Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

My relentless progress through my seminar report backlog now finally leaves me looking at the last seminar I went to in Oxford, something of a milestone. The person who had the dubious honour of that slot in my academic life was the estimable Dr Alice Taylor, one of Kings College London’s regiment of Alices and an acquaintance of long standing from the Institute of Historical Research but here presenting to the Medieval History Seminar at All Souls with the title “Lex scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish law compared”. This was a version of a paper she’d given in Oxford the previous year, but I’d missed it then and there was plenty of debate this time round…

Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, fo. 59v

The opening of the text of Leges Scocie, as close as there is to an early medieval Scottish lawcode, in Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, the so-called Berne Manuscript, fo. 59v.

It has so far been Alice’s most widely-recognised achievement to convince people that there even was such a thing as early medieval Scottish law, which she has had to retrieve from contextually-undatable references in much later manuscripts, but when you’ve done that, as she explained, you start to wonder about how the system worked and since, if that was your best evidence, you have no case-law or documentation by which practice might be examined, you have to start comparing. So, after a brief run-through of the different schools of historical thought on how written law relates to what people actually do to maintain social order in their communities, from the minimalist Patrick Wormald thesis that legislators of such law were not after judicial effects so much as the promotion of the legislators’ position above society to the somehow more spiritual one that written law reflects the wider community ideology as it was lived, she adopted a position for debate that written law was in these cases the top of an iceberg of unwritten legal practice, both part of the same corpus of social ideology, but more similar between her areas at the bottom than at the top.1

The three corpora do certainly differ, not least in preservation—Wales has various thirteenth-century redactions of what purports to be a royal lawcode of the tenth century, the Laws of Hywel Dda, Anglo-Saxon England has a large corpus of summative royal lawcodes with additional provisions also largely issued in royal council in what we now recognise as a fairly Carolingian way and in Scotland, as said, there are thirteenth- and fourteenth-century references to laws that in some cases probably go back rather further—but also in the legislative process: Welsh law names a king but its real developers were specialist lawyers, Anglo-Saxon England places the king first and foremost and Scotland is somewhere between the two. Alice argued, however, that all three corpora have references in that imply strongly that the legislators expected the initial action against criminals to come from the communities in which the crimes were committed, and the royal or state process would only creak into operation when that failed. The English laws are full of communal obligations for default of which the king can penalise, at what after the tenth-century is usually a flat fine of 120 shillings; Welsh law has a whole set of pay-scales for abetting crimes, which are charged at the same rate as the crimes themselves but to the state, rather than the victims; and the more shadowy Scottish references still assume posses who might hang a thief if he was caught, in a style quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon laws. All, or so Alice argued, expected the most immediate action to be taken in community, leaving royal justice as a superstrate over a bustle of quite various local enforcement of communal solidarities. For this reason, the main focus of the laws in all three areas is on persons, not communities, who have broken out of their social bonds by reason of their actions.

Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

An illustrated page from the Laws of Hywel Dda in Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

This met with some opposition and refinement in discussion. Paul Brand pointed out that despite the texts’ focus on individual actions, royal enforcement was carried out against whole communities, such as the harrying of Worcestershire in 1041 by King Harthacnut’s orders to pick just one.2 Mark Whittow suggested that the real rôle of law in these cases was to penalise action on behalf of the kindred, i. e. feud, as opposed to action on behalf of the community; and Wendy Davies evinced scepticism that the local community existed in these areas as a group so clearly defined as that it could be expected to act as a body. To the last, Alice (correctly, it seems to me) said that the texts nevertheless envisage such a group with mutual knowledge, though this doesn’t remove Wendy’s objection that it’s hard to show that was really there on the ground. Thomas Charles-Edwards and Tom Lambert both raised the question of change, however, and here there seemed to be more room for modification at least about what the royal law was for: Tom has after all argued something not dissimilar to this but both he and Professor Charles-Edwards emphasised that the lawcodes we have (i. e. the English ones) develop new terms over the course of the tenth century, as the kings try and open up space for themselves in what had previously been community action.

