Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Raising up the enemies of Mercia

The St Andrews Sarcophagus is one of the more splendid pieces of artwork left to us from Pictish Scotland. Some might say the most splendid; I would always hold out for Sueno’s Stone, myself, simply because a twenty-foot high cross slab with a three-line battle cartoon full of decapitated corpses and ravens is hard to top, in several senses, but even I would have to admit that the Sarcophagus is a bit better executed. More importantly for many, it draws on a huge range of iconography, Biblical, Insular (let’s not use the word ‘Celtic’ here), Oriental and Classical, and thus helps show that the Picts, or at least the late Picts, were in no way cut off from the wider cultural currents of Christian Europe, but could play with and use them as well as any other people of the period.1

Current state of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The Sarcophagus as currently displayed, and as pictured on the website Undiscovered Scotland, from which here linked

What the thing actually is, as it survives to us, is the front, three corners and one-and-a-bit sides of a box shrine or tomb, about one-and-a half metres across the front, which is the long side. The front shows a royal hunt, with various odd hybrid beasties lurking in a tree past which the hunters ride, and elsewhere David killing the lion, and the sides and corners are heavily decorated with interlace and animal and vegetal motives. It’s done in extremely high relief, so that you can see the other side of some of the hunters’ heads, and it’s generally quite special.2 Most and perhaps all of the surviving bits were discovered buried in St Andrews Cathedral churchyard in 1833, perhaps in use as a cist.3 We don’t know what the back was like, if there was one and it didn’t originally just sit against a wall, and we don’t know what the lid was like: a flat slab and a pitched roof have both been suggested on the basis of parallels elsewhere. Most people have concluded, given its quality and its connection with St Andrews, which long ago was called Kilrymont, ‘church on the king’s hill’, that it once contained a royal entombment, and the art-historical dating and later medieval traditions have made King Unuist map Uurguist, or in Gaelic, Oengus mac Fergus, second of that name, who ruled the Picts more or less from 820-834, the most commonly-suggested candidate, though the first of that name, circa 729-761, remains in the frame too (as do presumably the kings between them, albeit with less support in tradition).4

Front panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The front panel, during dismantlement in 19965

What, however, has all this to do with Mercia, you may be wondering, and fair enough. The answer lies in that phrase “parallels elsewhere”, because the Mercian kings of the mid- to late-eighth century seem to have put quite a lot of store by impressive entombments. The interesting thing is that these were not necessarily of the kings themselves, though there was a Mercian royal mausoleum at Repton that the Vikings took over in 873, still sadly not fully published.6 Instead or as well, they often seem to have set up burial cults around their enemies, moving them into Mercian border territory to do so. The classic example of this is St Oswald, King of Northumbria whom King Penda of Mercia killed in 642, whose body was moved in the reign of King Æthelred of Mercia, who had married his niece, to Bardney in Lindsey.7 That was presumably a peace-making move; rather less so was King Offa’s burial of King Æthelberht of East Anglia, whom he had just executed for disloyalty, at Hereford on the Welsh border. This was presumably meant to prevent any royal cult growing up around the dead king back in East Anglia, in which respect it failed, but Hereford seem also to have been quite glad to have him.8

St Alkmund's Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund's Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museum

St Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire, now in Derby Museums, whose website has a more enlightened reuse policy that just requires me to point out to you that the image is copyright to Derby Museums

This all takes on a sharper relevance to St Andrews when this item is considered, this being what’s left of what you can see was a substantial, full-length ornamental sarcophagus from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire. (There is a fantastic photo of its discovery on the church’s site here, looted since goodness knows how long.) In some ways this is not what we have at St Andrews—it is single piece, not built out of parts, and its carving is much less ambitious—but in other ways it is, because of the identity of St Alkmund.9 This is believed to be King Ealhmund of Northumbria, who lost his struggle for the throne in some of Northumbria’s darker days (darkly alluded to in Alcuin’s letters, indeed) and retreated to Mercia as an exile, where however the forces of his rival Eardwulf found him and killed him in the year 800. The coffin fits with this date, and since it was obviously made for display there seems little a priori reason to doubt that it was meant to house the saint of the church, this royal sort-of-martyr, in which case presumably we see here King Cœnwulf of Mercia doing something slightly different with royal entombment, attacking the current royal family in Northumbria by celebrating as a saint the rival they’d murdered.10

