Category Archives: General medieval

Seminar CXLIX: the importance of being eloquent in the Italian Church

I seem to have emerged from a hole somewhat in March 2014, suddenly going to lots of seminars after some time on rations. I put this partly down to the welcome presence of Another Damned Medievalist in London, which gave me a good extra reason to be in town, but also the new course I had been running that term was mostly unrolled and the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had several things on the programme that interested me, of which one was when Giorgia Vocino gave a paper on the 19th March called “Bishops in the Mirror: literary portraits and episcopal self-fashioning in early medieval Italy”.

Mosiac portrait of Saint Ambrose of Milan

Mosaic portrait of bishop no. 1 for this paper, Saint Ambrose of Milan. “AmbroseOfMilan“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Dottora Vocino as a face from Leeds but had never met her or her work, so this was valuable context. Her paper was about the standing of bishops in the early medieval world, and she took a complex and interesting approach to the question, taking several well-documented bishops and asking, respectively, how they presented themselves in their writings, how contemporaries report them and what their posthumous reputation was like. Her examples came from quite a chronological range: the earliest was Saint Ambrose of Milan (ruled 374-397) and the others were Pope Gregory the Great (ruled 590-604), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia (ruled 787-802×804) and Bishop Atto of Vercelli († 960), so perhaps it was not surprising that their own self-presentations, as Dottora Vocino characterised them, differed widely: Ambrose, despite his chiding emperors and leading mobs (this is my editorialising) presented himself primarily as a teacher of Scripture; Gregory saw the bishop as more active in the world, a shepherd more than a teacher (though a teacher too); Paulinus was most concerned with soldiering for Christ against the enemies of God, as befits one of the key scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance perhaps, by means of prayer, teaching and preaching but still more confrontational than the previous two; and Atto’s most revealing writing, a thing called the Perpendiculum is an anonymous prophetic condemnation of those who would depose kings, though it too got reused as a teaching text. Nonetheless, though they all taught only Ambrose seems really to have thought this definitional of his office, which evokes comparisons to the modern Academy that might be unkind but occur all the same.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It may then be that while those who have a quality in abundance don’t need to shout about it, those who do the same job without it still envy them, because what all of these bishops seem to have been remembered and praised (or even sometimes dispraised) for is none of the above, but instead their eloquence as speakers. Saint Augustine actually saw Ambrose speak and thought him amazing. Gregory was supposedly given his eloquence by the Holy Spirit (his senatorial education presumably assisting that gift somewhat), and although Gregory of Tours thought of his namesake as a scholar and the Liber Pontificalis remembers him mainly for building, as let’s face it it does every pope who didn’t get deposed violently, Isidore of Seville, whose brother knew Gregory, praised him mainly for public speaking. Paulinus is written up as having been preternaturally eloquent from infancy, and although we have no outside witness texts for Atto his own writings take trouble to refute charges of over-eloquence that had apparently been raised against him. This ars loquendi, art of speaking, is apparently the thing that Italian bishops got remembered for, whether they wanted that or not. Miracles, public works, and their own shared emphasis, instruction, all take a back seat to how they came over when they stood up in front of people.

Carolingian-period sculptural panel on a baptismal font ion the church of Cividale

I can’t find an illustration of Paulinus of Aquileia from earlier than 1790 but here at least is something he is believed to have had made, a panel from the baptismal font in the church of Cividale. Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate about why this should be. Dottora Vocino emphasised the politics that whirled around the writing of these bishops’ lives, and suggested that while miracles were a good way of indicating divine favour for the past bishops they might have been a tall order for the living ones who needed comparison to their predecessors; eloquence, on the other hand, could be presented as a divine inspiration but could also be performed by the current incumbents. Susan Reynolds wisely asked if any bishops were ever condemned for being bad speakers, but apparently there are some so it’s not just generic, however common. Alice Rio and Caroline Goodson both asked questions about regionality, seeing little of this emphasis in bishops’ lives from Francia and Southern Italy. Dottora Vocino thought that some comparisons in Francia could be found, but I think this is in some ways to be expected; she pointed out that the transmission of these famae, reputations or fames, probably needed schools, and I would add also audiences outside the schoolroom among whom such portrayals could be deployed, and both of these imply cathedral cities with urban populations, for which Northern Italy is about the most likely zone, though the South’s non-participation is still odd. It would be interesting to take the comparison across to the Byzantine world and see if the cities of Greece or Asia Minor thought of their bishops similarly. But the takeaway point for me was an old one, that people write history or similar for a reason; what someone did may not be as important for their memory as what someone later needed to do with it. Whether or not all these bishops were really talented orators we probably can’t tell, though Ambrose at least seems likely; what we can say is that while there was more to them than that, it was what served the interests of their successors to remember (perhaps because all other comparisons would have been unfavourable). As ever, it behoves us to think about what our sources did not need or want to mention before we decide what they knew.