My notes no longer make it clear to me exactly how the three positions differed here, but the focus of disagreement seems to have been on whether the legislators, in all three cases, were trying to use what the communities over whom they legislated already did, to support it or to change it. I think Alice was arguing for the first two options, but for England the swell of opinion elsewhere around the table seemed much more on the first plus the third. It did seem to me (what my notes do reflect) that the English laws have as a big part of their agenda to regularise and eliminate local variation in custom, and the detailed provisions of the Welsh laws look like that to me also; the Scottish stuff I know much less well, but since we don’t have it as issued (if it was) it’s harder to say. The differences in practice here may not matter very much, but the Oxford scholarship seems even now to be very keen on knowing the minds of rulers, and it does seem as if law should be a way one can do it; to that way of thinking, Alice’s paper was probably more subversive than it initially appeared…


1. Alice here contrasted Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001) with Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia (New Haven 1988). Patrick’s book is certainly where to start for more on any of the lawcodes mentioned in this post. As for Alice, her beacon work so far might be “Leges Scocie and the lawcodes of David I, William the Lion and Alexander II” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 207-288, but this paper itself is out, since last month only, as “Lex Scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Law Compared” in Judith Scheele & Fernanda Pirie (edd.), Legalism: justice and community, Legalism 2 (Oxford 2014), pp. 47-76!

2. So recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for the year 1041. in whatever edition or translation you prefer to use; mine of resort is Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1998).

Before you write a charter

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time is the process in which an early medieval charter, meaning the documents we now have, got written. There is a lot of assumption about this and exposure to original documents can often show that these assumptions are unjustified, because the palæography or whatever demonstrates that it can’t have been done that way. Sometimes this is even obvious in the text: some charters talk about themselves having been placed upon the altar to symbolise a donation to a church, for example, which can’t be correct as it stands – the document can’t have been finished before an action it describes in the past tense. I’ve seen it argued that the documents in question were part-finished and then so deposited, and then finished up afterwards, and indeed sometimes perhaps not finished at all given the state of many papal documents so that sort of works, but I also suspect that in this sense, many of these documents are lying and the procedure they describe didn’t take place as recorded, be they never so authentic.1

The altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

How is an altar like a writing-desk? The much-inscribed altar slab from the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres

If one steps back from the document for a moment and observes the process, however, there were presumably several stages in any transaction a charter records. At least, these would have probably included an initial approach by the person initiating the transaction to the other party and some negotiation between them about how it should go; then a public meeting in which that transfer was enacted before witnesses, and subsequently some shunting around of assets that constituted the actual transfer of property. One could add more: there’s one charter in the Vic archives where the two parties had arranged the transfer but couldn’t arrange the actual meeting, so they had chosen an intermediary and what the charter records is him being given the price and it being laid upon him to go to the first party, transfer the price to him and return to the second party with title to the land, presumably another charter that is not, in fact, the one that eventually came to Vic, suggesting that perhaps the transaction was never actually completed.2 There’s another pair of charters in that same archive which replace earlier documents that had been lost and have witnesses recalling the ceremony in which the originals were made, and those witnesses recall a second ceremony where the recipient went to his new lands and had the charters read out three times so everyone should know he was now the owner. This is a lovely thing to have recorded, and it certainly seems as if something like that should have happened, and if only the scribe hadn’t used titles for the officials involved that never get used ordinarily in Catalan documents, thus indicating that he was working from a written model, I’d believe it, but as it is…3 And this is what I mean about exposure weakening assumptions.

Partial facsimile of a Vic charter in which a third-party collects payment for one of the transactors

Partial facsimile of the charter in which Ferriol firmator acts as the third party described above, M. S. Gros i Pujol, “Làmines” in Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, no. 36.

