Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

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Brixworth Church at day’s end

This gallery contains 7 photos.

On Saturday 2nd November last year, for reasons that will probably be obvious to Anglo-Saxonists—in fact if you’re a UK-based Anglo-Saxonist you probably saw me there—I was at Brixworth in Northamptonshire, where people were generally gathered from across the field … Continue reading

Name in Print XIII & XIV and Lights VIII & IX: the problems are also possibilities

[This was originally posted on 26th January 2014 and stuck to the front page, but now I've reached the point in my backlog where it would originally have fallen, I'm releasing it to float free in the stream where future readers might expect it. Don't laugh, chronology is important to historians...]

Even though this too is after the fact, it definitely deserves to be announced before I crunch through the relevant backlog. You first heard about it in September 2011, writing it in time for the deadline provoked me even to blank verse in December 2011, I actually told you what it was later that month; in March 2012 it was signalled that the revisions had been sent off; by the time we were dealing with proofs I was well into blog slough; but since October 2013 the world has been richer by a rather snazzy blue volume with my name on it, along with my co-editor Allan Scott McKinley’s, and this volume is called Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters. It is the eventual publication of some of the highlights of the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions that Allan, myself and Martin Ryan ran at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds between 2006 and 2011, and it is rather good if I do say so myself.

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout: Brepols 2013)

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout: Brepols 2013)