Ninth-century ornamental panel from Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

Ninth-century ornamental panel from SS Mary & Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. Photo by Walwyn, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0), taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/overton_cat/4017050229/ with thanks

It would maybe be possible to attribute a high-minded sense of right that just happened to be politically convenient to Cœnwulf of Mercia at this point were it not for what Steven Plunkett, who specialises in Mercian art history, thinks probably happened to Eardwulf, Ealhmund’s rival. What we know happened to Eardwulf is that he was exiled himself in 806. Plunkett therefore brings the Mercian church of Breedon-on-the-Hill into the argument at this point, and indeed has already done so in the relevant chapter because of it too having some unusually high-relief sculpture showing a royal hunt and some Classicising figures that all bear very strong comparisons to the St Andrews material, though he fights shy of actually proposing a connection in either direction.11 Here, however, the question is of Breedon’s dedication, which is to SS Mary and Hardulf. Hardulf? This saint is apparently unknown elsewhere. Surely it could not be… Eardwulf? Plunkett suggests that it could, which leaves me boggling somewhat at Cœnwulf’s mindset, if we assume that he was once again involved with this high-status centre.12 Did he decide he had been wrong about Ealhmund? Was he trying to pacify Northumbria? Is it that a king was a king and worth culting as something special whatever one’s relations with him in life? Or did he just decide that what was worth doing once was worth doing twice and carry on with cynical lack of regard to his earlier position on the Northumbrian crown? We will, of course, never know, but as so often, I wish we did. Are there any other cases of both sides of a violent contest being celebrated as holy men by the same agency? Over to you if so, I can’t think of any!


1. A point made throughout Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1997), which I was reading when I wrote this post in September 2013; the wider contention that Pictland was not some cut-off neverwhere is also the basic case to prove for many of the writers in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Europe: the proceedings of a day conference held on 20 February 1993, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1994).

2. Detailed description in Isabel Henderson, “Descriptive Catalogue of the Surviving Parts of the Monument” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 19-35; followed up with much more analysis in Henderson, “Primus inter Pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture”, ibid., pp. 97-167.

3. Sally M. Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display”, ibid. pp. 36-62 at pp. 36-41.

4. Ibid. pp. 42-45; Dauvit Broun, “Pictish Kings 761-839: integration with Dál Riata or separate development?”, ibid. pp. 71-83; Charles Thomas, “Form and Function”, ibid. pp. 84-96. Henderson, “Primus inter pares“, makes a spirited case for Unuist map Uurguist I on the basis of a range of fairly closely-dated art-historical comparisons. On him, see Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125 but also online here, and Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex‘ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill & Martha Worthington (edd.), Æthelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42.

5. I have found it surprisingly hard to locate images of the Sarcophagus licensed for reproduction, not something I anticipated when I set up to do this post and now, of course, have no time to fix by writing people for permission etc. So, this is from Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, plate 5, with some slight colourisation added by me which I think technically but probably not defensibly makes it a new work, but which in any case I shall replace with my own or some licensed picture of the front as soon as I’m able. I’m pretty sure that having free 600×480-pixel pictures on the web will not hit your postcard sales that much, guys…

6. Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, “Repton and the Vikings” in Antiquity 66 (London 1992), pp. 36-51, is about as good as it gets for publication.

7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III.11 (an old translation online here should you not have access to one of the newer ones); Steven J. Plunkett, “The Mercian Perspective” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 202-226 at p. 206.

8. 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. 260-273, is the fullest discussion; cf. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 224-225.

9. There is basic go-to stuff on this that I haven’t yet read, I must confess, among it C. A. Ralegh Radford, “The church of Saint Alkmund, Derby” in Derbyshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 96 (Derby 1976), pp. 26-61 and Alan Thacker, “Kings, saints and monasteries in pre-Viking Age Mercia” in Midland History Vol. 10 (Birmingham 1985), pp. 1-25; here I run instead from Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 222-223.