The reason this now bubbles to the surface, however, is one aspect of this that we have debated here before, which is whether the charter itself is actually written at the ceremony. It would sort of seem that it has to be, as before that one could obviously only guess at who would actually turn up to witness. On the other hand, if unforeseen people had not made it, would that even be admitted, you may ask, and we have to consider that perhaps it would not be, but some documents do give me comfort on this score, in particular those that allowed space for people’s names they didn’t eventually need, or the massive Vall de Sant Joan hearing where the initial list of those present doesn’t quite match up with those who actually witnessed it.4 That of course implies that there was a pre-text, written up in advance ready to be finished off later, something that could obviously go wrong and so we see it happening.

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Other places got round this problem of needing a text to carry out the ceremony but not being able to finish the text till afterwards in other ways. The many original charters of the Alpine monastery of St Gallen famously often have draft versions on the hair side of the parchment sheet which are written up fine on the smoother, flesh side to constitute that actual charter.5 What makes me put fingers to keyboard about this today, though, is having lately found an Anglo-Saxon example of this, or nearly this, a grant of land at a place fittingly called Little Chart, in Kent, to a thegn Æthelmod by King Æthewulf of Wessex in 843. This document was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and is now in the British Library, and the scribe was clearly working from a written precursor. This is suggested by his misspellings of words in the boundary clauses, but it’s much more obviously confirmed, as you can see below, by the fact that attached to the document are two parchment scraps that bear portions of the witness list in other hands. Now, if these were being written from the charter there would surely be no point in storing them with it; you would only do that so as to be able to carry information away. Instead, they must be so attached in order to validate the final copy made using their information. In other words, a couple of people wrote down what was going on on the spot then a nice proper charter was made of it later on.6

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his <i>minister</i> Æthelmod, 843

Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex to his minister Æthelmod, 843

I suspect this is actually how things usually happened, although I expect that parchment scraps were much less often used than writing tablets, which we would hardly ever expect to have preserved.7 In the case of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, it’s again obvious that there were written lists of people involved, as the scribe of the main document scrambled some of the names which he obviously couldn’t read. Some of the St Gallen documents’ draft versions are pretty neat, too, which makes me wonder whether a draft might not sometimes have been preserved as an original in other contexts. Certainly there are two versions of some major grants to religious houses which seem to represent arguments over terms and which one is the winning version is now impossible to say; this affects the earliest evidence of the cathedral of Vic’s right to mint coinage, just to pick one example.8 I worry, you see, that this may be the case much more often than we really have evidence for it, and so when I find evidence for it like this, I like to share…


1. James Campbell, “The Sale of Land and the Economics of Power in Early England: problems and possibilities” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 1 (Woodbridge 1989), pp. 23-37; J. Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41; idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 27-71.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.) Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 67 (pictured).

3. Ibid. doc. nos 27 & 28, also printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 33 & 34; see Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 49-53.

4. E. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 119 & 1526, the former the Vall de Sant Joan hearing (pictured) and the latter a right mess of space allocation pictured and discussed here. On the redaction of the former, see J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-38.

5. Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge 1989), pp. 90-98; Carl Brückner, Die Vorakte der älteren St. Galler Urkunden (St Gallen 1931). The St Gallen charters are now largely edited in facsimile via the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, but if I give you full edition references for those ten or eleven volumes (so far) I’ll never make it to work today; they can be found here. You’re looking for ChLA I, II & C-CVII. While digging that up, however, I came across the existence of Bernhard Zeller, “Writing Charters as a Public Activity: The Example of the Carolingian Charters of St Gall” in Marco Mostert & Paul Barnwell (edd.), Medieval Legal Process. Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Turhnout 2011), pp. 27-37, which I think I once knew about but haven’t followed up; time I did so!

6. W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885–1899), 3 vols, no. 442; Peter Sawyer (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), rev. Susan Kelly, Rebecca Rushforth et al. as The Electronic Sawyer (Cambridge 2010), online here, no. 293; A. Prescott, “Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex” in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 232, pp. 256-257, gives a facsimile and some discussion.

