Category Archives: Byzantium

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9


1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth': examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

Next in the now-thinning pile of things I went to in Oxford that I still haven’t reported here is when Dr Michael Featherstone gave a paper entitled “The Great Palace of Constantinople: tradition or invention?” to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar there on 1st May 2013. This seems to have been an update of a piece Dr Featherstone published in 2006, but it also seems to have been more dependent on the visuals than is good for my recall: my notes refer blithely to buildings with Greek names I can’t reconstruct and hang arguments off sources I didn’t note down, and so this is a fairly shaky account of what was, nonetheless, an interesting paper.1 Given that, it seems best to start with a visual from somewhere else, to wit Wikimedia Commons:

Reconstruction map of the imperial district of Constantinople

Constantinople imperial district” by Cplakidas – Image:Constantinople center.svg. Translated and added more detail. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two important things about this map, which is ultimately drawn from the works of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and Cyril Mango (or so the Wikimedia Commons page for the original French version says). One is that it is cumulative: you’re looking there at the work of emperors over about six centuries and a great many periods of prosperity or crisis that made architectural display or administrative rehousing seem wise. The second, and perhaps more important thing is that it rests on really very little archæology: large parts of this now lie under the Blue Mosque and not much of the rest has been dug either. So what we are essentially being asked to accept this map from is careful work to reconstruct it from mentions in historical and literary sources, and here most of all Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos’s De Ceremoniis, ‘On the Ceremonies’, part of that unlucky ruler‘s general attempt to uplift the symbolic state of his imperial government by calling on ancient precedent and tradition wherever he could find it.2 Given how much else that was old or disused he seems to have reactivated, how much of what he says about the palace can we take to have been important to anyone else or true before (or even during) his reign?

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul

The so-called Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the biggest single reason why there is relatively little known about the imperial palace complex on top of which it was built, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Featherstone took the information of the De Ceremoniis and tried to unweave from it the various sources of information Constantine VII had to write it with and that we have to check it with. Constantine’s sources must have included the standing fabric of his day, of course, but also seem to have included some rather older texts, whose testimony came from times when perhaps more was standing or had not yet been rebuilt, and which may have reported uses that were centuries outdated or even perhaps no longer possible. A particular example seems to be the hall of the 19 Couches (’19 Accubita’ on the map above), in the sixth century the palace complex’s private banqueting hall (with nine couches a side and one in its apse for the emperor) but later relegated to ceremonial use only as the emperors moved their residences down the hill to the south and left the old ‘upper palace’ as a more occasional resort. By the ninth century the 19 Couches was considered to be outside the palace, because the focal point had moved so thoroughly, leaving the old buildings higher up the hill as more or less disused space, although was was remarked in questions, still with guards on the entrances (as we know from Liudprand, not least).3 Constantine VII however re-roofed it (showing what state things were in), found somewhere an account of what had used to go on in it (here we had a mention of a Philotheos, I think probably Philotheos of Selymbria though this would be a much later source for an early source if so…) and started using it for official promotions, despite the fact that as far as we can tell that was not something the building had previously housed. He also restarted chariot racing, revived a bunch of old costumes and so forth; it’s not at all clear that the Constantinople he created had ever existed before all together, however, and it must have had something of the historical film set about it. None of that makes it seem any wiser to use Constantine VII’s works (dare we say, scripts?) as guides to the ancient past…

Ornamental pier supposedly from the Great Palace of Constantinople

It’s not that there is no remnant of the palace complex now… But even this rather excellent pier, apparently now on fairly uncaring display in Istanbul, doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Image from Wikimedia Commons, though the contributor’s suggested attribution to the second century does leave me worried that it is in fact somewhere else entirely…

What we wound up with, therefore, was a picture of a kind of ghost palace, a large set of buildings constructed to earlier political agendas which subsequent ones had found expensive, impractical or irrelevant, in which occasionally spectacles might still be staged, where it was safe to do so, but whose use quickly became exceptional. Given the quality of their building, they presumably mostly stayed up, but things like lighting, access and so on must have been problematic. Dr Featherstone suggested that the worst of the damage and deterioration was probably hidden with hangings, but all of this is a kind of make-do-and-mend that doesn’t seem at all appropriate for the image we are conventionally given (not least by Constantine VII) of the glorious and ever-wealthy Byzantine Empire, especially at its absolute heart here in Constantinople. But one of the things this paper emphasised was that it was probably one of the ways in which Constantine VII was unusual that he had his heart in these old buildings; for most emperors before him, their homes down the hill had been where their heart was, and the actual government was quite possibly somewhere else entirely.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

Writing about this now puts me immediately in mind of the above as the best parallel I have for what this might have been like. Sir Christopher Wren built this place in the late seventeenth century and for a while it was the place that trained up the bearers of Britain’s proud naval tradition etc. but when I first met it years ago, on the way to a rather nice restaurant, it was maintained but disused public space utterly devoid of a function. The creation of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site has now woken it up and stuff is going on there by way of events, conservation, visits, tours and so forth. You can find out lots more about that online, but what you can’t find out about on that official website is anything really at all about what the buildings used to do. It’s no longer relevant: they want people to come and see them because they’re still splendid, not because they were once important. But I remember wandering round the site before it was renewed, with everything dull, grey and locked up behind railings, and saying to my then-companion, “My gods, this is where the empire died and was buried, isn’t it?”

