Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

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).

Seminar CXLV: more Anglo-Saxon feud and punishment

I’m not sure I’ve blogged two successive versions of one paper except inadvertantly, and I’ve certainly decided not to do so before now, but I will make an exception for Dr Tom Lambert and his paper, “Crime, Community and Kingship”, which I wrote about here when it was presented in Oxford but which on 12th February 2014 was also appearing, with modifications, at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. You may remember from the earlier write-up that whereas the standard picture of Anglo-Saxon law has been that it develops from feud to royal enforcement, Tom argues for a two-part system from as far back as we can see up till the twelfth century at least, in which there was injury and crime.1 The former was to be compensated for or avenged and the latter, because it had no obvious worldly victim—things like sacrilege, failure to do public works, and so on where the victim is the whole community or no-one—falls to the king to prosecute. He sees the Anglo-Saxon period as a long process of increasing regulation and efficiency management of a system that basically fitted that description throughout. So, that was the Oxford pitch, what had changed by the time it came to London?

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester, image from Wikimedia Commons

I suppose that one point I hadn’t properly taken on board before is that when we see Anglo-Saxon law for the first time, in the Laws of Æthelberht, there is no sovereign paradox in them.2 The issue of the king’s right to make law or decided compensation isn’t really touched upon, but his rights are in the code, and they are of a different grade but not a different order; he is just a ‘big freeman’ with some extra duties. He is not outside the system as later royal legislators have to be in order to say what the system is or does; instead the code shows us a bigger system of which the king is also part. This includes feud, in as much as the king receives compensation for the death of a free man, perhaps (I considered) because he has lost the resource of that man’s military service or similar.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

What this men is about to do was messy but completely legal, OK?

Tom was also working a bit harder to make this argument fit with his earlier work arguing that theft was one of the most serious offences in the Anglo-Saxon world of misdeeds because of its secret nature, which more or less prevents people taking vengeance; how can you if you don’t know whodunnit? The whole village becomes suspect; the cohesion of the community is placed under threat until the matter is resolved.3 A good honest slaying is easy to settle by comparison! And it’s in the area of pursuing thieves and protecting the Church especially, Tom argued, that we see royal expansion, rather than in attempts to limit feud. The king’s business was the kind of offences that people can’t punish themselves, and so it remained right up to the Conquest and beyond. In questions, Susan Reynolds, with her typical insight, pointed out that what we are talking here is ‘punishment’ versus ‘damages’, that is, exactly the difference between criminal and civil law that England still maintains… Since homicide is now definitely criminal not civil, however, there’s a change to be explained still, and Tom puts it later than 1066.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

The opening of the Laws of Edmund in London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

As for the people’s action, even the royal legislation is full of references to assemblies and local courts; in fact, it tries to make them do more and make justice the affair of lower-level assemblies, moving prosecution of offences down from towns to hundreds! This is, you have to admit, not the kind of appropriation of right of court to royal justices we see under Edward I. What is is, however, Tom now conceded, is a universalisation of practice across a much wider area as the kings of Wessex brought the rest of what is now England under their control. There was some tension there, I thought, since Tom’s picture was being extrapolated from laws from several kingdoms in the first place, but it’s sort of got to be true anyway; the king decides which set of local customs he endorses, and to say anything at all that puts him in charge (which shows that I have not entirely left Wormald behind) he has to do something other than tell everyone to go on with what they were doing. Some communities must have experienced royal demands for how they did things as cancellations or abrogations of ‘their ways’. This is true of far more things than just crime and punishment, of course, but it does tend to be where my sympathies always go when the extension of royal power turns up in argument (as in Oxford it so often did). The thing about a big society is that it normalises all the little ones…


1. That standard picture is now canonically enshrined in Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003).

2. The sovereign paradox, that he who would change the law must be above it, is repeatedly explained by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, though once is really enough.

3. See T. Lambert, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law” in Past and Present no. 214 (Oxford 2012), pp. 3-43.

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 CXL: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

I said a few posts ago that I was teaching at Birmingham last year more or less in imitation of an Anglo-Saxonist, and I meant to link that phrase to the webpage of Dr Peter Darby at Nottingham, because it was in fact very specifically him that I was imitating; he had been on contract to do the teaching I took over before Nottingham made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.1 He has Birmingham academic background, however, so it was a sort of homecoming when he addressed Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar on 25th November 2013, with the title, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and the Codex Amiatinus Christ in Majesty”.

Full-size replica of the Codex Amiatinus

What the BBC confusingly calls “the only full-sized replica in the world of a Bible created more than 1,000 years ago”, raising the question of why someone is using gloves to handle a modern replica (not that you necessarily should even with parchment). Nonetheless, this gives you the size of the volume, and if you imagine those pages being skin, not paper, also the weight…

The Codex Amiatinus is the 75-pound Bible of the title, famously one of a set of three made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow for presentation, in this case to the papacy, the source as Bede saw it of England’s Christianity.2 It was done in Roman-style uncial script, in columns, by at least eight different scribes; it is probably reasonable to see it as the baby Church demonstrating to Papa that it’s all grown-up now. It was taken to Rome, probably by the following of Abbot Ceolfrið, who died on the way there, and by the ninth century was in the monastery of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, whence it gets its name; in 1786 it was moved to Florence, at which point someone for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from Peter Lombard. There is a lot of decoration in the book, including the famous portrait of Ezra that has been reused so many times by people looking for images of medieval scribes. Peter pointed out that most of this decoration is in the first quire of the book now, and wondered if it might have been rearranged, but some pictures remain later on, and his paper was essentially a close-reading of the one below in search of communications of orthodoxy.