10. David W. Rollason, “The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1983), pp. 1-22 ; Capper, “Contesting Loyalties”, pp. 362-363.

11. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, p. 223 & 215-220, esp. p. 220:
“The carvings [at Breedon, Peterborough and elsewhere] are evidence for the systematic endowment of primary Mercian sites by an elite patron employing a master-craftsman…. The St Andrews Sarcophagus is in no way a product of this atelier, but embodies a comparable initiative, in a context where there is stylistic evidence for cultural exchange between the two regions.”

I do find this frustrating as it suggests a relationship and then argues that the cultural context is probably pretty general across northern Britain. In that case this sort of stuff might be expected to turn up anywhere yet plainly has not. One wants there to be a connection and Plunkett is too cautious to hypothesise one, yet sets out all the material that makes it seem necessary.

12. It has to be admitted that that isn’t strictly necessary. Not least, we don’t know when or how Eardwulf died; it might have been rather later, and Plunkett justly notes the general crisis of the Mercian realm in 825 when such readjustments of politics might have been useful. (On what we know about that see Capper, “Contested Loyalties”, pp. 416-428.) I still wonder, though, as below, what this meant for the cult of Ealhmund.

Leeds 2013 report part 2

Sorry, this has taken a couple of days to find the time to write. But, as with the conference experience itself, the only way out of the backlog is through! Or something. So, resuming the Leeds 2013 report on Tuesday 2nd July, your blogger found himself breakfast (which was reassuringly, basically the same as it had been at Bodington, which is to say, there were many options healthier than the somewhat limp fry-up but that’s what I always have anyway). Thus fortified, I headed for dispute!

506. Law, Violence, and Social Bonds, I: Power, Conflict, and Dispute Settlement

  • Matthew McHaffie, “Warranty of Land in eleventh- and early twelfth-century Anjou”
  • Kim Esmark, “Power and Pressure: the micropolitics of 11-century aristocratic networks”
  • Warren C. Brown, “Conflict and the Laity in Carolingian Europe”
  • Mr McHaffie here was looking at at a particular procedure in Angevin charters whereby the actor undertook to stand warranty for the recipient’s onwership of the property, meaning that they would defend it at law and if necessary by force. He emphasised that this was rare (120 cases in the 3000+ documents he’d looked at), that it was by no means always carried out when it should have been (as, as Geoffrey Koziol pointed out in questions, we see in the Conventum Hugonis), and that a lot of what it involved must have been going on outside the courts that provide us with half the relevant records. It very quickly comes down to the micropolitics of who was involved with whom, which meant that Dr Esmark followed on very neatly, especially since he was also talking about Anjou: the thrust of his paper was that lords’ actions were shaped by the pressures of their followings as much as any other factor. Matthew Hammond tried to use this to suggest that Thomas Bisson might exaggerate lords’ freedom of action in the period; Dr Esmark, as my notes have it, thought there was “lots more to do to prove him fully wrong”. Both I and Bob Moore pressured him for more on the ties of the groups involved, whether they were a steady body of people and how they were linked between themselves, but variability over both time and case seems to be the motif, as I reluctantly suppose we’d expect, though core membership of the groups seems to be more identifiable than in my materials till, well, I suppose the mid-eleventh century actually! Hmm…

    The donjon of the Château de Loches

    The donjon of the Château de Loches, originally built by Count Fulk Nerra of Anjou. Probably room for a few amici

    Lastly, Warren Brown, as is his wont, emphasised that for the early Middle Ages, formulae are in some ways a richer source for social practice than land transfer documents and showed it by extracting from them information on judicial process in disputes between laymen, something that given most surviving documents’ involvement of the Church we otherwise hardly see; this shows up, even in Frankish sources, a picture of negotiation, settlements, tactical defaults, oaths and corruption that looks a lot more like the picture we have from the more detailed Italian evidence, although also a significant amount more homicide and highway robbery than we find in any other sources.1 He also emphasised that women were envisaged as aggressors too, not just by underhand means like sorcery but sometimes by flat-out assault. His conclusion was that the formulae show the patches that had to be applied to a system that often went wrong, which I think is pretty realistic.