Taking the parallel back to the tenth century, did Constantine VII manage this kind of revamp, in the parts of the complex he decided were reactivable, do you suppose? Or was it, for his audiences, somewhat more like standing in a mausoleum of dead achievements he would never equal and which weren’t really anything to do with the problems of the day? Should we put Constantine VII in the same box as I have put King Charles the Simple of the Western Franks, eager to revive the traditions of his ancestors but not realising that times had changed? Or does Constantine’s dogged progress towards sole rule suggest that he knew a trick his colleagues didn’t? If so, the old palace buildings may have been part of it, but even then perhaps, then you saw them, soon you didn’t…


1. Jeffrey Michael Featherstone, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis” in Franz Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von Herrschaft. Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen: Gestalt und Zeremoniell. Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, Byzas 5 (Istanbul 2006), pp. 47-61; see now also Featherstone, “Der Große Palast von Konstantinopel: Tradition oder Erfindung?” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 106 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 19-38, DOI:10.1515/bz-2013-0003, fairly apparently this paper.

2. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall (transl.) Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012), 2 vols.

3. Liudprand visited Constantinople for the first time in the reign of Constantine VII and seems to have been exactly the kind of impressive but impressionable foreign audience the emperor wanted, as we can tell from his account in his Antapodosis. I’ve just given references to all Liudprand’s works, so I won’t do that again, but you might like to look at Constanze M.F. Schummer, “Liudprand of Cremona – a diplomat?” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 197-201.

Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy

Returning now to my seminar backlog, I find myself reliving my last term in employment at Oxford, and fittingly in many ways, it more or less opened with a paper by Dr Mark Whittow, Byzantinist and generalist both and a man whom I think can cope with being described as a ‘good egg’ and who had on 22nd April 2013 taken convenor’s privilege at the Medieval History Seminar to present a paper called “Worlds in Motion: Byzantium’s Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire, 550-630″.

Mark’s essential question was whether the Byzantine state of his period had anything that could be described as a foreign policy towards the area north and east of its great enemy, Persia, and he knew his audience well enough to know that this would mean setting out in some detail what actually happened in the area and, for example, why we were talking about Türks with a diaresis. Specifically, in fact, we were talking about the Gök Türks, a supposedly-ethnic group who emerged as a political quantity in the mid-sixth century in what is now Mongolia as subjects of the Avars (something we know largely from Chinese sources) but in 552 blew up and occupied the Eastern steppes, in 556 destroying the rule of the Hepthalites or White Huns in cooperation with Persia and beginning to move in on trade along the incipient Silk Roads in Sogdia. The Persian link didn’t serve them well, however, and in 568 their western ruler made an approach to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, leading to a joint attack on Persia in 573 that however went very badly, so that the Türks then gave up on Byzantium and in fact nicked the Crimea off it. (I have to admit, I had not known till this point that Byzantium had ever held the Crimea. I have a lot to learn.)

Sixth-to-eighth-century petroglyphs supposedly showing Gök Türks

This is the best Wikimedia Commons can do me for pictures of Gök Türks, pictures in stone from Mongolia dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries, which is at least about right for our purposes. All the same, I don’t feel this illustrates much…

This was the beginning of the end for a Türk empire that had for a while stretched from Mongolia to Iran. In 581 Persia and China managed to put together simultaneous campaigns that broke up the Türks’ eastern Qaghanate, leaving only the western one. It was however to this that a desperate Emperor Heraclius, he of beards but not badgers as I think we have shown, turned in 624 when no other expedient against the lately-triumphant Persia seemed available. the Türks had already raided Persia in 618, and no other help was to be had, so in 626 Heraclius began attacking Persia from the east, rather than the west, and next year the Türks joined in. (This we have from Nikephoros.) Exactly what contribution this made to the emperor’s following victory and the Persian collapse of 628 is probably still to be worked out but the Türks descended into civil war the next year and that is about the last we see of the Gök Türks as an autonomous polity.

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius's victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius’s victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but found on Wikimedia Commons

Can all this be counted as a policy, then, asked Mark? Well, in some senses no: it’s not a policy for Eurasia in the way that China had a policy for the steppes, a continuous attempt to consider them as part of their total strategic picture. What it could be seen as is a continuation of attempts to use groups from this area as an outside threat to the Persians, a diplomatic outflanking manœuvre, like the Huns and before them the Sarmatians, the Hephthalites, the Avars, a continuation which meant, even if contact was sporadic and very much to current purposes, maintaining some kind of awareness of who was out there, what languages one needed to deal with them, and what interests they had. This presumably all became a lot more relevant when Persia was strong or active, and that information might not be something emperors carried round in their heads at all times, but the further part of the strategic map was, Mark argued, never quite empty in this period, because one never knew when it would become advisable to use it.