7. Though see Webster & Backhouse, Making of England, nos 64 & 65!

8. Junyent, Diplomatari, doc. no. 55, takes the two variant Vic texts together; Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV deals with them separately as his doc. nos 103 & 105, which I find less helpful since it suggests they were both definitive. I had a really good example of a charter of King Henry IV of Germany being adapted in response to what can only be called user feedback, too, but can’t now work out where I had this stored and there’s no time to look now. Never mind! Such things exist

Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome

One good paper about travel to Rome deserves another, or something; five days after hearing Lizzie Boyle tell us about Irish clerics whose journies to Rome went awry, on 27th May 2013 I was listening to my old colleague Rory Naismith addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Peter’s Pence and Beyond: the Forum Hoard and Anglo-Roman monetary relations in the Middle Ages”. The hoard in question here is 870 silver pennies and a gold solidus found in digging in the Forum of Rome in 1883. The digger was looking for the house of the Vestal Virgins so went pretty much straight through the later building between Santa Maria Antiqua and San Silvestro in Lacu where the coins turned up, so they have had only the most cursory publication up till now; Rory and colleagues are now changing that and he was in Oxford to tell us more about it.1

I guess about the middle of this picture...

The composition of the hoard first: the solidus is one of Emperor Theophilus (829-842), and among the silver there are five Continental pieces, one of Emperor Berengar I (915-924) from Pavia and the others from Pavia, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Limoges.2 The rest is Anglo-Saxon pennies of all the kings from Athelstan (924-939) to Edmund (939-946) barring six from the mint of Viking York. The whole thing seems to have been in a bag of some kind because also found were two silver hooked-tags that could have been fasteners and seem to bear the garbled name of Pope Marinus II (942-946), and when it came up it was all in a cooking pot.3 A 940s assemblage date thus seems pretty obvious, but Athelstan’s contribution makes up nearly half of the English stuff even though it would have been in circulation the longest, and should, we might think, have been withdrawn by this time.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

London is the mint best represented, and that is where the die-links are most frequent, suggesting that coins from there had circulated less than the others, but a sixth of the coins are from Midlands mints and another sixth from even further afield. Rory thought that this probably represented the circulation available in London or close by around that time, and pointed out that Bishop Theodred of London, who died 942×951, had been to Rome and bequeathed stuff he’d bought in Pavia, among a sum of wealth from which 870 pennies would hardly have been significant.4 Whether that constitutes a smoking gun or not, if this was circulation (and we have very few southern English hoards of this period from which to judge, they’re actually more frequent in Italy!) if this was the coin doing the rounds in 940s London the Anglo-Saxon coinage system was some way off its later level of regulation. I also don’t see how we can rule out that the owner of these coins wasn’t adding stuff or even taking stuff out as he moved, so there are difficulties with interpretation still, but it’s still a good chunk of evidence for money use somewhere!

Inscribed hooked-tags from the Forum Hoard

The hooked-tags from the hoard, inscribed +DOMNO MA and RINO PAPA, a matching pair. Blunt, Okasha and Metcalf, Pl. VIII.

The question that follows, however, is that with any hoard: why did someone bring it where it was found, put it there and then not come back for it? The last one of these can almost never be answered, and here the second one was hard to answer too — opinions varied on whether this was a run-down or busy part of tenth-century Rome and the most that could be agreed was that it would have been hard to be unobserved, while the actual location doesn’t seem to have been part of the precinct of any active churches — but with the first there are two obvious suggestions. The first is that this was a pilgrim’s gift, and the custom-made fastening does make it look like a votive offering; if so, however, it obviously never got given! The second, which has the same problem, connects to the tax of Rory’s title, ‘Peter’s Pence‘, a levy on the English for the support of the papacy which is canonically blamed on either King Offa of Mercia or King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but which is otherwise hard to demonstrate in operation before the time of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). This seems too early, therefore, and in any case it’s nothing like as much as a Peter’s Pence payment would presumably have been: Rory said that it matches about one-third of what Berkshire paid in the time of Domesday Book, in which case where’s the rest?