If you are wealthy, you can buy it as a good old-fashioned stack of bound pieces of paper between board covers here, or you can if you choose buy it in electronic segments here. Each chapter has its own bibliography so they stand alone quite nicely, though obviously, since we wrote them with sight of each other’s copy and often actually hearing each others’ thoughts at Leeds, and because as editors Allan and I knocked authors’ heads together virtually when they were addressing the same concerns, they stand better together. And who are these highly-esteemed authors, you may ask? And I answer with a list of contents as follows:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Introduction: problems and possibilities of early medieval charters”
    Written by me to an agenda thrashed out between myself, Allan, Martin in the early stages and Professor Pauline Stafford, one of the series editors, in the later ones, this tries to sum up where we currently are in early medieval charter studies and what this book is doing in them that’s new. I give you an extract below because I’m pleased with it both as prose and as publicity.
  • Martin Ryan, “‘Charters in Plenty, if Only They Were Good for Anything': the problem of bookland and folkland in pre-Viking England”
    Martin here tackles one of the most tangled problems in Anglo-Saxon history with clarity and balance; at the end he hasn’t solved it but it’s much much clearer what the problem actually is, and I was setting this to students as soon as it was physically possible for them to get it. Martin also deserves praise for turning in a damn-near-perfect text. Neither Allan nor I could think of anything to change in it.
  • Allan Scott McKinley, “Strategies of Alienating Land to the Church in Eighth-Century Alsace”
    The charters of early Wissembourg have been mined by many a historian looking for party alignments in the great struggle between noble families for domination of the palaces of the Frankish kings that would eventually end in the triumph of the family who would become the Carolingians. Allan, with characteristic panache, shows that this is probably wrong since the Wissembourg donors’ activities make more sense in local, family contexts. He also wins the contest for longest footnote in the book.
  • Erik Niblaeus, “Cistercian Charters and the Import of a Political Culture into Medieval Sweden”
    Erik joined in the sessions with the brief of showing something of how a society that was new to charter use picked up and incorporated them into its political operations, and he does so with great clarity whilst also finding time to give a few nationalist myths a reasonable roughing-up on the way. I learnt a lot from this one.
  • Charles West, “Meaning and Context: Moringus the lay scribe and charter formulation in late Carolingian Burgundy”
    Charles carries out a classic micro-study here, getting from ‘why does one village in tenth-century Burgundy have a layman writing its charters?’ to ‘why and how are documents changing across Europe in the run-up to the year 1000?’, and makes some very sharp suggestions about how the two join up. He also got his favourite charter onto the cover, so read this to find out why it’s important!
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia”
    I think this is actually my most rigorous piece of work ever. It has tables and pie-charts (though on those see below the cut), it uses numbers, it has a big dataset and lots of electronic analysis. What it shows, I think, is that the Carolingians didn’t change the way that documents were written when they took over Catalonia, but that the local bishops probably did in order to come up with something definitively local that was then spread through cathedral-based training and local placement of local priests. That might seem a lot to believe but that’s why I had to do it properly! Editor’s privilege: this is by far the longest chapter in the volume, but I think it’s important. Of course, I would…
  • Arkady Hodge, “When is Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe”
    Arkady definitely wins the prize for widest scope here: this chapter runs from Ireland to the Crimea via Canterbury and Bavaria, and what it finds in all these places is charters recorded in Gospel Books or other such contexts. He wisely asks: if this supposedly unusual preservation is so widespread, perhaps it’s… usual?
  • Antonio Sennis, “Destroying Documents in the Early Middle Ages”
    This one we were lucky to be able to include, a paper from before our sessions ran for which Antonio had not found a home. In it he asks why people would even destroy documents, and concludes that there are lots of reasons and far from all of them fraudulent or tactical, but all of which merit thinking about.
  • Charles Insley, “Looking for Charters that Aren’t There: lost Anglo-Saxon charters and archival footprints”
    Coming out of his work for the publication of the Anglo-Saxon charters of Exeter, Charles is faced with a lot of what diplomatists call deperdita, lost documents that are however attested in other documents, and does some very clever work to make something of the patterns of what does and doesn’t exist in his material. This one also probably has the most jokes of any of the papers, though Arkady is also in contention.
  • Shigeto Kikuchi, “Representations of Monarchical ‘Highness’ in Carolingian Royal Charters”
    If you’ve seen the texts of many early medieval royal charters you’ll have observed that the kings are no less splendid in their titles than our remaining European monarchs are now: majesty, highness, sublimeness, and so on scatter their documents. Shigeto however spots habits in these uses that seem to actually tie up to deliberate strategies of presentation and differentiation between the various Carolingian rulers, which not only may help to spot when something is off about a text but also gives us a potential window on the actual kings’ decisions on how to present themselves.
  • Morn Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of Mercian royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century charters”
    Contrariwise, in a thoroughly contextualised assessment of the titles used for Mercian rulers in their diplomas during the period when Mercia was both a political force and issued charters, Morn shows that what we have here is not necessarily the kings’ choices of self-presentation, but, maybe more interestingly, the recipients’ or their scribes’, and it’s very revealing.
  • Elina Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834–40: charters and authority”
  • Alaric Trousdale, “The Charter Evidence for the Reign of King Edmund (939–46)
    Despite their different centuries and countries of interest, these two papers are doing very similar things, which is one very familiar to me from Catalonia: looking at an area and time where there is almost no wider political narrative material available to historians and reconstructing events and power politics from the charter evidence, and both come up with new ideas about what was going on at their chosen monarchs’ courts at their chosen times as a result.
  • Julie Hofmann, “Changes in Patronage at Fulda: a re-evaluation”
    Julie here presents probably the most tech.-heavy paper, but it gives her extra chops: she goes about what would be an analysis of who gives what where quite similar to Allan’s except that having a database of the voluminous material from Fulda lets her seek precise answers to important questions like that necessary classic, “what are the women doing?” This not only offers some answers to that question but also explores the difficulties in gendering this kind of evidence and what it gets one to do so.

I don’t think there’s a chapter here that isn’t important in its field, and there are several that I’m proud to think may be important over several. Most importantly, any one of them can probably tell you something extra about your own field. As I put it in the closing paragraph of the introduction:

“The eclectic selection of papers is therefore part of the point: all of these studies can inform, and have informed, several or all of the others. This justifies the hope that readers of this volume will come to it because of something they need to read for their own purposes, but discover before putting it back on the shelf that there are other things that interest them which will also help them think over their material and its uses. We also hope, therefore, that even if some of the possibilities we present cause problems, the problems will also be possibilities.”

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Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below


1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926″, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927″, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928″, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929″, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31″, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932″, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933″, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934″, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937″, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938″, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954″ in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955″ in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7″, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964″ in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993″, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979″, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!

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…