I would have to do a lot of digging to pull together references to these various bishops works and the texts that Dottora Vocino was using, and it seems easier simply to refer you to her subsequent related publication, G. Vocino, “Under the aegis of the saints: hagiography and power in early Carolingian northern Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 26-52, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12037, and hope that that will do. Sorry!

Inventing the Visgothic legal ordeal in Catalonia

The backlog in my posting is awful [he wrote in May], but there is obviously something in the period of delay that matches the rhythms of my scholarship: I keep finding that I stubbed posts to blog which I come to just as the thing they were about again comes up in my study. Perhaps this will be another, as I found in reading Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil that he touches on the issue I blogged about a while ago, that of judges in tenth-century Catalonia fabricating legal precedent for their decisions, and also on a much older post of mine elsewhere about the judicial ordeal, with a case that combines the two things. So obviously it’s necessary to follow those posts up with this one, and presumably by the time this goes up I shall have come up against the idea again! [As it happens, not this time; I have obviously caught up too much! But read on...]

Trial by the ordeal of hot water

The site I grabbed this from gave no source, so neither can I, but though wilfully Classicising it’s still a picture of the ordeal by hot water in ‘olden tyme’ and I can’t find another…

The case is interesting, which is why I blogged it before: it’s the only case of a judicial ordeal recorded in Catalonia before the year 1000, says Salrach, and this is true although the next one is from that year so it’s only just true.1 Never mind. There’s also an excellent clear report of it in Jeffrey Bowman’s book on Catalan justice around the year 1000, which as far as I can see Salrach did not use, which I paraphrase here.2 The events are in 988: one Sentemir was brought to court by the abbey of Sant Cugat del Vallès, who claimed that he had destroyed his brother’s will from which they should have had a large estate; they produced a witness to the will, but Sentemir refused to admit that he ever saw it and finally offered to go to the ordeal to prove his innocence. He chose the ordeal of hot water, in which the litgant plunged his arm full-length into a boiling cauldron and then the extent of his injuries and whether they were healing was assessed by a panel three days later. As Bowman points out, following Stephen White, the thing about ordeals is that the designed outcome almost never occurred as they’re recorded: here, the scribe says that Sentemir had intended to keep himself safe by incantantions and curses, but in fact as soon as his arm got near the cauldron his hand burst into flames, and he confessed. The court condemned him to penal servitude but the bishop let him off, though of course he lost the estate.

Now there’s a range of ways this is interesting: was Sentemir really attempting magic? Was that instead an accusation that one might slander someone with in this period? Either’s interesting. There is also the question of what we are supposed to think actually happened. The last time I blogged this trial, I wondered if Sentemir might have been trying something like coating his arm in pitch or similar to protect it against the boiling, and just caught the cauldron fire, but obviously we’ll never be able to tell from this. But for our immediate purposes the interesting question is why they went to the ordeal at all. It is commonly assumed that this was just something that happened in the early Middle Ages but as I said, this is the first one we have from Catalonia, and Catalonia’s principal source of jurisprudence, the Visigothic Liber Iudicum, Book of Judges, doesn’t mention the ordeal of hot water (or really any others except to outlaw them). So where did the idea come from?

A Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109, from Wikimedia Commons

An actual Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109. By Abadia de Montserrat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, you may remember that in the previous post where I was talking about judges customising their precedents there came up a tenth-century copy of a version of the Liber Iudicum called the Liber Iudicum Popularis, one of two made by one of the judges of the era, a chap called Bonhom about whom I’ve often written, and whose copy is now online in scholarly edition.3 As it turns out, his version of the Liber Iudicum does contain a procedure for the ordeal of hot water, still claiming of course to be the legislation of the Visigothic princes of three hundred years before. And who do you suppose was the judge and scribe at Sentemir’s trial? Who else but Bonhom! So we have another adaptation of the letter of the law to the needs of the day, and one that works out in decidedly suspicious circumstances.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Bonhom just invented the idea in whole cloth, or how on earth would he have convinced Sentemir to do it? As Bowman points out, there’s no sense in the charter that there was dispute about this. That’s perhaps not surprising since Bonhom wrote the document, but this was a man who tells us in his documents when he was sleepy in case it looks odd, so I’d expect more words rather than fewer if there was a problem. Even if it was not usual this was apparently an idea that was known to people. But whence had it come? There’s a famous trial by battle involving Bera I, Count of Barcelona, accused of treason, which the biography of the Emperor Louis the Pious by the anonymous known as ‘Astronomer’ says was done because both parties were Goths, and people have argued that since the Gothic Law has nothing of this, it was really a Frankish idea that got carried into Catalan judicial practice.4 Salrach raises the idea instead that the ordeal was in fact the ‘popular’ practice that Bonhom’s law’s adapted title suggests, excluded from proper practice by the Visigothic kings but locally maintained or innovated and so added in to Bonhom’s text because he knew it was sometimes done. Hey, maybe Sentemir had introduced him to the idea in 988! (Salrach doesn’t suggest that, but as usual, on a blog I can push these things further than I would in print.) That in turn implies that we really ought to look closely at the Liber Iudicum Popularis to find out what had needed changing since the seventh century; it may not all have been invented as needed, even if some of it probably was. This is the kind of thing I read to learn, after all.


1. Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), pp. 37-38.

2. Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: property, proof and dispute around the year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 119-140, and here esp. pp. 122-124; Stephen D. White, “Proposing the Ordeal and Avoiding It: strategy and power in Western French litigation, 1050-1110″ in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, states and process in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 89-123, repr. in White, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005), VII.

3. Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscari Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003), VI.1.3.

4. Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), Astronomus cap. 32; A. Iglesia, El proceso del Conde Bera y el problema de las ordalías (Madrid 1980).

Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it

I have now gone on at great length about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia without really talking about my actual purpose in reading it, so it’s time to do that.1 You may remember a long time back that I had a go at the idea, repeated in textbook after textbook, that agriculture in the Carolingian period ran at yields hardly more than the grain that was sown.2 This is self-evidently ridiculous if you are familiar either with actual growing of crops (which I am only second-hand) or can do basic maths, but it persists, and the reason it persists, like many another medieval cliché, is Georges Duby.3

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

This is not entirely Duby’s fault. He wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s that somehow remain the world standard for any history of the early medieval economy that actually contains agriculture, and he used the best thinking available and sources known at the time.4 He did a pretty good job of synthesis on that, and though one might wish he’d thought about it a bit harder, it’s really not just him who’s failed to do so, and those that have thought about it haven’t really looked hard enough at his evidence.5 That was, in large part, the Carolingian estate survey of the fiscal centre at Annapes preserved in the text known as the Brevium Exempla, and some time ago already now I gave a paper at Kalamazoo in which I showed that Duby had in fact read the text wrong, or rather failed to read all of its data, as had all those he used, even, I’m sorry to say, Philip Grierson, and I considered that dispatched and proceeded to writing it up.6 But Annapes was not Duby’s only source that seemed to support these awfully low yields, and so I needed to see if the same tricks could be performed with the others too, and you will by now have guessed or maybe already know that one of them was the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia.

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

Santa Giulia di Brescia as it now stands, from the air

Duby dealt with the figures from Santa Giulia only in summary fashion. In Rural Economy and Country Life he works Annapes over extensively, coming up with output figures of between 1·5:1 and 2·2:1, and then goes on:

“We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn. One significant fact is that compilers who visited the farms (cours [apparently left in French from Latin 'curtes']) of the abbey of San Giulia of Brescia in 905-906 to compile a polyptych found there reserves of grain in the barns which were barely higher and sometimes lower than the quantity needed for sowing. Thus at Prozano where the fields could take 300 muids of seed corn, the stocks in the estate barn amounted to only 360 muids of which 140 were of millet (mil). At Canella 90 muids were needed for sowing and 51 were in the barns; at Temulina 32 and 37.”

And with that he moved onto Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris and pulled a similar trick there.7 And in the slightly later and much shorter Early Growth of the European Economy he didn’t even give that much detail (or a reference to the primary source), limiting himself to dealing again with Annapes and then adding:

“The Lombard monastery of St Giulia of Bréscia [sic], which consumed some 6,600 measures of grain annually, would have 9,000 sown to cover its needs, which means that the return normally available to the lord was being estimated at 1·7 to 1.”8

The best way to see what is wrong with this is to look closely at how the compilers of Santa Giulia’s polyptych were using their figures, figures that I’ve already argued here they were receiving in a standard format. And doing so shows firstly that Duby, and Luzzatto before him, were again wrong in assuming that these figures mean what they wanted to mean, and in fact that using them to calculate yield is impossible except in one single case where the formula was bent, and in that case it comes out at at least 4·25:1 and probably rather higher. Don’t believe me? Watch this! Continue reading

Seminar CXLVII: de-emphasising Greece in Byzantine history

Long before I knew what my next job would be, on 13th March 2014, I was persuaded to attend the University of Birmingham’s General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I have been doing this on and off since then, and naturally more regularly given my new employment, but I think I am still the only person not speaking who attends from outside the Centre, which is slightly odd. I came along because I was told by someone who should know that I’d be interested in this particular paper, however, and so it proved, that paper being one called “Byzantine Greece — Microcosm of Empire? Retrospect and Prospect”, by Dr Archie Dunn.