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

It was the closing points that probably interested me the most, though, sometimes-numismatist as I suppose I am. These were about the use of money in tenth-century Italy. This seems to have been quite restricted. A full quarter of early medieval coins found in Italy have been English ones. The papal coinage is only ephemerally preserved. However, from the 970s onwards the royal coinage of Pavia seems to have had some kind of a renascence; it rises in find frequency to drown out both English and papal issues. This being Western Europe’s most urbanised area, it seems improbable that there wasn’t money of some kind in use in markets; the English stuff however seems to have been what one hoarded (presumably because it was well-known to be better). In that case, should someone have just stolen this bag meant for Pope Marinus from Bishop Theodred or whoever, and then found it full of English coin, stashing it somewhere out of the way where they could take coins from it few by few, and not getting very far with that before some mishap befell them, still seems a perfectly possible outcome. We will never know: but lost precious metal really seems to pique the popular interest, and in cases like this it’s not hard to see why!


1. I suppose it depends what you mean by cursory: there’s D. M. Metcalf, “The Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 62 (London 1992), pp. 62-96, online here.

2. These details, except the attribution to Berengar, are from ibid.; Rory mentioned the Theophilus solidus but called the others ‘Frankish'; the Berengar attribution came out in questions.

3. The tags have been published in James Graham-Campbell & Elisabeth Okasha, with Michael Metcalf, “A Pair of Inscribed Anglo-Saxon Hooked Tags from the Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 221-229.

4. His will is edited in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge 1930), no. 1, and translated in eadem (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 106.

Ghost voices in the first person

When I wrote this, in May 2013, I was working my way through Patrick Wormald’s post-mortem Festschrift, which has some excellent stuff in it sharing space with several things that are only just papers.1 I won’t name any of the latter, but there is among many other good things a new treatment of the Fonthill Letter by Nicholas Brooks which does exactly what I would do when given a tricky and well-known document to squeeze something more from, to wit, look for the participants in other charters, and it works out well.2 In the course of doing it he opened one of those problems I hadn’t realised was a problem, though, and I want to turn it round a bit. [Of course, when I wrote this, he wasn't dead, and I might have hoped to turn it round in conversation with him, but I didn't, now I can't, so I can only hope there's nothing here he would have minded. It seems unlikely that he would have.]

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, part of the estate concerned in the Fonthill Letter

Great Ridge Wood, near Cricklade, which the Wikpiedia entry on the Fonthill Letter reckons part of the estate concerned and therefore uses to illustrate the entry! “Great Ridge wood near Chicklade – geograph.org.uk – 465121” by Andy Gryce – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

First I should probably explain what the Fonthill Letter actually is, which has not always been certain. It seems safe to say that it is a letter written to intervene with King Edward the Elder of the English (899-924), son of Alfred the Great, over a land dispute of Alfred’s time, which one of the parties was now trying to reopen. The landholder, one Helmstan, had been challenged over it because he’d stolen someone’s belt, and the challenger presumably thought this would weaken his network of support and make him vulnerable to challenges on other grounds. In the event, the author of the letter, Helmstan’s godfather, rallied round and interceded for him, even when Helmstan, having been securely reaffirmed in his rights over the land, then threw it all away by getting caught cattle-rustling some time later. The godfather’s interest in this was that Helmstan had promised him the land in question in exchange for his support, Helmstan to carry on holding it under his lordship. By the time of the letter, this had all taken place, Helmstan was presumably dead and the author had shifted the ‘hot’ property on to the cathedral of Winchester in exchange for other less contentious estates, and really didn’t want the whole thing challenged. He entreats Edward: “Sir, when will any suit be ended if one can close it neither with money nor with oath? Or if one wishes to alter every judgement that King Alfred made, when shall we have finished disputing?” All of which is very true and poignant but fails to hide the fact that Helmstan had been able to get away with theft twice because his godfather was in with the kings. It is, as ever, tough to be up against the Man in the tenth century.3