I seem now to have skipped a session, which if I remember rightly was simply because I didn’t get the location of the one I had decided to go to worked out in time, realised I would be late and decided I would do better just to get coffee and decompress for a short while. This is probably the point at which most of this happened, too:

A stack of books bought at Leeds IMC 2013

The haul from Leeds 2013

I must have slipped! So after that obviously stern strictures were required, in the form of law.

703. Origin, Usage, and Functionality of the Frankish Leges

  • Magali Coumert, “Isidorus Hispalensis and the Lex Salica
  • Lukas Bothe, “Let ‘Em Pay or Hang ‘Em High?: tackling theft and robbery in Merovingian legal sources”
  • Stephan Ridder, “Traces of the Frankish King in the Lex Baiuvariorum
  • Start of a copy of the Salic Law in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4404

    Start of a copy of the Salic Law in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4404

    Dr Coumert started from the odd fact that although Isidore of Seville would seem to have precious little to do with the supposed codification of old Frankish custom into the Salic Law, nonetheless, a quarter of its manuscripts also contain his work, and from there went into a lengthy but justified plain about how misleading the canonical edition of Lex Salica is in terms of how anyone actually used it, since it raids manuscripts of radically different traditions to construct a ‘pure’ text that it is obvious no-one at the time had or used. “He just didn’t care,” said she of Karl August Eckhardt, and it’s hard to disagree, though as the paper revealed, it’s also very hard not to use his groupings of the manuscripts anyway.2 What taking the manuscripts as wholes reveals, however, is that they almost never have only one code in, but are always collections of several laws or sources of law, and Isidore seems to have been an authority that could travel with these too. The users of these manuscripts were not doing with them what the nineteenth-century editors thought they should have been, and it’s probably worth trying to figure out what they were doing rather than seeing that use as something in the way of our scholarship…

    Mr Bothe, meanwhile, approached the question of death for thieves, something that is supposed often to be normal ‘barbarian’ practice, especially for those caught in the act, but which is often deprecated in the actual laws in favour of heavy fines, which he suggested were preferred because of not implicating the judiciary in the feud that might result from executing someone. I thought that that, and the idea of a legislating state trying to patch up law, both sat oddly next to the idea we seem otherwise to be developing of Merovingian Frankish law as a more or less decentralised set of ideals, something on which I’ve heard enough since to make it impossible for me to recover what I thought about this session at the time. That picture was much more present in Mr Ridder’s study of the Laws of the Bavarians, though, a text whose origin and issuer is almost perfectly unclear, but which attributed to the king of the Franks considerable connections to and authority over the Agilolfing dukes of the Bavarians. Mr Ridder suggested that here we might even take the text seriously and associate it with a Merovingian move into the duchy to coordinate its defence against the Avars. The questions mainly focused on Mr Bothe’s fines, however, and whether, given their size, even they were supposed to be more than deterrents; he thought that probably was their function, but pointed out that what seems to be an impossibly large amount of gold might still be achievable in cattle, because cows were surprisingly expensive (say two solidi each?), or of course in land, which, as in Spain (why I’d raised the question) was not envisioned in the law but certainly happened here. Here again, therefore, we saw that the actual law texts bear only the sketchiest relation to what was actually done, meaning that they were not the kind of resource we usually think they were. How many other sorts of text does that apply to, we might ask?

Then coffee and then fireworks, at least of an intellectual kind.

803. Defining Kingdoms in 10th-Century Europe

  • Geoffrey Koziol, “The (Dark) Matter of France: monasticism and the making of the West Frankish kingdom”
  • Simon MacLean, “Who Were the Lotharingians? Defining political belonging after the end of the Carolingian Empire”
  • Charles Insley, “Beyond the Charter Horizon: (un)making England in the 10th century”
  • Saint-Philibert de Tournus