Christ in Majesty, from the Codex Amiatinus

Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin parchment. “Amiatinus Maiestas Domini” by Unknown – Internet. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments, thus opening the New, but Peter argued that it also closes it, by invoking in its depiction of Christ in Majesty the throne in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation: against a background of stars, jasper and ruby, a rainbow encircling, four living creatures around it that represent the Evangelists… I was happy to accept that (and indeed to drag the image straight into my teaching materials next term) but Peter also found a lot of fours in this image, numerical and geometrical, including pointing out that if you draw diagonal lines between the Evangelists’ books they intersect at Christ’s book and that even the stars in the background are arranged in quincunxes, crosses of four points around a fifth. The trouble for me here is that there are four Gospels, that’s a given starting place, and I’m not sure that this kind of structuring has to mean any more than a recognition of that as an organising principle for a necessarily four-sided artwork. Peter also argued that the portrayal of Christ as human was very current and correct, because the Church had just (as of 692) agreed that the Lamb of God should no longer be used to depict Jesus, but the Christ in Majesty usually is human, isn’t he, and that might to be honest just be because lambs look silly standing on furniture.

The Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of <em>Revelation</em>.

Not that anthropomorphising the Agnus Dei hasn’t been taken to much less likely lengths, of course! This is from a c. 1200 copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, showing the Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of Revelation.

What I certainly took from this was that the artwork was meticulously planned and laid out, and that once again it as with many another Insular Gospel Book stands as very obvious evidence against anyone who wants to argue that medieval artists weren’t very good. This was difficult and deliberate work, especially with the tools, inks and dyes available, and no effort was being spared to make a top-of-the-range codex. Peter’s case that it was sending an up-to-the-minute communication of theological orthodoxy to the papacy, however, rather than just advertising that its artists and home monastery were world-class… well, I’m still open to it, but this paper did not close it for me.


1. Given that this could be taken as a critical review, I should admit in full disclosure that I was also interviewed for the Nottingham job. I hope that that doesn’t affect my thinking here but I suppose you ought to know it could technically be a factor.

2. If there is a one-stop academic read on these matters it is for now Paul Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus” in Speculum Vol. 71 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 827-883, DOI: 10.2307/2865722. A bigger picture (literally) can be got from George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London 1987).

Seminar CXXXIX: buddy bishops in Bernicia

Returning to the decreasing (yes! actually decreasing!) seminar report backlog takes us up to the 13th November 2013, when I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research as part of my grand project of accurately imitating a professional Anglo-Saxonist for the year, and also because I was interested to hear Trevor Morse give a paper entitled “Cuthbert and Wilfrid: parallel lives(?)”. This found us all looking more closely at late seventh-century Northumbrian history than I think anyone has done for a while, in a way I like to encourage everywhere, with as many of the operative personalities in it as possible considered at once.

St Cuthbert's shrine, Durham Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s final final resting place, in Durham Cathedral

The starting position here is the reputation of the two saints of the title, both bishops in the early Northumbrian Church, both much described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and, in Cuthbert’s case, his two Lives of the man, while Wilfrid had a follower called Stephen who wrote up his Life for him.1 If you know this, you will also know that Wilfrid was an extremely controversial figure, expelled from his bishopric three times, an exile hosted at the courts of I think four different kings, with the pagan one of whom he nonetheless organised the conversion of the Isle of Wight; he also rejoices in the title of the Apostle of Sussex. Where Trevor brought us in to the debate was therefore with Walter Goffart’s controversial book The Narrators of Barbarian History which argues of four classic early medieval historical works that they are far more about contemporary politics than the events they purport to recall, and in Bede’s case that one of the big issues hiding in his work is the reconciliation of the various parties in the aftermath of Wilfrid’s divisive career, something that Bede did by developing Cuthbert as an alternative figure of that age suitable for veneration.2 To this, having made it clear at the outset how tricky and partisan the sources are, almost all at that dangerous remove from events where it’s still not possible to be neutral, Trevor wondered what we can learn by taking a closely chronological approach, putting the two men’s careers against each other and asking: were they in fact rivals in life?