This all raised a goodly number of questions. I asked the obvious and perhaps unfair one about what made up Türk ethnicity, unfair because it’s a question we don’t really have the means to answer. There was also some interest in what role control of the Silk Roads played in the Türk position, which seems to have been something the Türks themselves emphasised but about which again we can say little. There were also questions about how all this looked from other perspectives, not least that of the Türks: what did they want from Byzantium, did they have policies of their own that we can guess at? To this Mark’s answer was that their priorities seemed to be to hold onto access to the Silk Roads and keep the Avars at bay or beyond, though it does seem to me that in that case their involvement with Heraclius was an own goal, as it seems likely to have made the Avars stronger, but perhaps Persia was become too much of a threat, or too rich, to ignore. I wonder about the possibility of a régime in crisis turning to outside victories to bolster its status in what was, if so, obviously an insufficient ploy. But for the most part I was happy to sit back and learn from this paper, which was immensely informative about an area of which I know far less than I should.


I couldn’t attempt to footnote this paper given the state of my knowledge, but two major references which might be good places to start were Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford 1999) and James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010).

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014.

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

In the continuing attempt to clear some of my ridiculous blogging backlog before the new academic year starts in the UK, I am sadly going to pass over James Palmer‘s paper at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in London in February this year, not because it wasn’t interesting but because Magistra has already covered it, and this brings me back to Oxford. As we saw with the last of these posts, on a Monday when it seems to be required, it’s possible to attend both the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar here as there’s half an hour’s grace between them, and the 27th of February was such a day, as a remarkably complementary pair of papers were being given across the two. The first was “Between the Carolingian West and the Byzantine East: fortified élite settlements of the 9th and 10th centuries AD in Central Europe”, by Dr Hajnalka Herold and the second was “Dirhams for Slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century” by Dr Marek Jankowiak.

The hilltop over which stretches the site of the Gars Thunau hillfort complex, on what seems to have been a horrible day when whatever satellite Google gets its pictures from flew by

I first heard Hajnalka speak at the Kalamazoo of 2010, as is duly recorded here indeed, and this meant that some of what she was presenting was not new to me, as in order to set things up she had to talk us quickly through a number of sites which are not exactly household names in the West. (I sympathise with this: it frightens me how few people have any clear idea where Girona is and no-one but me and by now you has heard of Vic or Urgell but at least, bar the latter perhaps, people can usually spell the names from my area once they’ve heard them.) The sites are scattered across a zone shared between what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the state of publication and excavation is very various but, starting especially from Gars Thunau in Austria, Hajnalka is trying to fit these various, and variously-sized, power centres into wider frameworks, and as you can tell from the title of her talk is willing to look quite widely to find out what the builders thought they were doing and what kind of position they’d achieved that meant they could do it. The zone lay between empires, Frankish, Byzantine and at times Bulgarian, and any of these might be found pushing their influence into it at a given point in the period. The two former especially competed in the mission field, and had done for some time of course, which makes it particularly tantalising that many of these sites contained churches, in fact in the case of Mikulčice, in Moravia, nine churches, and in Zalavár in Hungary, a huge one which seems to have been of a size and complexity to rival pretty much anything in the West of the time, and a number of smaller ones on neighbouring patches of sandy ground. A Salzburg text called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum claims that this was the work of the Archbishops of Salzburg, but it would be nice to know which phases and when, if that’s even true…1 (I note that further south, in Croatia, there is dispute over whether the Aachen-like complex at Zadar was put there in emulation of or in reaction against Carolingian ecclesiastical pressure.2)

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár,  Hungary

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy initially to see what unites these complexes: firstly, they’re all fortified settlements and secondly, where there is good dating evidence, they seem to have all got new ramparts at the close of the ninth century. That’s more or less where the similarities end, however: the technologies of building, the size and focality of the complexes and likely, therefore, their apparent purposes all differ site to site. Furthermore, with only archæology to go on (the few written sources here, Conversio included, don’t help very much at all putting together a big picture) it’s hard to guess at who was in charge of any of these places or how they were supported.3 There are aspects that look familiar from the West: all these sites showed evidence of craft manufacture (though glass and precious metal were confined to the biggest ones), of space for Christian worship and for burial (not obviously non-Christian, if there is in fact any such thing archæologically-speaking) and of social stratification. On the other hand, these sites were not emporia, their trade links as so far testified in the material culture were thin and almost incidental, although quite farflung, there’re almost no coins and so forth. (More digging could change this in almost all cases, however.) The links that we do see, however, run both east and west, and this is clearest in the dress hinted at by the burial evidence: broadly, Hajnalka sketched, we’re looking at a set of sites at which the men dressed Frankish and the women dressed Byzantine, high-status persons in both cases of course and not without exceptions. The rank and file (and indeed the slaves who must have been there) are less distinctive. So the big message that Hajnalka had was that, although it is very easy for Westerners to look at a scenario like this (or that at Zadar, as noted above) and see a reaction to the Carolingian and Ottonian Drang nach Osten, in which local élites funnel luxury goods from the pressuring western empire and use that wealth to build up structures against it, when you’re on, and indeed in, the ground at these places the Franks were very far from being the only players for these people’s attention and imitation.4 But there is much more to be done to work out what the people in question were actually up to, in political or other terms, and we can hopefully look to Hajnalka to do some of it!5