Map of Byzantine Greece c.900

Byzantine Greece c. 900. By Cplakidas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn’s basic starting contention was that, at least since its revival as a nation in 1830, modern Greece has been central to Byzantine studies, since its area preserves or generated many of the major narratives and almost all the surviving Byzantine documentary material, and was the location of many of the pioneering digs in Byzantine archæology. It’s just taken places like Turkey who have less interest in claiming some kind of continuity with their Byzantine predecessor longer to decide this stuff might still be interesting, I think, though it is now happening, and a Greek-language academy presumably also helps. Anyway, this presents problems of generalisation, because Greece thus drives the older and still basic synthetic narratives of Byzantine history but wasn’t necessarily typical of the wider empire. So Dr Dunn here attempted, using the archæology that he knows best, to set up a new synthetic model of landscape development in Byzantine Greece and then test it against Thrace to see just how bad this problem is. The basic lynchpins of this picture were cities, castles and churches and their interrelations, so you can probably already see how I would find thinking material in this.

The Angelokastron in Corfu

The Angelokastro in Corfu, about the best copyright-free image of a Greek Byzantine kastron I can find even if well out of area… By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The synthetic model for Greece went something like this. By the fifth century Greece, once a landscape of cities, still counted a lot of cities in its territorial organisation but far fewer than before and not all of them actually physically instantiated, rather than just being organisational constructs, settlement having moved out to rural settlements like Italian hill-villages (a comparison I thought of about a minute before Dr Dunn invoked it), walled in undressed timber-braced stone, and articulated also by churches separated by 4-10 km distances. Over the sixth to eighth centuries the cities continued to fade but from the seventh century on fortifications arise instead, partly as a reaction to Slav incursions. Those incursions were gathered under more or less willing jurisdiction eventually, however: by the ninth centuries some such notional groups have official seals, for example. These new kastroi, castles, often had bishops, despite the tiny territories thus implied, but even so were not poleis, cities, to the government but choria, villages, even when abandoned cities were close by. They were however centres for military organisation, and however they’d got there were incorporated into systems of government.

Castles at Didymoteicho in Thrace, now Greece

Castles at Didymoteicho, which we do have textual evidence was founded by Justinian I. By Aramgar (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn then compared the situation of Thrace, roughly modern Bulgaria and a bit west into Greece, where a lot of the same factors could apply but somehow, don’t all. Here, though the scattering of new villages and kastroi did occur, it did so without the end of the urban network that had preceded it; the bishops stayed in the old poleis and the kastroi fitted in new places between these. Dr Dunn argued, I think from my notes, that this was an attempt by central govenment to impose a similar system to that that was being managed in Greece over a landscape whose old jurisdictional anchors were still in place, and which couldn’t be ignored—the Thracian cities did revive somewhat over the seventh to ninth centuries—but which weren’t the focus of attention from the state any more. Some of the new fortifications subsequently became towns, however, which prompted me as the then-temporary-Anglo-Saxonist to ask if, as with the fortress-towns of Alfred the Great’s burghal system, they took a long time to do this; sadly, the archæology hasn’t yet been done that would ground that comparison.

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece. By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The main points that came out of this paper, then, were firstly and mainly that Greece can’t be taken as typical of Byzantium even if much of our information comes from it, but also a point about scales of comparison. To make a real point when dealing with a state of this size, one’s micro-regions need to be quite large. No one or few of these city districts would tell a typical story; comparing chosen themata across the two provinces would probably miss the general shape of change entirely. That then implies that to compare at this scale you have to look at something that occurs widely enough but thinly enough to be manageable; cities may be too slight, churches is heading for the feasible maximum, house types would be impossible, it seems to me. Other questions did arise, of course. The obvious one, asked by Ruth Macrides, was, well, why is Thrace different, to which the obvious answer seemed to be proximity to Constantinople, leading to better-funded development of both defences and agriculture because the capital needed them both in a way that it didn’t from further-off Greece. Someone I didn’t know asked about agency, whether these new foundations were necessarily top-down, to which the honest answer could only be that we know some are so there is some kind of central effort to do things, but whether other sites are in on the plan, who knows? And Rebecca Darley asked what was organising society at the village level before they started getting churches, and whether they might have replaced an older religious articulation, to which Dr Dunn said that if there was such an older sacred landscape, it is now largely invisible, though a few cases could be adduced. Here again it seems to me that scale of comparison is important. In the previous answer, a few cases were indicative because we know there was some linkage of them together; in this one a few cases were not, because we don’t have that linkage. Such a linkage would have to be some organised pagan Greek priesthood for which there’s no evidence, of course, so that’s probably OK, but looking at it now the argument from silence still sits oddly next to that from information. It would be nicest of all to be able to show this by digging of course, and I’m sure Dr Dunn would be more than happy to start on that given funding! It was certainly clear that he would know where to start or, indeed, carry on looking.