But who was this godfather? The author of the letter doesn’t explicitly name himself, but in it Helmstan is said to have held land from Ealdorman Ordlaf of Wiltshire, and such a man is also listed as present at the final settlement of the case which is recorded on the dorse of the document, along with a Canterbury scribe’s note that the whole document was useless, ‘inutile‘, and should presumably have been thrown away. Nicholas made a good case, using the charters as said, that Ordlaf is the author, and this has been argued before, but a problem with it is that Ordlaf is referred to in the third person and the letter is written in the first. Split personality? Nicholas thought not, and points out: “Such variation between the first and third persons is in fact a common feature of the most nearly comparable extant documents, namely Anglo-Saxon wills.” Which is where I come in, because in the wills of tenth and eleventh-century Catalonia I occasionally see the same thing, as witness (with my emphasis):

In the name of God. Men of these names, Borrell the priest, Ermegell and Dacó, who are executors of the late Avendi, we together as one are donors to God and to the monastery of Sant Benet, which is sited on the Riu Llobregat. By this same donation we give 1 modiata of vine, which came to me Avendi by purchase…

This is not the best example I could give but it is maybe the shortest and it was certainly the first one I could find.4 There are a few of these documents where suddenly the voice of the dead testator comes back to haunt it, and up till now I’d always assumed this was a relic of the elaborate testamentary process used here, where an initial will was sacramentally published before judges or at least churchmen and then individual bequests carried out by the executors, or almsmen, as would be a fairer translation of their title, elemosinarius.5 This obviously opens the possibility that people writing up the latter parts of the process would refer to the initial will and quote it direct without adjusting the grammar, and I’m sure that’s what happened in this case of 987.

But can this explain Ordlaf’s elusiveness in the Fonthill letter? Nicholas went a bit round the houses here, suggesting that there might be a distinct semantic register of documents where the use of the third person for oneself was more appropriate than the first, and that such a document may have been involved here, the local reeve’s judgement that the land Helmstan held from Ordlaf wasn’t forfeit because it wasn’t really his. And I can’t work out if this step about the semantic register is necessary. Certainly, in the Catalan cases, if such a respect for the original will is why it’s quoted direct, it’s not done consistently even within documents (though Nicholas referenced an observation of Mechthild Gretsch’s that the same could be said of King Alfred, or at least whoever wrote the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis in Alfred’s name).6 The Fonthill letter is anything but an accomplished piece of writing, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting (and so hard to edit and translate); if there was a written antecessor here I’m not sure that the author would have thought to change the grammar to fit the new context. That such a thing would be in writing to quote is itself slightly surprising but perhaps not impossible. But between mistake and respect, I find it hard to choose, and wonder whether we even need to: to the recipients and audiences, in all cases, the meaning would presumably have been clear anyway. All of these documents are, after all, at some level reported speech anyway, and we’re as happy now to quote direct or to report speech as this would require. That a nobleman would address the king by letter anyway already suggests a familiarity with writing; I’m not suggesting that this should automatically breed contempt, but we could possibly underestimate the readiness of such a writer to adapt texts to his whim, even if he wasn’t Wessex’s top redactor. A charter, yes, is a special piece of writing, a scriptura, Scripture, but this was not, even if it now is to us, and greater freedom may have been available for the author in which to trip up…


1. Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009).

2. N. Brooks, “The Fonthill Letter, Ealdorman Ordlaf and Anglo-Saxon Law in Practice”, ibid., pp.301-316.

3. Following Brooks’s translation, ibid. pp. 302-306 with quote p. 304.

4. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1522.

5. The easiest guide to testamentary practice in Catalonia is Nathaniel Taylor, “Testamentary Publication and Proof and the Afterlife of Ancient Probate Procedure in Carolingian Septimania” in K. Pennington, S. Chodorow & K. H. Kendall (edd.), Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on Medieval Canon Law (Vatican City 2001), pp. 767-780, online here, last modified 9th December 2006 as of 24th June 2007.

6. M. Gretsch, “The Fonthill Letter: language, law and the discourse of disciplines” in Anglia Vol. 123 (Berlin 2005), pp. 662-686 at p. 669, cit. Brooks, “Fonthill Letter”, p. 313 n. 26. On doubt over the authorship here, see Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum Vol. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215. Brooks referenced other work on the Letter, but one might add more generally Patrick Wormald, “Charters, Law and the Settlement of Disputes in Anglo-Saxon England” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 149-168 and Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257.