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

The Medieval Archaeology seminar has lately taken to laying on tea and cake afterwards, which is very welcome and made it much more possible to pay attention to Marek Jankowiak after the brief trot to All Soul’s College. My notes indicate that he had an excellent set of visuals to back up his argument, about which sadly I can remember nothing, but those of you who may be setting up to see what must be a related paper at this term’s Institute of Historical Research seminar are in for a treat, at least. Here I can only recreate from my notes alas, and they tell me that what was principally at issue here was the absolutely huge preservation of Islamic silver coinage in Northern Europe. Dr Jankowiak wanted to get us thinking about how they had wound up there and what was moving in exchange. This first entailed a more detailed analysis of the finds than I’ve seen before, noting that particular areas receiving dirhams seem to have blipped in and out of the record at different times (except in Gotland where deposition was pretty continuous), and that the area providing them seems to have shifted from Iran to the Samanid Emirate at Khorasan over the tenth century, with Iraq hardly showing up and Spain not there at all. These were supplemented by imitations of such coins from the Khazar and Bulgar areas, again shifting from one to the other over the tenth century. By a series of rather unlikely calculations, Dr Jankowiak hypothesized that, if 75%-80% of this exchange was being paid for with slaves (a figure whose basis he did not explain) then we might be thinking of an export of 30,000-60,000 human beings over the century, a few hundred every year, but that that would not include exports to the West which, however they were going, were obviously not being paid for in a medium so readily hoarded. Identifying the slaves archæologically, given that they were exported and acculturated, is basically impossible but just because of the numbers involved Dr Jankowiak wound up developing a picture in which entire peoples, small tribes or whatever, were basically hoovered up and fed into this market by their more powerful neighbours, and thus suggested that the reason for the sudden boom in fortification in Central Europe in this era is because those who could be wanted to be on the rich side of this process, not the poor side! He saw in this the origins of settlement nucleation in Poland, especially, and suggested that we should perhaps see the lesser hillforts not so much as fortifications but as slave corrals with garrisons via a chain of which the unfortunate human goods were convoyed eastwards, a system out of whose profits new states might bloodily grow.

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air, rebuilt 989 after destruction by fire of unknown previous date

At that point, of course, these two papers came directly into conflict. For example, in Dr Jankowiak’s Southern Poland, apparently, many of the forts (and there are many there, but of course only a few have been dug well enough to provide dating evidence) show destruction layers. Is this because Poland was developing a central power that had to suppress these places? In that case, one might equally expect the Polish forts to be refuges, something that Dr Jankowiak ruled out due to the very small number of finds there that suggests to him only temporary occupation. But, many of these sites were dug (when they have been) a long time ago and it’s debatable what would have been found in such excavations and whether occupation, rather than just ‘artefacts’, would have been recognised. Anyway, the point of refuges surely is that they’re only temporarily occupied. And so on. These are issues I’ve brought out myself, but plenty of other people also had objections, about the neglected contribution of the fur trade (better seen in animal bone evidence further east than here, according to Dr Jankowiak), about the effects on prices of this influx of money that likely make a constant figure for the tenth-century slave economy problematic and (of course) about the hypothetical mathematics, it wasn’t even me for once. I did, however, ask about the hoards in Scandinavia, to wit: why on earth is there deposition on such a scale here without retrieval? Because if you have a hoard, one thing you can say for sure is that the owner didn’t come back for it. Was Scandinavia then even less stable than Central Europe’s slave-grounds? Dr Jankowiak thought that the hoards might be sort of treasure banks that were accessed on a small scale only, an increasingly fashionable idea, but if so, what the finds evidence seems to be showing us is an Eastern Scandinavian economy that brought in a great deal of coin but seems then to have considerable difficulty doing anything with it, which must make it worth rethinking whether this was in fact about getting rich. So there was a lot of debate. All the same, there is this much that cannot be gainsaid here: we know there was a slave trade, some of this money that we have found must have been paid for slaves, the changes in its deposition probably do reflect a variation in the availability of goods that Islamic merchants would pay for and so there’s a certain horrible plausibility about some of the mechanisms Dr Jankowiak laid out here, even if not whether the forts are part of those mechanisms or not. With that much accepted, if I can bring George Bernard Shaw back in again, we may just be haggling over how much was involved…


1. This intriguing but allusive text was edited by Herwig Wolfram as Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum: das Weissbuch der Salzburger Kirche über die erfolgreiche Mission in Karantanien und Pannonien (Wien 1979) and he seems to have spent a long time since then trying to figure it out, resulting in idem, Salzburg, Bayern, Österreich: die Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum und die Quellen ihrer Zeit, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 31 (Wien 1995). This is not my area and I’m not going to pretend to have read either of these (I’ve seen quotes from the former), but they exist should you want to.

2. Here I know what I know from Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

3. One possibility, which I understand from Hajnalka may indeed be feasible at some of these sites, could be the kind of analysis of animal bone that Leslie Alcock was able to get done at the very early medieval Welsh site of Dinas Powys, and which showed that the cattle they were getting there were all young animals, not the spread of ages or mostly mature beasts that you’d get from a natural herd, thus showing that the occupiers of the site were probably receiving tribute: see his Dinas Powys: An Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82.