    The eventual home of the monks of St Philibert, at Tournus. “Tournus-StPhilib” by MorburreOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Despite the plethora of brackets, this session was surely my favourite of the conference, probably mainly because it’s so nice to have people other than myself looking at the tenth century as if it might tell us something. Professor Koziol was excited to tell us about about his new theory, which was coming in the wake of the completion of the most substantial work on the Carolingian tenth century for quite a while.3 The problem he was seeking to solve was how the West Frankish kingdom, of which large parts repeatedly rebelled in the ninth century and much of which was beyond the control of its kings for the tenth through to twelfth centuries, held together as any kind of unit. Why did the idea of France even include Aquitaine and Provence by the time the Capetian kings could make that mean anything? For Professor Koziol, the answer is monks, or more specifically, congregations of monasteries or single houses with really wide-ranging property interests, like the familia of Saint Philibert whose sporadic flight from the Vikings took them through four different homes with supporting endowments.4 Another obvious one would be Cluny, which though outside Francia proper controlled a network of houses within it and saw the king as their principal defence. Such places relied on the kings’ support, and by doing so gave the kings the framework of a state which kept them present, even when ineffective, in peoples’ schemes of the world. Such at least was the theory, but the fact that such royal documents were rarely brought out of archives, as far as we can tell, and that even allowing for Cluny there’s really no way to show any shared ideology other than Christianity between all Frankish monasteries, gave others pause. For me there’s also the question of why this didn’t work in Catalonia, which even in its parts then north of the Pyrenees stopped asking the kings for such documents quite sharply after 988, yet meets most of the same criteria before then. Nonetheless, Professor Koziol did not seem unconvinced so I guess that we will see further versions of this thought, and even I’m sure it explains something, I’m just not quite sure how much yet…

    Old map of Lotharingia with some more modern captions

    Old map of Lotharingia with some more modern captions

    Simon, meanwhile, was asking a quite similar question but without the surviving monarchy, which makes the old ‘kingdom of Lothar’, Lothari regni, Lotharingia or Lorraine or Löthringen, as an idea even harder to explain. Despite the completely arbitrary origins of the area, evident in its name, Simon cited sources from the 960s talking about the ethnic characteristics of Lotharingians. Of course, as he said, this just goes to show that even when ethnicity is entirely constructed and situational (which is possibly always, I might throw in), it’s still a powerful idea. For this case, Simon thought that its power was being appropriated by the writers who supported local noble groups against a West Frankish crown that returned to the area as a conqueror, not as an heir, in the form of King Charles the Simple in 911, so that what had been ‘Lothar’s kingdom’ became more comfortably separate as an area with a people named after him than as a territory that had clearly belonged to the Carolingian monarchy. In doing so, however, he mentioned various other formulations that didn’t seem to stick, like ‘regnum Gallicanum’, and in questions some of the most interesting points for me were raised about other such ethnicities that fail, for example the Ribuarians, who had a Frankish lawcode but who seem never to have been a people anyone could locate. There are others, and so the question may be why this one stuck and others didn’t, and I suppose that one answer might be, it was not controlled by outside interests for long enough at a time to remove the value of an ‘inside’ identity, in which case I need to look at it rather more closely…

    British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B VI, fo. 109v

    The Abingdon Cartulary, demonstrating its interest in the kingdom by picturing Edward the Confessor, albeit quite a long time after he would have cared. British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B VI, fo. 109v

    Lastly, Charles Insley took aim at the developing historiography, of which you’ve had plenty reported here since it’s largely coming from Oxford, that is trying to place the definitive development of an English state in the tenth century. He pointed out that by using Koziol-like tactics of analysing the uptake and issue of royal diplomas, it seems clear that large parts of this supposed kingdom just did not deal with the kings in the way that the south did.5 Instead, therefore, he suggested that far less of tenth-century England was governed by consent, as opposed to grudging acceptance of the king’s ability to beat them up with southern armies, and that governmental structures may therefore not be enough to tell us about unity. Most of the questions Charles got were about preservation: there has been so much Anglo-Saxon material lost that arguing from areas of absence is dangerous, but, as he says, there are lots of charters from East Anglia, just no royal ones, and there aren’t no documents from the north (though it’s very close!) so there is still something to explain.6 Julie Hofmann suggested that we might be looking less at obedience to royal power projection in the tenth century and more at subservient submission to royal dissolution in the sixteenth, which as Charles said is a possibility that late medieval registers might help eliminate. Work to be done, therefore!