Metablog IX: the tenth century at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

The next post was supposed to be the third and final one wrestling with the figures from the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, but I realised while setting up the previous one that it was post no. 899, which means of course that this is post no. 900. A moment’s further reflection will then reveal to you that this means A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has just entered its own tenth century, and I thought that was worth marking.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's The Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

As even this 1920s picture arguably has right, 900 was not a particularly auspicious time in world history, at least in political terms. Several great empires were in decline, with consequent dislocation, chaos and fragmentation, from China across to Western Francia, and the up-and-coming ones like Ottonian Germany, the Samanid emirate (not on Wells’s chart), Fatimid Egypt or the briefly revived Byzantium not yet evident in their trajectory. In Europe, at least, the climate’s slow improvement was probably leading to a slow increase in bottom-up prosperity, but the ways that was working out higher up the social scale where surplus was appropriated might have hidden any real benefit for the producers. I hope that little of this applies to the blog over its next hundred posts, but there will at least be a continuation of the kind of geographical spread that seems to have become typical here as I one way or another wind up working on or teaching almost everywhere in the Middle Ages.

Map of Europe c. 900

Map of Europe c. 900 care of Euratlas.com

I do still try and keep my focus on the tenth century, though, and I have therefore been asked whether I think there is any particular dynamic to the so-called ‘secolo di ferro’ that marks it out as an era to study. It seems to me that there is, and that it is the coincidental but contemporaneous disintegration of two superstates at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, the Carolingian Empire (a unit of sorts even in its divided form post-840) and the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, both continuing in some form but giving up much political space into which a myriad of new states intrude from around their peripheries, like young trees in a forest shooting up when big old trees falling opens holes in the canopy. By 1000 there would be several powerful polities in each of the zones these had dominated, Anglo-Saxon England, the Ottonian Holy Roman Empire, the Fatimid and Andalusi Caliphates, Byzantium enduring, the Turkic sultanates and the Samanid Emirate to name but a few, and the subsequent few centuries could be seen as a contest for supremacy that changed hands a lot in the East and that, in the West, no-one except maybe the papacy really won. When you’re looking at changes of centrality like these, it seems to me that the best place to be watching from is the edges, the old and new frontiers, where the consequences of such events can be seen as changes in political direction. That’s been my conviction for a long time and it continues to power my enquiries, and thus, my writing here. I hope it will also continue to keep you reading, at least until the millennium!

Seminar CXLVI: forgetting the Thuringian frontier with Willibald

My seminar reporting backlog now shrinks forwards to 26th February 2014, when Dr John-Henry Clay of Durham, another early medievalist blogger apart from anything else, came to speak to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research with the title, “St Boniface in Thuringia”. Boniface, born in Wessex as Wynfrið, is a saint who provokes strong reactions at the time and still does now: I remember speaking to one revered academic who had the previous day returned from a three-day conference about Boniface and who, in a shocking breach of their usual total refinement, told me that the conference conclusion had been that “Boniface was a bit of a prat”. But equally there are those who find him fascinating, and Dr Clay has done much with the material preserved about him.1 As a missionary and church-builder Boniface spent a lot of time at the edges of ‘known’ territory, anyway, and what Dr Clay had to tell us was one of those edges, the duchy of Thuringia.

Map of the territories of Merovingian Francia

A suitably old-fashioned map of the territories of Merovingian Francia, Thuringia being the long vertical strip at upper right. As long as you realise that this is almost completely hypothetical we’ll be fine. “Frankenreich unter den Merowingern” by Johann Gustav Droysen – Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of our information on Boniface as he is conventionally told comes from a Life written for his successor, Archbishop Lul of Mainz, by one Willibald, and he tells us of Boniface’s religious training in Wessex, an early attempt at a mission to pagan Frisia in 716 defeated by resistance from King Radbod and a subsequent papally-backed mission to Thuringia in 719-721. He shows us Boniface going back to Frisia in 721 and then being in Hesse and Saxony in 723-731, after which point he was more and more concerned with the organisation of the Frankish Church as it developed on the eastern edges of Christianity’s range so far and less and less with mission work.2 He died on the mission trail, however, in 754 in Frisia, aged nearly ninety and clearly, from the letters he wrote setting his affairs in order, aware that he could go on little longer and determined to go out a martyr.3 We can thus temper Willibald’s portrayal with the man’s own words here and there and this all gives a fairly consistent picture, but there are hints in it and in other sources that it is definitely not the whole story.4

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary, a prized treasure of the monastery of Fulda which he had founded. “St Boniface – Baptising-Martyrdom – Sacramentary of Fulda – 11Century” by Unknown – Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda (Fuldaer Sakramentar), fol. 126 v. See here for more information on the manuscript.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lots of what is missing is, naturally enough, about Boniface’s opponents. He faces down heretic or just untrained priests and has to fight tooth and nail for their removal and replacement because they are backed by local élites;, and this has been read sensibly enough as a strategy of Frankish colonisation of the local Church with papal support, though as my first paragraph implied and Dr Clay also said, the popes don’t seem to have driven Boniface’s mission so much as support it with judgements and texts as required, when they could find them; Boniface seems to have expected a lot more authority and direction from the papacy than it was used to giving and some of his opponents are also therefore ‘backsliding’ Frankish bishops who didn’t understand why orthodoxy mattered and wouldn’t have looked to the pope for guidance ordinarily.5 But the other figures only just in the picture are the dukes of the Thuringians and the conflict and cultural exchange that was going on between Frankish- and Thuringian-controlled zones behind and outside the ecclesiastical context.