4. For a round-up of the post-Carolingian view of this general area see Matthew Innes, “Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216.

5. And indeed since this paper took place she has done, in the form of “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003. I’m not quite clear if this is actually out yet: the journal’s website says the current issue is Vol. 57 (2013) but only gives indices for up to Vol. 55 (2011). In either case I must thank Hajnalka for sending me a preprint version ahead of publication.

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part II

Recent events are of course discouraging, but if I could take another lesson from Mark Blackburn it could easily be not to abandon a project just because it is hideously, hideously backlogged, and so here we go back on the Horse of Delayed Reportage. Some musing on the issue has led me to believe that on the first evening of Kalamazoo just gone, I went to the Early Medievalists’ Dinner. I won’t do this again, I think; it seems to be a do where old friends go to see each other, and not to meet new people, and since the old friends I have at Kalamazoo I regularly ‘see’ on the Internet, this was not a useful function for me. I suspect I would have done better getting slightly bent at the wine hours or indeed sleeping. However, sleep I did and on the 13th May rose on time for breakfast and the blogger meet-up, which was smaller than last year’s but more genial, and out of which great plans arose. I think it was also the longest I’ve managed to talk with any of the people there except Another Damned Medievalist, especially the Medieval History Geek and Notorious, Ph. D., which was good as they are both people I’m sure I could talk to for longer if longer there were. In fact, as you can read at his, for the first two sessions of the day the former of those two was actually in the same room as me, and his reports are good, but of course there were mostly other people talking. Anyway, despite Mugshots having lost some of their tea-fu since last year,1 I was after all this much better set up than the previous day for the morning sessions, which in my conference experience went as follows:

Session 201. Cyril and Methodius: new research on the Cyrillo-Methodian mission and its aftermath

I have a soft spot for Saints Cyril and Methodius, partly because of their (Latin) feast-day I admit, which is very handily placed for the chronically single, but also because very few people in this world get to originate alphabets even if those alphabets are misnamed. Be that as it may, here I also learnt some things, from these papers:

  • Maddalena Betti, “The Rise of Sancta ecclesia marabensis: the missionary letters of Pope John VIII (872-882)”, trying to take these documents from the first pope really to take an interest in the Balkans to get at his world-view and the concessions he was forced to make to political interests at home and on the frontier. A savvy man with a difficult job; this was very interesting.
  • Roland Marti, “… quasi in signum unitatis ecclesiae: east and west in the Cyrillo-Methodian heritage”, reminding us that although modern politics have made Catholic versus Orthodox into a battle of East and West and assimilated Cyril and Methodius into the former, the real context of their times was both East and West fighting over, and with, the Middle, which may explain the surprising success of their Third, Slavonic, Way; it didn’t mean that either side had won. Marti also pointed out how much the Slavonic liturgy borrowed from both sides, but this was presumably obscure to the people arguing…
  • Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

    Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

  • David Kalhous, “Interpreting Holy Men: Cyril and Methodius as saints in the earliest tradition and in the later Bohemian hagiography (ninth to fourteenth centuries)”, which was essentially a paper about reception and use of the hagiography of the two saints that I seem to have run out of attention for.
  • The questions here involved Florin Curta asking what evidence we have for the abandonment of the alphabet Cyril actually came up with, Glagolitic, which has puzzled me too in the past given that it persisted in Croatia till the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Martin helpfully told us there is none: all guesses as to when it went out of use are only that. And yet I feel that the manuscripts in St Catherine’s Sinai may have more to tell us here yet…

Then lunch, which I don’t remember at all, and back to it.

Session 255. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe: hoarding

For a brief moment in 2010 I was known for having thoughts about hoards, so I thought this might help me think more about them.

Avar buckle in Szeged Museum believed to depict the Tree of Life

And those Avars did have some shiny treasures (this one's in Szeged Museum, or was)