Seminar CLXXVI: buying control of Norway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar CLXXIV: debating change around 1066

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

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday: the final judgement!

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

Gallery

Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

British Chilterners

Enough backdated self-publicity! Here instead is another of those posts where I take a sober, careful and reasonable set of deductions made from patchy evidence by a suitably cautious and reputable scholar and just keep pushing well beyond the evidence, and again, the topic is the formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It’s not just me this topic interests, as a couple of good essay volumes show,1 but it certainly does interest me; when I got the Oxford job it was partly with a presentation on that subject, a presentation that then became a lecture three months later, and I repeated that lecture with adaptations the two subsequent years, so there’s no point pretending I don’t have views. Even if I did so pretend, anyway, for readers of this blog it would be too late.

Now, if you’ve followed that link or remember it, you’ll know that one of my pet interests is whether we can countenance the survival of whatever sub-Roman British political organisation had been improvised in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Rome into the Anglo-Saxon period, and if so where and how far, something with which one has to be careful as somewhat wild theories abound at the far end of this spectrum.2 There are a few more-or-less accepted cases of this, the northern kingdoms of Elmet and Gododdin being the obvious ones, and some arguments to be made in favour of both Lincoln and London (the former rather more so) having survived as centres of sub-Roman authority long enough to coordinate some sort of settlement of Anglo-Saxon-cultured federate troops around themselves as defences before, presumably, becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Lindsey and Middlesex, if the latter ever was a kingdom.3 If it was, it can’t have been for very long as Essex seems to have taken over London and already lost control of some of it to Kent by 602.4 But since there was a name, the idea that there was a unit there which could be described in terms of `Middle Saxons’ must have been reasonably widespread for a while even if any actual polity lasted no longer than a mayfly.

"Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571", reproduced from John Hines, "The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia", fig. 11

“Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571″, reproduced from John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia”, fig. 11

So, this post is occasioned by having read a chapter in one of those essay volumes by John Hines.5 The case he wants to make is for the Cambridge area having for a while in the sixth and seventh century been a region of some local importance controlling a border area between two cultural zones that later distinguished as Middle Anglia and East Anglia, though by then Middle Anglia’s centre had been sucked westwards to its bishopric at Leicester and its border with its new Mercian masters. This is interesting, but it’s not what caught me because, about two-thirds of the way through, Professor Hines introduces the above map and tries to use it to argue for identifying the four centres on it, all of which bar Eynsham are at crossings of the Roman road known as the Icknield Way (Eynsham being a Thames crossing) and all of which are said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have fallen into the control of Cuthwulf King of the West Saxons in AD 571, as likely points of a decentralised British-identified group of settlements. This is not very near Cambridge and what it is doing in his argument is initially hard to see, but he lingers on it just long enough to link it tentatively to St Albans, a centre of British Christianity that Bede admits still existed in his day but won’t tell us any more about.6 Now, Hines does not put a name to this grouping of settlements, but we obviously could, and it would be Cilternsæte, ‘the people of the Chilterns’, which is in the Tribal Hidage and given its geographical referent would more or less have to be close to this zone or in it.7

The particular genius of Hines’s chapter, I think (and so does he, I think, as he emphasises it at the end) is to argue for a number of these decentralised groupings (and he sees Cambridgeshire as another, which is the link) that actually did so well for themselves, by virtue of achieving stability and relative prosperity, in a local and supra-local economy we can sort of see in metalwork distributions, that they did not in fact develop into kingdoms, remaining cheerfully established as decentralised groupings while the big neighbours who would eventually swallow them were slogging it out between élites of which only one group would eventually triumph (as with the previous one of these posts, about Kent). As he says, this implies, “that progress towards state-formation under strong monarchial [sic] government may at its very source in the early Middle Ages have been more revolutionary than evolutionary”.8

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage; click through for an interactive version!

