 1788 & 1792.

18. Bonnassie, Catalogne.

19. J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127.

20. E. g. Philippe Araguas, “Muro, castro, roca… Peuplement rural et fortifications aux confins de la Catalogne et de l’Aragon pré-romans” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 211-222, and Benoît Cursente, “Conclusion”, ibid. pp. 231-235 vs Eduard Riu-Barrera, “La cerámica del Mediterraneo noroccidental en los siglos VIII-IX: Cataluña, el país valenciano y las Baleares entre el imperio carolingio y al-Andalus” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 259-263.

22. Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1999), is the go-to for solidarities in medieval communities; cf. however for this area Thomas N. Bisson, Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis, and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge 1998).

Seminar CLXXIV: debating change around 1066

One of the stranger events I attended while still in Oxford (a category of thing of which I have now told you almost all) was a debate staged at the then-new Ertegun Centre, over the motion: “1066: the most important date in English history?” It was the public-school format, of course, with a speaker for, a speaker against and the option of a reply from each one, but what made it look interesting to attend was that the speaker for was Dr George Garnett, one of my more singular colleagues in the Faculty, and the speaker against was Dr George Molyneaux, repeatedly given first place as lecturer by my pupils on the British History 300-1087 course and also George Garnett’s doctoral pupil. Would the pupil now become the master? and so on.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday: the final judgement!

In actual fact, though the debate was not uninteresting, and could probably be said to have been won by George Garnett in as much as he was prepared to throw much more into the rhetoric of the occasion and also had a single point of focus that meant his opponent either had to pick another or be solely negative, the real interest for me and most others there seemed to be the meta-debate of what we as historians would consider significant change and how they could be rated against each other. Both Georges had chosen to rest their cases largely on duration, on changes that endured like cathedrals, language, towns, laws and landholding, and differed primarily on the question of whom these changes affected: in the case for it was everyone, in the case against those changes mentioned in the case for 1066 were dismissed as affecting only the aristocracy. (George Garnett then argued in his reply that if we let Marx set our criteria like that then nothing actually changed in England till the Industrial Revolution anyway.) But many more such arguments arose once the floor was opened. One contention for 1940 was resisted with the idea that only people since 1940 had been affected by it, so that older changes would be more significant by sheer demography of impact. The idea that counter-factuals were a tool for assessing such importance was damned as a trick of Niall Ferguson‘s and defended as being inherent in any historical judgement; and, thankfully, the question was also raised of whether we had enough evidence to make judgements like this anyway and what new evidence could unseat either George’s position. (George Garnett considered his position to be bolstered by so much evidence that evidence of other things couldn’t change it.) Probably this sort of thing could happen nowhere but Oxford, and even its participants questioned its worth as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of provoking conversation about what change actually is it proved unexpectedly stimulating.