Category Archives: General medieval

Seminar CXLIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England?

We have already recently mentioned the scholarly debate over whether or not there was a particular fear of the the world associated with the year 1000 in the Middle Ages, and that I was teaching a course on such matters in Birmingham this last spring. Thus, when I gathered that Professor Catherine Cubitt was giving the Royal Historical Society’s Public Lecture on 7th February 2014 with the title “Apocalyptic Thought in England Around the Year 1000″, I made sure I ws there, both because of the theme and because Katy is always interesting. Because of the reading for the course, I was one of the people in the audience who knew a lot of what she was saying, but by no means all and I came away with many new thoughts.

Having written all this and starting the search for links and images, I discover to my delight that the lecture was in fact recorded, so you can watch it uourself and see how fair I'm being! And it's worth the watch, if you like such things, and not just for the Steve Bell cartoon visible in the clip here...

Getting at whether writers, and by this given the sources we mean churchmen, obviously, were really worried about the imminence of the end of time and the Final Judgement is complicated by the fact that it’s a really obvious preaching tool. While Richard Landes and others may be right that for some people, the Final Judgement was a happy promise that although they’d been beaten down on all their lives by over-privileged people on horses living in halls, God would eventually, and perhaps soon, set things right, certainly the sermons we have from this era, a genre in which England is unusually rich, think that their hearers needed to be afraid, because time for repentance and mending their ways might be running out.1 This is fire-and-brimstone preaching at its most immediate, I guess, and it requires a peculiar two-handed approach: the End must be close, close enough that the signs are evident, but also there must still be time to make things better or it’s too late to preach. The result is that the Apocalypse becomes always imminent but never here, and in this respect we could have just the same debate about Pope Gregory I around 600 as we could have about, say, Abbot Æfric of Eynsham around 1000, whose list of events that should be read as showing the end times being in progress went back to the first century!2 If there was genuine worry about these issues, it’s both hard to separate from the utility of the trope for moral reformers (the basic conclusion of my students that term) and possible to find whenever we have the right kind of evidence.

London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, showing the text of the Tribal Hidage and the opening of the Grammar of Æfric of Eynsham

I can’t show you a picture of Æfric, but I can show you an eleventh-century writing of his name in this manuscript, London British Library MS Harley 3271, at the head of his treatise on grammar, weirdly facing a text of the Tribal Hidage

Nonetheless, there is a lot of this stuff, relatively speaking, from tenth- and early-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s easy enough to see why: the country was beset by Viking attacks it was not managing to resist, the kingship of Æthelred II (978-1016) was increasingly paralysed by poor leadership and treachery, and things were not getting better despite an increasingly desperate moral agenda at court.3 Here again we have the problem that one of the people who was most involved in that agenda, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, was also very fond of the Apocalyptic message as a preaching tool, seen most clearly in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, apparently first written after the worst had happened and the king had been driven out but redone several times after that. Since he also helped draft Æthelred’s later laws and perhaps his unusually verbose and ‘penitential’ charters, that the voice of the state has an urgent tone of repentance about it is not surprising.4 The agenda was probably not cynical, either: Æthelred’s charters seem almost to be searching for what he and his people may have done wrong in their different pleas for forgiveness: yes, the imminent Last Judgement, but also various saints he might have offended, the soul of his murdered brother, his mother’s curse… he was apparently a haunted man and whatever Wulfstan’s concerns were, they found a ready audience with the king.5

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993 very full of apologies for the king's earlier mistreatment of the abbey

Nor was it just Wulfstan that used this stuff, either; we’ve mentioned Ælfric and there are various anonymous homilies preserved that also like the Last Days as a trope. Furthermore, for what it may be worth, Wulfstan himself seems to have been concerned about this all his life, in his earliest works before he was part of the government and even still after Æthelred’s succession by Cnut and the consequent end of the Viking menace.6 The End was still coming! Katy’s conclusion was therefore that, even if such thinking and preaching served a moral and reformist agenda and was being used to that end by its propagators, there were still a lot of those, sufficiently many and widely-disseminated (especially in the laws) that people at large would have been much exposed to this rhetoric. (I think now of the rhetoric of the term ‘recession’ and how that is used as a critique of the establishment, too, whatever its empirical truth.)