The high altar of Ripon Cathedral

With somewhat less certainty, this is probably where Wilfrid finished up, near or under the high altar of Ripon Cathedral, if that stayed in the same place during its later rebuilding. By Andrewrabbott (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

I love chronological approaches anyway, but I did feel that this one was particularly revelatory. If, for example, one abstracts Cuthbert’s career from the various praiseworthy contexts in which his hagiographers paint him and try and put together a bald career summary, one of the things that becomes clear which certainly I hadn’t realised is that Cuthbert got booted out of office or fired upwards almost as much as Wilfrid did, driven out of Wilfrid’s foundation of Ripon with the then-Abbot Eata after Wilfrid’s move the Lindisfarne, moved to Lindisfarne from his subsequent appointment as Prior of Melrose after Wilfrid’s first restoration as bishop but retiring from there very soon afterwards, returning to the political fore as Wilfrid’s star began to rise again after his second deposition, then becoming Bishop of Hexham then swapping (with Eata) to be Bishop of Lindisfarne and dying before Wilfrid could get expelled again, whereafter Lindisfarne apparently nearly dissolved and there was a big argument over where Cuthbert’s body should go.3 It suddenly got hard to see him as a figure of peace with all this put together, and it also looked much more as if his spells in the sun coincided with Wilfrid’s than the way the Lives are built would lead you to spot.


“For I know that, although I seemed contemptible to some while I lived, yet, after my death, you will see what I was and how my teaching is not to be despised.”

This is not something a successful peacemaker needs to say on his deathbed, even less something a hagiographer should need to say of such a person thirty years later... Nonetheless, they are the words Bede gave Cuthbert in his Prose Life, c. 39.

That then raises the issue of what on earth was so divisive about him, and there Trevor’s answer was that one of the things the various Lives do say about Cuthbert, usually as praise but in this light now looking different, was that he was a champion of a fairly strict monastic lifestyle; when he ran into trouble with his various communities, this is how his hagiographers explain it, Bede indeed making this out as a trait going back to his youth when even training for war as a child he would outdo, outrun, out-strive his contemporaries. If you wanted to, then, you could see Cuthbert’s career as a long series of annoying people by over-achievement, but Trevor framed it mainly in terms of Roman and Benedictine observance. In that framework Cuthbert, despite his roots in the ‘Irish’ Church of early Christian Northumbria (roots that Wilfrid of course shared), appeared as a more Romanising figure than was found useful by his subsequent biographers.

The tomb of St Bede the Venerable in Durham Cathedral

As long as tombs is the theme… this is where the mind that we’re substantially seeing all this through finished up, the tomb of St Bede the Venerable, also in Durham Cathedral

At the end, I was still a bit unclear as exactly how sincere Trevor thought the reform agenda had been (though setting it out involved a description of a whole group of Northumbrian churchmen as ‘Whitby grads’, which I enjoyed). Bede seems to want Cuthbert to have been just a bit too ascetic for his charges to cope with; his earlier hagiographer (who Trevor suggested might have been the eventual Prior of Lindisfarne Æthelbalda Ripon priest then Lindisfarne hermit by the name of Oiðilwald, in the right places at the right times) seems to have wanted him as a Benedictine figure, but which of these, if either, was the ‘safe’ historiographical position by which someone writing up this somewhat explosive career might defuse it? Was ‘reform’ more a matter of factional competition than anything really about how to be a good monk? Still, having reason to believe we can see even that far back through the mess of writing that tangles up the history of the Northumbrian Church was further than any of us might have expected to get with such well-studied material, and even if some of the connections are still difficult to understand, Trevor managed to use them to explain things anyway, no mean achievement.


1. Almost all the materials in play here were at one point or another edited, translated or both by Bertram Colgrave, and in most cases his versions remain the standard ones: B. Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge 1927); idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St. Cuthbert. A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life (Cambridge 1940, 2nd edn. 1985); idem & R. A. B. Mynors (edd./transl.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford 1969); Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Cambridge 1985). Bede also wrote a Verse Life that is only translated in a forthcoming volume of Bede’s Latin poetry by Michael Lapidge, and we also had several other bits of Northumbrian hagiography in play, all of which you can find in D. H. Farmer (ed.) & J. F. Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (London 1983).

2. Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A. D. 550–850): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (London 1988), pp. 235–328.

3. One interesting sidetrack here that I prolonged in questions is how Bede describes the difficulty at Lindisfarne after Cuthbert’s death in the Verse Life. Trevor’s handout has it thus:

“The insistent north wind, trusting in its snowy weaponry, strikes the Lindisfarne monastic buidlings on all sides with such spiteful blast, that the noble progeny of our brothers was hanging by the precarious thread of events, and would choose to abandon the site rather than undergo these extremes of danger.”

This all sounds weirdly like Vikings avant la lettre. Bede kept the storm metaphor in the Prose Life but dropped the reference to the north, but that actually makes a lot of sense at the time he was writing the verse life because of the resurgent threat of the Picts, so some people present wondered if that, rather than internal trouble, could be what was threatening the island monastery. Trevor agreed that Melrose and Abercorn, two of the Northumbrian Church’s now-Scottish outposts, were in trouble at this time, and that led me in turn to remember that some of Bede’s informants on Pictland were clerics exiled from there at this point in time. If they had found refuge at Lindisfarne, that might have changed the balance of opinions there quite suddenly and sharply, but unlike the Pictish military threat, it wouldn’t have been so much of an issue by the time Bede was writing his Prose Life in the early 720s…

Seminar CXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.


1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.