Ruins of the thirteenth-century castle at Frauenberg, Hesse

The ruins of the fortress of Frauenberg in Hesse, this building probably being thirteenth-century but apparently by no means the first on the site… „Frauenberg2wiki“ von Peter Voeth. Original uploader was Die silberlocke at de.wikipedia – Transferred from de.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper.(Original text : selbst photographiert). Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

Noting various such omissions and demonstrable errors in Willibald’s account, therefore, Dr Clay brought in data from burial archæology and fortress excavations, or at least, a class of fortresses he sees in the area of which one in Hesse, Frauenberg, has been excavated and diagnosed Frankish by its material culture remains. The picture he got from this was one of a broader Frankicisation of the Thuringian duchy, visible in Frankish burial practices and funerary kit, and, as the reference to local priests above suggests, Christianity, this not least because St Willibrord of Utrecht, with whom Boniface worked in Frisia in 721-723, had run a mission in Thuringia around 714 already, something that Willibald doesn’t mention at all! So as Dr Clay told it what Willibald was doing was to turn a career that had essentially been one of fixing other people’s mission work with intermittent state backing, as part of a larger and ongoing process of Frankish acculturation of a border area, into a sanctified career of personal evangelisation that spearheaded all social change for the better in the area.

There were, I have to say, quite a lot of arguments with this thesis from the audience. I had two, one being that I wasn’t clear if Dr Clay was arguing for immigration from a material culture change—he was arguing for a distinct, Frankish funerary kit in the fortresses, as it turned out, which he therefore saw as military occupation rather than settlement on a broader scale—and the other of which being his diagnostic fortress type, which I could have paralleled quite happily from Pictland and therefore thought needn’t be any more than functional similarity. More excavation might of course show other links, what I would not deny. But there were wider issues about the opposition of Frankish and Thuringian as cultures in the first place, raised not least by Julie Hofmann, by whom the IHR was richer this spring and summer just gone and who knows a thing or two about Thuringia.6 The Thuringian aristocracy was long married into Frankish ones, just like the Bavarian one; whether this was anything more than a political branding exploited as convenient was, for Julie, very much to be doubted. That doesn’t prevent wars arising out of it, of course, as they plainly did, but marrying it to wider shifts in material culture as anything more than fashion, and linking those to other forms of political change is, I tend to think, unprovable.

Kloster Sankt Salvator Fulda

The centre of the cult of Boniface, the monastery of Sankt Salvator Fulda. „Catedral de Fulda“ von Author and original uploader was ThomasSD at de.wikipedia – Originally from de.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Lizenziert unter Public domain über Wikimedia Commons.

Between these two Alice Taylor had asked what was perhaps the sharpest question, which was to wonder what Willibald’s purpose was in all this: Dr Clay said, and this seemed obviously correct once he’d said it, that the Vita was using the holiness of Boniface’s career to justify and sanctify the kinds of action towards Church reform that his successors for whom the text was written were still struggling to carry out. It is, in other words, a text about the politics of the 750s, not those of the 720s, and probably had little interest in being accurate, rather than partial (in both senses) about the earlier period. This was, to an extent, where we had begun, with the problems with Willibald’s Vita, but by now they looked serious enough that I think several of us were uncomfortable with using the text for a picture of the 720s at all. That time was perhaps not long forgotten when Willibald wrote, but having others remember it was apparently not his concern!


1. J.-H. Clay, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-54, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 11 (Turnhout 2011).

2. The Life has been much translated, and Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface, transl. George W. Robinson (Cambridge 1916) seems now to be all over the Internet to purchase, presumably because it is also online at the Internet Archive for free here; the one I am used to setting for students is that in C. H. Talbot (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany, being the lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba, and Libuin, together with the Hodœporicon of St Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St Boniface (London 1954, repr. 1981), pp. 25-62, which is reprinted in Thomas F. X. Noble & Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 107-140, but is also online for free (because copyright-free in the USA) via the Internet Medieval sourcebook here.

3. The letters are translated in Ephraim Emerton (transl.), The Correspondence of Saint Boniface, Records of Civilisation 31 (New York City, but a selection is also in Talbot, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries, pp. 64-149.

4. Cited here was Ian N. Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe 400-1050 (London 2001).

5. This is a perspective that I think I got from Rosamond McKitterick, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: personal connections and local influences, Eighth Annual Brixworth Lecture, Vaughan Papers 36 (Leicester 1991), repr. in her The Frankish Kings and Culture in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 477 (Aldershot 1995), I.

6. And we need her to publish some of what she knows! But in the meantime there is no standard work, at least in English, though there is now John Hines, Janine Fries-Knoblach & Heiko Steuer (edd.), The Baiuvarii and Thuringi: an ethnographic perspective, Studies in historical archaeoethnology 9 (Woodbridge 2014).