  • First up was Marcin Wołoszyn with “Avars, Scandinavians, Slavs, and Byzantine Coins: hoard and hoarding in east-central Europe between the sixth and eight centuries” was an attempt at a comparison over some very disparate modern political areas which was thus consciously hampered by national differences in detection, reporting and publication, but which concluded that Byzantine tribute payments to the Bulgars until 626 are very visible in coin finds (as distinct to Danegeld in Scandinavian ones, interestingly—there’s a point for Mark) but that most such finds are grave-goods, not hoards, which instead are common in Sweden where the bulk of preservation is later. This raised questions about what the Avars did with incoming coin if they didn’t bury it; reminted as their own issues? If so where are they? Converted into treasure then looted by Charlemagne’s troops from the Avar Ring? No answers here but before he started we didn’t even have the question.
  • Bartlomiej Szymon Szmoniewksi,3 “Hoards from the Forest and Forest-Steppe Regions of Ukraine: Pandora’s box in the archaeology of the early medieval Eastern Europe”, reporting on a slow move away from identifying particular kinds of ornament found in this area with particular tribes, but not one sufficient to stop a kind of glorification of ancestors going on with the publication of this material (and I will take a risk and say that if you follow David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, many of the reports of Thracian finds in Bulgaria to which he links seem to sing of this even though some years ago digs there would have been all about the Slavs, so, have things really improved?)
  • Florin Curta, “Trade or Taxes? Hoards of Iron Implements and Weapons in Ninth-Century Moravia”, a tightly-packed and speedily-delivered paper with an obvious big question: why did people bury hoards of tools, keys, scrap-iron and so on in the zone of old Moravia (as far as that can be guessed…)? There is lots of this stuff, and also huge hoards of ingots (into the thousands); why? Votive deposits? Tax? (If so, why still buried?) Mercantile currency storage? There are distinct types of ingots, restricted to certain zones, and some that ran interregionally; some are just long bars, some are axe-shaped. Professor Curta reckoned, and fair enough, that these items were being put to various uses and that design for one use did not preclude use for another, but it looks like there is more to do and he intends to start with analysis of the metal to see what the traffic flow from production to deposition is like. It’ll be interesting to hear!
  • In questions Professor Curta also wisely counselled the use of a third comparison zone to add to the two he’d had (essentially Poland and Moravia), as Croatia (again) does things its own way, and denied my suggestion that the objects could actually be serving as currency as they did in Chur (which apparently he had mentioned but I missed), feeling that the distribution is too polarised for it to be commercial. So, I might think, is that of coin finds in Scandinavia, on a statistical scale, but as we have already said, commercial it still seems largely to have been… deposition isn’t use. He knows the evidence better than I do, though, and I would read about this eagerly even if I have to admit I’m wrong.

Lastly for this day, I parted ways with my fellow blogger and followed my lately-acquired reviewing interest even further east, with:

Session 320. Gendered Borders and Boundaries

Here I was really just here for the first paper, but the others also proved very interesting, which is always a happy result of stepping out of one’s area.

  • Arnold Lelis, “Gendered Myth-Making on the Pagan Frontier: Peter Dusburg and the Demise of the Galindians”. The Galindians were a Prussian tribe who, according to one of our earliest sources for the area, were gone when the Germans arrived because they had cut the breasts off their women-folk to bring down the population (no, I don’t know either), and that those women had then in vengeance led a neighbouring tribe against their men who’d wiped them out. So, there’s obviously a gendered subtext here, but which one do you pick? What the heck was going on with this story was the subject of the paper: it ideologically clears a wilderness for settlement, and clears it of some fairly ungodly people, but who was Peter actually seeing as villain and who as victim here, men or women? This question involved Amazons (fairly obviously different), medieval images of lactation and removal of saints’ breasts, inevitable Freud and speculation on Salvation and it was all really quite learned if also, ineluctably, impossible to resolve.
  • Nancy Ross, “Gender, Journeys, and gammadia at Ravenna”, was one of those papers you can almost only do with visual materials, where someone points out a well-known thing and then goes, “And here it is again in a surprising but very explanatory context” and all you can do is agree. (Some people do do this with text but it is easier, at least, with pictures.) Here the well-known thing was indecipherable letters that appear on martyrs’ robes in early mural depictions of them, the so-called gammadia. These occur especially in the paintings of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, which unusually features as many women saints as male ones, facing each other across the nave on a mutual procession towards a now-lost end-point, presumably Christ (see image below). This is one of only three sites where women are given gammadia and Ross argued that here, at least, it is a mark of honour for virginity, as very few of the men bear the marks (and those young ones or known virgins) but almost all the women do. Once she’d said this it was difficult to see how it could mean anything else, here, but this sadly doesn’t work so well in other contexts… More to do, but a stunning church, which always helps.
  • Rebeca Castellanos, “Gendering the Moorish Invasion: the legends of the locked palace and the rape of Count Julia’s daughter”. You might have expected that I’d have gone for this too, but I know the stories—if you don’t, this is a fairly early topos about the fall of Visigothic Spain to the Muslims, that King Roderick was a bad king who raped one of his subjects’ daughters and unfortunately he ran the African coastal province so could let the Muslims in for revenge, and also that there was this mysterious locked palace in Toledo that no-one before Roderick had opened and he opened it to find only a chest containing a prediction of the loss of his kingdom. Like the worst chain letter ever in reverse, basically. Castellanos was concentrating on the lack of agency ascribed to the woman and it was an intelligent paper, but, I have just finished reading a clutch of Anglo-Saxon documents where the women aren’t even named in their marriage agreements,4 I guess unthinking misogyny doesn’t surprise me in this era’s literature.
  • Esther Liberman-Cuenca, “Telling Stories, Creating Memories: narratives, gender, and customary law in late medieval Colchester”, pulled together a quite detailed picture of [edit: male] community relations in fifteenth-century Colchester from the voluminous notaries’ recordstown custumaries that survive there; these include a number of judicial privileges that were claimed to go back to the Conquest or time immemorial but of which, inevitably, we have few if any earlier signs. Lots of [edit: male] status hung on character and oaths, though, so in some respects we could certainly find earlier similarities. [I seem to have made unhelpfully institutional notes on this and missed the gender angle, supplied by Ms Liberman-Cuenca in a comment below; thankyou!]
  • I think the first two of these papers got me more excited than the latter two because they involved things I didn’t already know; the fact that the latter two did less of this probably shouldn’t diminish their importance and both were certainly clear and carefully-thought.