The <em>Sermo Lupi ad Anglos</em>, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat (though I’m afraid i don’t know which manuscript)

As the first questioner noted, this did not entirely address the question of whether there was much popular take-up of the idea that End was near, and Katy conceded this, saying that Richard Landes has made this such a difficult question that it couldn’t be addressed in this forum. (My students would generally come to the conclusion that it can’t really be addressed at all.) Jinty Nelson noticed, and I later made sure my students did, that the English rhetoric of the End is quite, well, Insular, in as much as it doesn’t partake of any of the developing Continental and Byzantine traditions about the role of a last emperor in clearing the way for the End, even though (as I pointed out) Æthelred did sometimes use the Greek imperial title basileus in his charters; the sources are Revelation and St Augustine and not very much more.7 Another point I tried to raise (because there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a little knowledge, I suppose) was around the laws: unlike the various sermons, and charters whose audience was a single court assembly then a monastery thereafter, the laws represent official disseminaton of this rhetoric, or so we assume. (I did privately wonder if Patrick Wormald’s work on the manuscripts allowed us to conclude that actually half of this stuff never left Wulfstan’s office in Worcester and represents only the versions he would have liked to send out.8) Katy replied that she felt that the Apocalyptic rhetoric has to be read into the laws, rather than being there explicitly, and indeed this was what I later found with my students. That was a good course, and the lone group that took it did their best with it; looking back, though, I realise that this lecture must have set a number of the places whither I wound up trying to guide them…


1. I’m leaving aside here the point made by both Landes, often, and Katy here that a long tradition of literature starting with Christ Himself in the Gospels held that the date and time of the End could not be known, and that any attempt to calculate it was to defy Christ. This is true and much reiterated, including by Katy’s sources, but the post is long enough already! Some obvious references at the outset, however, are Richard Landes, Andrew C. Gow and Daniel C. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), where Malcolm Godden’s “The millennium, time, and history for the Anglo-Saxons”, pp. 155-180 is most immediately relevant; compare Edwin Wilson Duncan, “Fears of the Apocalypse: The Anglo-Saxons and the Coming of the First Millennium” in Religion and Literature Vol. 31 (Notre Dame 1999), pp. 15–23, a basic introduction to the issues, and Simon Keynes, “Apocalypse Then: England A.D. 1000″ in Premyslaw Urbańczyk (ed.), Europe around the Year 1000 (Warsaw 2001), pp. 247–270.

2. We found on the course that Bernard McGinn (ed./trans.), Visions of the End: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages (New York City 1978; 2nd edn. 1998) was an indispensable source of primary material, including if I remember some of Gregory the Great’s writings on this issue, but see on him also Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End” in Chris Humphrey & Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34. For Ælfric a good starting point is Pauline Stafford, “Church and Society in the Age of Ælfric” in Paul E. Szarmach & B. F. Huppé (edd.), The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds (Albany 1978), pp. 11–42.

3. Here the most obvious thing to cite is none other than Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 85 (London 2012), pp. 179-192, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x.

4. I discover now in searching for stuff to support this post that there is now plotted Andrew Rabin (ed./transl.), The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (Manchester forthcoming), which looks very useful.

5. Here, meanwhile, the obvious cites are now Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203 and idem, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Aethelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258–276, and in case that doesn’t seem coincidental enough, I should mention that the lecture was preceded by a recitation of new fellows of the Society, of whom Levi was one! So the world remains tightly bound, unlike, as Wulfstan was fond of emphasising, Satan (see William Prideaux-Collins, “‘Satan’s bonds are extremely loose': apocalyptic expectation in Anglo-Saxon England during the millennial era” in Landes, Gow & Van Meter, Apocalyptic Year 1000, pp. 289-310.

6. See Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the holiness of society” in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York City 1999), pp. 191-224, repr. in Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (London 1999), pp. 225-251; Joyce Tally Lionarons, “Napier Homily L: Wulfstan’s eschatology at the close of his career” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004), pp. 413–428.

7. For the wider scene the most neutral introduction is probably Simon MacLean, “Apocalypse and Revolution: Europe around the Year 1000″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 86–106; for the Byzantine tradition, try Paul Julius Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Los Angeles 1985), perhaps updated with Paul Magdalino, “The Year 1000 in Byzantium” in idem (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden 2003), pp. 233–270. Æthelred had the title basileus used for him in a full forty-three of his charters, which you can make the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England list for you here; it is often basileus of Britain or even of Albion, too, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the Kings of the Scots’ increasing use of the title of King of Alba.

8. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003); see also idem, “Archbishop Wulfstan, eleventh-century state-builder” in Townend, Wulfstan, pp. 9-27.