Working for San Salvatore II: specialists and individuals

As I said in the first post about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, one of the things about its information that can’t fail to strike one is the variation within the standard form of record the monastery was using. This is obvious in terms of size, for one thing. The largest estate here, Alfiano, had enough arable land to sow 900 modii of grain in, 100 amphorae‘s worth of vine, meadow for 50 cartloads of hay, wood where 700 pigs could forage, a stud for breeding horses with 35 on hand, 37 head of cattle, 100 pigs, 3 mills, 3 boats and 40 tenants, as well as a staff of 8 magistri “for making walls, house and barrels”, and that’s not counting either its chapel whose properties were listed separately or a dependant estate whose return seems to have turned up late and been tacked on at the end of the survey.1 A place near Brescia called Palleriana had arable for 8 modii, vine good for 8 amphorae, meadow good for 8 cartloads, 2 cows, 2 tenants and 1 vacant lot, and that’s about it, which is to say that it was between one and two orders of magnitude smaller than Alfiano in the terms about which the monastery cared.2

Castello di Cavriana

This is neither of those places, but the castle at the centre of the estate whose returns I used in the dummy form of last post. I never thought of looking for an image! But this is the Castello di Cavriana. By Massimo Telò (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

You might ask what was worth even having about the latter place, then, and that opens up another question of variation, because of the vacant lot. I’m translating sors absentia here, but when they turn these clearly weren’t vacant in the sense we would assume in English, because they rendered produce, and often quite heavily, so I guess that what was going on here was that the the monastery allowed people who lived elsewhere, maybe the estate’s other tenants but not necessarily, to work them in exchange for rendering a cut of the produce to the monastery. That seems to be how they ran their mills and their landing-places, too, and the mountain-top lands they don’t really enumerate: all of these rendered in food and/or money, what suggests that the people who worked them were taking at least as much home themselves, and since the guys turning up at the landing-stages with salt and grain were presumably not all monastic dependants, I don’t really see why the farmers all need to have been either.

Anyway, at Palleriano the vacant lot rendered 7 modia of grain, 6 denarii and, most importantly, 80 pounds of oil a year from its olive-groves. That was presumably what made a pied-à-terre at Palleriano worth maintaining; the ordinary renders from the place were presumably not worth nothing but the monastery’s real interest there was probably letting people make oil in the bits of the estate they didn’t actually have the manpower to work. At Alfiano, by contrast, though nowhere else in the polyptych was breeding horses (and indeed only one other place even had any), there were apparently no olive-trees. The monastery had both estates organised in roughly the same way, with a staffed reserve run by workers living on hand-outs and a system of allotments held by people of various statuses on markedly varying terms—a bipartite organisation, in other words—but the actual use they got from these estates was very different.

Obviously some of this variation must have been purely geographical. Alfiano, which maybe covered most of the area inside the road route marked above, could run boats because it was on the Fiume d’Oglio, but apparently it was not good land for olive trees. Lots of other estates in the survey also have these specificities: very few places grew chestnuts, for example, only a very few rendered rushlights and the most obviously constrained resource is iron, which a few estates had and rendered lots of and most did not, obviously rather less by choice than by necessity: if there’s no iron ore in your chosen lump of Italy, you can’t really get it out.3 Some of the variation probably was by choice, though. There are massive variations in the balance of crops in store, for example, with rye sometimes being the bulk of it, sometimes millet or sometimes corn (frumentario), and that was presumably as much down to somebody’s choices about what to grow and what to take from store as it was what would grow, though certainly some of these crops do better in some kinds of soil than others. Goats are much rarer than sheep, though, and that must be by choice because there’s basically nowhere you can’t put a goat (except in as much as you might want to keep whatever you were growing there).

A rural homstead in Alfiano Natta, near Brescia

A house that was at time of writing for rent in the Alfiano region. Apart from the second stories and (obviously) the swimming pool, this doesn’t look too far off what might have been on site at least 800 years before, maybe more…

This kind of thing gets us out of the constraints of a formula and into things that actual people did, sometimes that no-one else did, and even into how they might have felt about that. A big estate now called Forse Pian Communo in the Val Carmonica, for example, was the only place in the polyptych that rendered a lamb, and it rendered just one, yearly, among 75 pigs and 86 other sheep, quite a lot of wine and silver, 60 pounds of iron, 14 bunches of onions (the only mention of the noble alium), 60 rush-lights and 30 cartloads of timber. They also rendered one shepherd’s crook. Presumably this stuff did not all come in at the same time, but even if it didn’t, that lamb must have stood out, and I bet it was delivered with the crook, and there must have been an occasion when it was done that made quite the little local ceremony, almost certainly at Easter, and something that made this community special among the men of Santa Giulia.4