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, from Wikimedia Commons

And thereafter we were off the leash again, and this time on the town. Michael Fletcher was determined that he needed to buy me beer and I wasn’t strong enough (or indeed at all likely) to argue, so I wound up at a certain pizza place with him and Richard Scott Nokes (with whom I was able to talk more this year, I’m happy to say, though as an exhibitor he was kind of a sitting target) and various other non-blogging but good people. But these days I don’t get wrecked at conferences because it makes the next day so hard so we were back quite quick scrounging wine off publishers and I think it was Early Medieval Europe served me my last drink of the night. All praise to them, therefore, and this will resume after the post I meant to post last time. Y’know, assuming no-one else dies. Please don’t.


1. “This is gonna be really hot, d’you want me to put some ice in it?”

2. I have no idea what this huge historical site is doing under that domain name but there are, as far as I can see, no links out from it to the main domain so, dammit, I’m linking to it.

3. I’m not sure that I have the spelling correct here, if not and you know better do say and I’ll amend.

4. For example, Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. nos 128 & 130.

Seminars LXXXVI-LXXXIX: four for the price of one

(Written offline between approximately Andorra and the Isle of Wight, courtesy of British Airways, 12/04/11)

Front Court, All Soul's College

Front Court, All Soul's College (the Medieval History Seminar is up the last staircase on the right)

By the time I can post this I’ll be back, and with loads to write, but of course I already had loads to write so something must be done. By a happy coincidence, however, the next few seminars I wanted to write up, all Oxford ones, were one where I had less than usual to say, in each case for a different reason, so I’m going to rattle through them quickly, without prejudice to the speakers I hope, and then move on to the more recent matters.

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing, from Wikimedia Commons

In the first of these cases, when none other than Steffen Patzold spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 14th February 2011, the reason I have little to say is that his paper was all around one core point, argued elegantly and persuasively, but which is if he is right bad news for Carolingianists. His title, belying this rake in the grass with its innocuousness, was “Einhard’s First Readers”, and what he was doing was studying early reception of the most famous work of the eponymous biographer of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli. By early I mean really early, in one case contemporary; the two readers he looked at were Lupus of Ferrières and Walahfrid Strabo, the former of whom corresponded with Einhard, including flattering him about the biography in order to wheedle books out of him.1 Walahfrid, too late to have known Einhard himself, wrote a shiny new preface for the Vita emphasising how reliable Einhard’s testimony was since he had known the emperor himself, and so on. Lupus on the other hand paid little attention to the contents but lauded the Ciceronian style, including completing a quotation of Cicero that Einhard had used in the Vita in his letter of self-introduction.

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard, image from Wikimedia Commons

Steffen’s contention was, basically, that Lupus understood what Einhard had intended better than did Walahfrid, that the Vita, which is as Steffen showed heavily larded with Ciceronian references, was mainly intended to demonstrate Einhard’s skill with Latin, perhaps by way of engineering a renewal of his importance at court. Steffen even argued that from what the scholars of the time knew of Cicero, especially that he had written his Tusculan Disputations when similarly removed from court on the Classical equivalent of garden leave, Einhard would have probably felt keenly similar to Cicero (and, we established in questions, would not have known about the great rhetor’s rather unpleasant end). It all added up very neatly. The reason that this is bad news for Carolingianists, who have been trying to date the Vita by reference to its contents and their potential contemporary allusions for many years now (a debate I have even seen conducted in filk) is that it makes it likely that the actual content of Einhard’s Vita Karoli is similarly bent to a rhetorical end first and foremost, with the actual historical accuracy we have all hoped for possibly rather less important. In other words, it may just sound good, and never mind the facts. Walahfrid, of course, tells us otherwise, but if Steffen’s right Walahfrid must have been wrong, which is not something one often gets to say.

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on 16th February, Vivien Prigent addressed the Oxford Byzantine History Seminar to the title, “The Myth of the Mancus and The Origins of the European Economy“. Here he was addressing a very old numismatic dispute about what, exactly, the coins that the sources of the European eighth to tenth centuries call mancusi actually were. They occur first of all in Italy, and were plainly gold and apparently Eastern in some sense but within those brackets many possibilities exist: Byzantine solidi, Muslim dinars, and so on, In 1959 Philip Grierson published an article called “The Myth of the Mancus” that tried to settle this, which he subsequently had to admit was wrong, arguing that the word should be understood to mean ‘defective’ and that they were just low-weight solidi; others subsequently argued that in fact the word derived from the Arabic ‘manqush’, ‘engraved’, and that it referred to dinars struck by the Caliphate after the reform of the Islamic coinage that stopped the use of figural representation on the coins.2 There are to my mind a bunch of reasons that looks convincing: that coins that would fit the explanation exist and have been found in the right places, that this is what King Offa of Mercia apparently strikes at about the time that the term is first seen in England (seen above), and the negative argument that the standard coin in Europe at the time was called denarius in Latin so that the term ‘dinar’ would have been effectively indistinguishable by ear for many – they would have had to have another name and we do have Arabic sources calling these things ‘dinara manqushi’ (forgive dodgy Arabic, or indeed correct it if you like), albeit not till later on.