Link

An insider’s view of Lichfield cathedral

Special Subject Field Trip to Lichfield Cathedral, 19th March 2014: Swords, Hoards and Overlords: Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

One of the two courses I ran at Birmingham last year was a two-term option on early Anglo-Saxon England, taken up to more or less the death of Bede. I got handed that remit as part of my contract negotiations and if it had not already been advertised, I think I’d have stretched it to reach King Alfred, but it was still fun, I had an excellent group for it who remained interested throughout, and the person who had designed the initial offering, none other than Peter Darby, had built in two slots for field trips. The first of those was to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to get up close to the Staffordshire Hoard, but the other had not been fixed, so I cast about and thought of Lichfield Cathedral. This was a splendid idea: the chapter did a great job with us, including not just making sure we saw more bits of the Hoard, the St Chad’s Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, but letting us in places others might not get to go. And, since we had been awarded money to cover the travel, the School of History and Cultures demanded a student report on it that they could use for publicity on a specially-created blog, and one of my students, Alex Tweddle, bravely stepped up to write it around my photographs. It took a little while to go online: I didn’t help by thinking it would be best to send the relevant person actual HTML and a ZIP folder of image files, in whose use I then had to train them… It still shows the signs, alas. But since April it’s been up!

Dilbert cartoon for 9th November 1995

I always think of this cartoon in such moments, but had forgotten its medievalist reference point…

Alex’s text is almost embarrassingly fulsome but I’m quite pleased with the photos (one choice one set as header), and it was a marvellous opportunity, so perhaps you’d like to go and have a look?

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.


1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

How a saint’s cult gets started

When as medievalists we are told by our sources about a saint’s cult, it is most often of all via hagiography, a written Life of the saint that explains his or her lifelong holiness and authenticates it by means of miracles, especially by miracles after death, since these tell you that the person in question has gone to Heaven (because God does not hear the prayers of the damned). Such an account is still part of the required apparatus for recognition of saints by the Catholic Church now, I believe, but it’s also reckoned to have been a vital part of a cult site’s own propaganda. We don’t often catch the cult before that point, when the propaganda hasn’t really got started and everyone’s only just cottoning on that something special may be happening here. But there is such an episode in the charters of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, with which I was finishing in April 2014 when I stubbed this post. Let me introduce you to the Blessed Rainer.

Apses and chapels of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

Let’s have a different picture of St-Pierre from the normal one… By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Rainer’s cult doesn’t seem to have stuck, but a man called Remi wanted it to and at some point in the reign of King Lothar III (954-967) he gave Beaulieu a manse in Oriols (in Davazac in the Limousin) for the benefit of his own soul and someone called Robert, and:

“in honour of the blessed Rainer who was provost of the selfsame place already said, and because of this, that the selfsame man showed his great virtue to all who were there present, when a crippled adolescent who had been brought to his tomb, through the great felicity of his intercession, quickly came running before the altar of Saint Peter; and this great miracle was produced on the feast of Saint Martial.”1

This is almost all we get on Rainer; one other charter from 968 refers to a church or altar of St-Rainer that had already received some of the testator’s land in a place called Flexo in Puy d’Arnac, right by the monastery, so perhaps he was moved out into his own chapel, and that’s the last notice as far as I know (not that I have gone looking).2 Even here there are some interesting questions, though. Why didn’t the monks keep him, if he was already a focus of popular devotion? (Presumably one doesn’t dump one’s invalids in front of a nobody’s tomb when there’s an altar of St Peter nearby…) Why is it on the feast of Saint Martial (who was culted not here but at the local diocesan of Limoges) that all this occurred? It may be that, since this was a monastic church, people simply couldn’t access it except on feast days, of course, and the house’s ties to its bishops were usually pretty good early on so an open house for Beaulieu on St Martial’s in recognition of that is not implausible.

View down the nave towards the altar of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

A view down the nave to that same (well, not *the* same, but a similarly-positioned) altar of St Peter. By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Still, one would expect Peter to make a better showing here. Was he just too big and universal to petition? Beaulieu did have other saints present, though: at various points in its charters it claims additional dedication to all of Felix, Felicitas, Felician, Denis, Martin, Benoît and Eloy, so you’d think that one of them at least meant something to the visitors. I wonder if that wasn’t perhaps precisely the problem: they had all this holy weight stored up and it was one of their provosts who attracted the popular attention. Was he getting out and doing good works and making the rest of them look bad? (Another Cuthbert?) We can’t know, of course, but today is as good a day as any to take notice of one medieval man who was thought a bit more remarkable than most by those who remembered him.


1. Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), doc. no. LXX:
“in honore B. Rainerii qui de ipso loco jam dicto præpositus fuit, et propter hoc quia ipse virtutem magnam omnibus qui aderamus ostendit, adolescens etiam qui deportatus ad ejus tumulum contractus fuit, ipsius intercessione cum magna felicitate, ante altare S. Petri currendo festinus pervenit; et illud magnum miraculum ostensum fuit in festivitate S. Martialis.”

2. Ibid. doc. no. CIX.

Seminar CXLII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.


* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…

The second king of Spain

Earlier this year, in the quest to finish an article, I was working my way through the Castilian translation of one of the major Arabic sources for the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, the Tarsī‘ al-ajbār of al-‘Udrī.1 This eleventh-century writer took a historical-geographical approach, and, as we have the text at least, proceeded town-by-town and for each gave an account of its natural features and situation then its ruling families.2 Since the same four or five clans dominated all the cities of the Sharq al-Andalus, the Upper March, or Zaragoza and points north and east, call it as you like, this gets very confusing after a while as people who need ancestry given to three removes to distinguish one Muhammad ibn Lubb from the next occur in city after city, but Fernando de la Granja provided some hand-drawn fold-out family trees and it’s manageable. I was here mainly for the wālī family of Barcelona, but they come in a long way behind the main source of independence, treachery and mayhem on the March, the lordly family we know as the Banū Qāsī.

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910. As we’ll see, I think this is a deal too generous to Asturias, but that swathe probably did all recognise the same king. Nevertheless… read on! By Crates [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now the Banū Qāsī, supposedly ‘sons of Cassius’, have come in for a lot of attention just lately and I haven’t been able to read very much of it, so I risk being out-of-date, but nonetheless, on the extremely rare occasions I have been able to teach that which I actually work on (maybe five times in my life), I have tried to use one particular teaching point about them.3 This is that it is said in the Chronicle of Alfonso III of the family’s greatest patriarch, Mūsā ibn Mūsā ibn Fortūn ibn Qāsī, that he called himself “the third king of Spain”, tertius rex in Spania, meaning he was number three in importance in the contemporary political firmament.4 The Chronicle has lots to say about Mūsā, who was a rough contemporary with its Asturian royal heroes. At the point when Mūsā is supposed to have said this, he was ruler of Zaragoza and the entire Upper March, had rebelled against the Emir of Córdoba six times and defeated him nearly as many (though also been forced to submit four times) and had also laid waste to several Christian armies, and he certainly did control a lot of cities. Nonetheless, this claim has always seemed to me to leave something important unsaid, which is, who did he think was the second king of Spain?

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā in Tudela

Tudela are still very proud of their ‘Rey del Ebro’, as you can see. By Arenillas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

One has to admit straight away that no text other than the Chronicle of Alfonso III contains this line, and for its author, writing in the capital of the growing kingdom of Asturias, the answer was obvious: while the Emir of Córdoba probably still, despite a kingdom full of aristocrats like Mūsā, ranked as number one in his mind, King Alfonso’s Asturias was surely number two, and indeed the whole point of having Mūsā say this was presumably to show the audience that important and famous outsiders had recognised this long since. It makes that point so well that I suspect that it was just made up for this purpose. But if Mūsā had said such a thing, is that what he would have meant? Certainly, in his world, Córdoba, when it could get itself together, was the only single power he needed to fear: he fought emiral troops eleven times at least, losing on most of those occasions (though never so badly as to lose his position in at least one of the Marcher cities). Asturias, on the other hand, he met in battle only twice, and on each occasion they were teamed up with the Basques of Navarra, at Albelda both times. On the former of these occasions Mūsā defeated the Christians, on the latter, they him. He also fought local forces at Álava once, which was probably not yet Castile so counts as Asturias (this being my quarrel with the map).

Muslim warriors painted by al-Wāsitī in a thirteenth-century text of the Makam of al-Harīrī

For want of any closely contemporary media, here is a thirteeenth-century picture of some Muslim warriors, set to go with a tenth-century text telling a story set in the seventh century! Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, his measure of the political scene has also to be measured in his alliances. Here again the Emirate was foremost: Mūsā fought as part of emiral armies on at least four occasions, against the Catalans twice and Vikings once, the fourth being the Álava campaign. When he fought against the Emir, however, his allies were not Asturias but the Basques, into whose royal family his mother had been married. They came to his aid three times, though he also fought them four times, and the families remained closely intertwined, Basque princes fighting on both sides in the second battle at Albelda. It really doesn’t seem to me that Mūsā looked north-west that often. His ‘second king in Spain’ would probably really have been himself, but number three on the podium probably wouldn’t have been Ordoño I’s Asturias, who were just where his Basque sometime allies found extra troops when they needed to make a point. Standing competitively by his side in that ranking would have been the King of Pamplona, I reckon.