All the same, this session hit a great many of my buttons: three scholars I think are always interesting and argumentative, all pushing more or less big ideas, and happy to let others take shots at them in the cause of testing them out, with plenty of people happy to do so; it may look quite disputational, and I suppose it isn’t for the thin-skinned, but in a session like this one can practically feel the field energise and take shaky steps forward. There was plenty to think about over dinner. But then there was also some more to think about after dinner, in the form of a dessert of databases.

910. ‘Nomen et Gens’ and ‘The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe': early medieval database projects – a round table discussion

    This took the form of two short presentations of the respective projects by their principal investigators, introduced by Jinty Nelson, with a question and answer section for each. I’ve yet to see a round table at Leeds that really is a round table, though I do generally avoid them which is probably why, but nonetheless there was lots of information here. Nomen et Gens is a project that’s been running since the 1970s—as Steffen Patzold who was introducing it said, long enough to have its own Traditionskern—but has lately advanced fully into the database age, and its aim is to amass enough prosopographical data to assess quantitatively what ethnic identifiers actually meant to their early medieval users.7 What this means, however, is that it now contains basic biographical and personal information for 10,000-plus people of the seventh and eighth centuries and the easiest way to find out more is to go and look, here. The only real question was why this was only a demo version, but apparently there is much more to check and unify before the full thing can go live to the world. Accounts are available for those who can help, though.

    Screen-capture of <em>Nomen et Gens</em>'s entry for Charlemagne

    An example of cross-over: screen-capture of Nomen et Gens‘s entry for Charlemagne

    Alice Rio spoke for The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe, a project I’ve heard a lot about given its staff’s frequent presence at the Institute of Historical Research. Here the aim has been to database all the charters from the reign of Charlemagne and the territories which he ruled. A lot has been learned from the approaches used at Kings College London, where the project lives, on Prosopography of the Domesday Elite, and its structure is quite sophisticated. Here, again, the best way to find out more is probably to go and play with it: it wasn’t live in July 2013 but now it more or less is, so take your Charlemagne-period enquiries to it and see what it has to tell you! At this point it was still very much in development: I asked, for example, if it could answer stacked queries (a query performed on the results of a previous query) and was told that it had been able to since two o’clock that afternoon… But it was clearly going places at last, after many frustrations, and the two databases were also probably going to be able to talk to each other behind the scenes in productive ways.

And thus, pretty much ended the second day. [Edit:: I forgot to mention that Magistra also blogged the first and last of these sessions, and particularly in the former her impressions were quite different from mine, so you may like to take a look there as well.] More will follow, after a short digression about a tiny church…


1. W. C. Brown, “Conflict, letters, and personal relationships in the Carolingian formula collections” in The Law and History Review Vol. 25 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 323-44; cf. Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900″ in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 105-124, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 229-256.

2. Eckhardt did about a hundred different editions of the Lex Salica but I guess that the definitive ones are the MGH ones, K.-A. Eckhardt (ed.), Pactus Legis Salicae, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) IV.1 (Hannover 1962), online here, and idem (ed.), Lex Salica, MGH Leges IV.2 (Hannover 1969), online here. The problems of assuming an Urtext behind the manuscripts of course also dog attempts to come up with a single translation, such as Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia 1991), where pp. 52-55 demonstrate the awkward choices that had to be made.

3. That being none other than Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Turnhout 2012).

4. The last word on the monks of Saint Philibert appears now to be Isabelle Cartron, Les pérégrinations de Saint-Philibert – Genèse d’un réseau monastique dans la société carolingienne (Rennes 2009), which Professor Koziol cited.

5. Referring to Koziol, Politics of Memory, in case that’s not clear, though cf. Mark Mersiowsky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25!

6. What there is from the north is now printed in David Woodman (ed.), Charters of Northern Houses, Anglo-Saxon Charters 16 (Oxford 2012).

7. I had here some acid comment about how it would be normal to look to Germany for a project working to establish ground-base values for ethnicity then realised the problem with making such a generalisation…

Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…


I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…

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.