The other scale of variation, though, is between persons. If you look back at the form I reverse-engineered out of the polyptych, you’ll see that the monastery recognised five main different sorts of tenants they could have, in their words manentes or mansarii (I think these are equivalents), servi or serviles (not so sure about those), libellarii, homines commendati (who were sometimes specified as free or having voluntarily commended themselves), liberi and aldiones, as well as some unusual categories specific to mountainside properties. Of these the aldiones had the lightest load, since their duty was pretty much solely to carry messages, but among the others a hierarchy is harder to determine. Obviously there was a difference between slave and free that was worth specifying, even here, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it in terms of their renders: at a place called Cardena, for example, 7 slaves, who all lived on 1 allotment, owed every fourth modius of grain they grew and half the wine they made and an annual render of 2 sheep, 4 hens, 20 eggs and 12 denarii, and they did 4 days’ work each a week, which is pretty rough especially when you have all this other stuff to render and only two days a week on which you’re allowed to try and make it up (because remember what happens to those who work on the Lord’s Day…). The free men there, 6 on 2 allotments, weren’t so much better off: they rendered the same fractions of produce, 7 sheep, 14 hens and 70 eggs, and although between them they did only 204 days work a year, that is 34 each, so more or less one every week and a half, that’s still the kind of labour duty we’d expect free men to be, well, free of. Nice work if you can avoid it, you might think, but the 4 commended men also on the estate who between them rendered nothing and did 44 days’ work every two years, so, 11 each yearly, would probably have sneered even so. On the other hand, not very far away, at a place called Porzano, the estate included 3 slaves living on 3 lots who rendered 3 amphorae of wine, 2 pigs and 2 sheep a year, and had no labour duties, whereas there were also 14 free men who did one day’s work a week and 13 manentes, on a lot each, who together rendered 60 modia of grain, 5 amphorae of wine, 2 pigs, 4 sheep, 26 hens, 130 eggs and 20 denarii each, 9 of whom (and apparently only 9 of whom) also had to do one day’s work a year, given the which, one might choose to be the slave but for the loss of legal personhood, etc.5

A decaying villa in Porzano, near Brescia

This probably isn’t the oldest building standing in Porzano, given the brick, but it might be the oldest and tattiest still to be on sale for more than a hundred thousand Euros…

So it seems clear that the labour services and renders involved here, although based on some kind of standard (as the almost-universal rate of five eggs per chicken suggests), could be varied a great deal, and I suppose that this might have had something to do with the way these people became the monastery’s men, who had owned their renders before and what agreements were made when they changed hands. In some cases one wonders what the individual circumstances could be. At a place called Forse Sernìga, for example, among all the other stuff there was one tenant who rendered annually 3 modii of grain, half his wine, 1 sheep, 30 denarii, 1 modium of turnips, 1 sester of fava beans and 400 shingles. His are the only mentions of turnips and shingles and almost the only one of fava beans, and I can only imagine that when he came to the estate centre looking for patronage they asked him, “what can you do that’s fantastic?,” or some less Zappatical equivalent and he said, “I make shingles and I grow turnips, best in the valley or any valley hereabouts,” and they said, “Fine, OK, well go on with that that then,” and agreed his renders on that basis and he thus became the man whose shingles roofed the monastery’s properties in the locality.6

On the other hand, at the chapel of Forse Centòva, which the monastery held jointly with a vassal of Bishop Buatho called Aragis and which was one of the more splendidly equipped of which they knew, the workforce was 4 prebendarii and a single tenant, who as well as a third of his grain, half his wine, 4 hens, 20 eggs and 6 denarii also had to do three days’ work a week on the estate.7 He must, ineluctably, have known the other workers well, because he would have spent a good chunk of his time in the fields or vineyards with them, but there were three days a week when he could stay home and work on his own stuff. Did he resent his lack of security compared to his fellows in the field, or did they envy him his semi-independence and chance actually to turn a surplus? They must have had some means of getting on, and perhaps it was a cheerful one, but they would have been confronted by the difference in their positions every time they packed up to go home (especially as the estate had four casas and 1 caminata so it may be that he had the warm house…). There’s so many people in this text about whom we can only say one thing but that thing still shows them up as individuals. I feel as if I would understand this better if the polyptych used names. It doesn’t, so we don’t know what these people called each other, but their interactions are still hard for me not to try and imagine…


1. Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Giorgio Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94 at pp. 81-83, with the chapel following on p. 83 and the last estate at p. 93, a chapel at Cellatina held in the benefice of Kebahart but belonging to Alfiano.

2. Ibid. p. 60.

3. Both rushlights and iron rendered from Forse Pian Communo in Valcarmonica, in fact, just as an example, ibid. p. 72.

4. See n. 3 above.

5. Pasquali, “S. Giulia di Brescia”, pp. 60-61 & pp. 62-63 respectively.

6. Ibid. pp. 67-68.

7. Ibid. p. 88.