It’s too easy to forget that Navarra and the Basque families who ruled it were for a long time really big local political deals, because in the end the kingdom got swallowed into its neighbours and didn’t lead the great drive towards unification led by Castile that has been the grand narrative of so much ‘Spanish’ history. I have a chapter now in press that points out that in 1031, when the Caliphate of al-Andalus definitively ended, it would have been impossible to foresee a Castilian domination of the whole peninsula. That was not just because the exact state of the Muslim zone was still in flux, but also because the leading Christian monarch at that point was King Sancho Garcés the Great of Navarra, and he was lord of the Counts of Barcelona and Castile and would soon get his nephew in as King of León. It wouldn’t last, but not everything does. Mūsā’s famous, and probably spurious, quote still helps remind us that the way things finish up need not be the way they looked long before.


1. Fernando de la Granja (trans.), “La Marca Superior en la obra de al-cUdrí” in Estudios de edad media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-546.

2. I say, “as we have it,” because the text as given by de la Granja periodically makes it clear that it is in the voice of another writer reporting what al-Udrī had written, rather than the work itself, so there’s no reason to suppose that what we have is all of what al-Udrī wrote, rather than a selection by someone else.

3. Until quite recently there was only really one thing, Alberto Cañada Juste, “Los Banu Qasi (714-924)” in Príncipe de Viana Vol. 41 (Pamplona 1980), pp. 5-96, with some useful remarks added in Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 217-222, but now there is also Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La Dawla de los Banu Qasi: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus (Madrid 2010), which has caused quite a stir, largely in places where you can follow it up yourself if you like. I haven’t yet read this as I would need some days in London to achieve it… Only two libraries there seem so far to have acquired it in England, ironically both in the same building.

4. Referencing the Chronicle of Alfonso III can get one into trouble: there are four more or less contemporary critical editions, all done more or less without knowledge of each other, and the Castilians don’t like it if you use the French version. I find that more neutral in commentary and better aware of German work on the manuscripts, however, so recommend Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), and whichever edition you use you will find the text sub Era 888 or s. a. 850. There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), but I don’t like this as it blends two different recensions of the text in a fairly selective way. Most of what follows comes from Cañada, however.

Home isn’t where the medieval architecture is

There’s been quite a lot of change in my life lately, and though this post has been stubbed since January it provokes reflection on those changes, because for New Year 2014 I went home. Or at least, I went to where my mother lives and where I grew up, but what does that tell us? I didn’t even know this was there:

This, as you can tell, is not my photo, because I hadn’t brought a camera when we went a-calling in very early January. I firmly expected it to be locked, as per my general expectations of the Home Counties, but was happily wrong. The building is twelfth-century, for the most part, though the tower is fifteenth-century. There is some sculpture in it that survives from the earliest period, and some fourteenth-century wall painting, which seems to show the Annunciation and the Ascension; presumably other scenes from the Life of Christ were also once here, and these are now quite hard to make out but still there. I had only the very poor camera in my phone, which struggles badly with low light, and it couldn’t capture these, but the esteemed Highly Eccentric gave it a go with the camera she had with her, and if you want to see more that’s here. Of what I did take, this one shot came out sort of OK.

Interior of Holy Cross, Sarratt

Nave, rood screen and presbitery

I grew up two miles or so from this place; it wasn’t my notional parish church, but it’s not much further away than that. It’s also decidedly more medieval, but I never went here before. That would be not least because then I was neither church-goer nor medievalist, of course, but it joins some reading about the area’s local history over the last year or so to leave me aware how little I understood of the idea where I grew up in the terms that are now significant to me. By a strange irony, I type this now about the same distance from where my mother grew up. Both these places have seen some change but what’s changed most is me as observer. One leaves home either in order to try and return able to support oneself or to make a new home elsewhere, I guess. One of the toughest things for me about the life academic is how hard it makes that latter for those who do not early get the elusive permanent job. Wherever one is won’t be where one is next, and the roots always have to be ready to come up. I suppose this post is an occasion to reflect, then, that even our deepest roots are not as deep as we sometimes think they are, and that it doesn’t have to be in youth that one plants them.