This has an enjoyably Marxist-eschatological tinge, with its implication that the Revolution can only come once everyone’s doing badly enough to actually rise up, and for Cambridge at least I would imagine that the discovery of the Trumpington ‘princess’ and Anglo-Saxon remains (albeit late ones) under the University’s Old Schools may necessitate some re-evaluation of Cambridge’s only being one among many similar centres in its area, but a question remains for me about the Cilternsæte, which is, what did they have that made them a people to the outside point of view that the Tribal Hidage must represent? Why was this one people rather than many? Could it just have been a surviving British cultural identity (or even language)? Well, if we were in Gaul at this point rather than Britain the obvious answer would be staring us in the face, as Hines suggests, in the form of a bishopric at St Albans. There was once such a bishop, we know, and we also know that there were British bishops, plural, when St Augustine came to England, or at least Bede reports a folkloric story that presumes such. There has been some argument about whether they could ever been as close to the ‘English’ zones as this, but someone must have been in charge of the cult site whether they had a crozier or not. That would presumably have given some kind of thing to identify with, though if it had been the absolute key it’s strange that we don’t find the people called *Albaningas or *Verlamwe or something more pinned to the site, and it is a way east of any other centres we might put in this zone. Nonetheless, what else could there be to link all these various groups together? Should I put the Chilterners on the notional survival map if I ever do that lecture again? What do you all think?9

View of Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire

Gratuitous English scenery at Dunstable Downs in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty—or do we mean British scenery?


1. Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986); Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999); one should also mention Barbara A. E. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990, 2nd edn. 1997).

2. A sane round-up in Thomas Charles-Edwards, “Nations and Kingdoms: a view from above” in idem (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 23-58; a more British-generous view than most in Christopher A. Snyder, The Britons (Oxford 2003), pp. 73-138. The canonical patron of such views is Ken Dark, whose From Civitas to Kingdom: British political continuity, 300-800 (Cambridge 1994) is a beast to obtain but widely cited, and whose more extreme Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud 2001) is somewhat less so; there is also Nick Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester 1994), which is on its own path in the same wilderness.

3. For Lindsey, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey”, in Bassett, Origins, pp. 202-212, then Kevin Leahy, “The Formation of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 127-133; for Middlesex, see Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons” in Bassett, Origins, pp. 108-122; also worth comparing in that volume are John Blair, “Frithuwold’s Kingdom and the Origins of Surrey”, pp. 97-107, and David N. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia in the South-East Midlands” and “The Origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British Background”, pp. 123-140 & 213-222, which affect the areas mentioned as well.

4. Barbara E. Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 14 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, updated in eadem, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 45-57; cf. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia”.

5. John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 135-149, map here used from p. 147 and hopefully fair use since it’s part of the discussion here and low-resolution.

6. Ibid., pp. 145-146; for Bede’s reticence on Britons see M. W. Pepperdene, “Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica: a new perspective” in Celtica Vol. 4 (Dublin 1958), pp. 253-262; W. T. Foley & Nick Higham, “Bede on the Britons” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 154–185, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2009.00258.x, and cf. Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 27-41.

7. See Yorke, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 1-24 on the Hidage versus other sources; Hines references Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, but gives no page reference.

8. Hines, “Middle Anglia”, pp. 146-148, quote from p. 148.

9. Edit: I am reminded by Howard Williams in comments below that there is at least some historiography (or archæography?) on the Chilterns for those interested to follow up, and I had meant to cite it but when I got to that footnote couldn’t remember what was meant to go there… Foolish boy. The standard reference, for those few who can find a copy, is Kenneth Rutherford Davies, Britons and Saxons: the Chiltern Region 400-700 (Chichester 1982), but there is also now John T. Baker, Cultural Transition in the Chilterns and Essex Region, 350 AD to 650 AD, Studies in Regional and Local History 4 (Hatfield 2006), of which at least some is visible on Google Books. I can’t claim to have read either of these but the former at least I have been meaning to for a very long time, being a child of the Chilterns myself…

Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. 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. 26-34.

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.