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Vivien however argued that everyone has been wrong, and that the metrology and the early Italian instances can only really be explained by reference to Sicilian-minted Byzantine solidi. This certainly does seem to fit the Italian finds evidence, and at least fits the (Italian) metrology better than full-weight dinars, but to my mind still has two problems. One is that he was arguing his weights of coins by taking a mid-point between an ideal weight and a mean weight of finds; coins are of course almost always found worn and so the real mint weight is a matter of assumption, but the ideal standard is thus itself derived from the surviving specimens so this is only slightly more rigorous than the kind of `rounding up’ I have decried in this game before. The other obvious problem is that the term ‘mancus‘ is much more widely used than the distribution of the Sicilian coins, not least in Catalonia where it certainly does refer to dinars, something that we know because in 1018 a Barcelona Jew called Bonhom was contracted to produce them locally and some of his signed coins exist (pictured above).3 If, therefore, Vivien is to be right, and on his own ground he looks convincing, it means that we have to assume that the word quickly got out of Italy, where it meant something quite specific, and then was almost immediately used to mean pretty much any foreign gold coin, everywhere except Italy. That might be arguable (and indeed Vivien argued it), but, nonetheless, in other contexts there is no similar alternative to the dinar theory and fairly incontrovertible evidence for it (some of which I’ve given above). There are ways in which Vivien’s more complicated answer might be more realistic, and we can probably all think of a historian who would caution us against assuming that words always mean the same thing, but Occam’s Razor vibrates like an electro-magnet when brought near this theory even so and I for one am tempted to cut.

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch, from Wikimedia Commons

The very next day I then went to a paper at the Oxford Late Roman Seminar, by one Simon Ford to the title, “Take Us To Your Leader': the mechanics of ecclesiastical authority in the exilic Monophysite Church (AD 518-638)”. I confess that I did this under a misapprehension brought on by ignorance: I’ve got more and more interested in the Christian sects that began to leave the Byzantine Empire in the era after the Council of Chalcedon after teaching them this term gone, and I understood `exilic’ to mean groups outside the Empire whereas Mr Ford was actually talking about the disenfranchised Church inside the Empire. That’s one reason I have little to say, the other is that the presenter was painfully nervous and had to basically restart every sentence at least once. The effect of this was that as the end of his hour approached he had only got halfway through his text, which had probably seemed a completely reasonable length in front of the mirror, and had to skip to the end missing what seemed as if it was the interesting bit, in which rather than plotting the decline in the status of the kind of patrons that the clergy of the Monophysite Church were able to attract after 518, when they were ruled against (as evidenced basically in the letters of Bishop Severus of Antioch, who seems to be Mr Ford’s main subject), he would have talked about the way that this counter-intuitively forced the exilic Church into the arms of the Emperor, as no lesser patrons remained who might help. The Byzantine double-think involved here, where the clerics of a sect whom you, as Emperor, have removed from office are still important men whose dignity you respect and whose protection you order when necessary, would have been very interesting to hear more about, and it was a pity the paper wound up the way it did.

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Then last in this batch, I arrived late by reason of idiocy to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 21st February when Anne Pedersen was presenting to the title “New Discoveries at the Royal Site of Jelling, Denmark”, a site that she has more information on than is yet published and which I wish I’d been sharp enough to hear more about. By the end of the paper I’d managed to gather a picture of a diamond-shaped walled palace complex with one, maybe two entrances, neither on the obvious approach road, with a massive ship-setting of stones from point to point of the diamond. My natural inclination is to be sceptical about monumental alignments but this one is hard to ignore. Jelling fits into a hierarchy of similar sites in Denmark, and is predictably at the top (in a 1-2-3 size ratio with Trelleborg and Aggersborg). It also experienced conversion, as its famous rune-stone (there’s a 3D visualisation behind that link) more or less informs us: Dr Pedersen was not able to end the speculation about what might have happened to King Harald Bluetooth’s illustrious forebears who should, presumably, be in the site’s burial mounds but aren’t—one is empty, one emptied—but the church is hardly central and exactly how the site was articulated and how people moved through it may be the next thing to start trying to work out so as to solve questions like these. Whatever the answer is, it can be unusually short-term; the fixtures at all three of these sites appear never to have been repaired or replaced, we’re looking at a single generation in which power was expressed through a new form of building that then apparently became redundant. While they were up and running, though, there were people there: Dr Pedersen had emphasised the almost total absence of finds in the palace precinct, and as Rosamund Faith pointed out in questions, this must imply management of the site, unless no-one ever came there. So there’s lots still to work out, even after lots of digging.


1. My abiding impression of reading Lupus’s letters (in the translation of Graydon W. Regenos as The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966)) is that this was the key motive behind all of Lupus’s letters, and that his correspondence can be divided into three phases, (early) you’re so great and I hear you have a copy of [x] I’d like to borrow, (middle) your copy of [x] is quite safe with me and will soon be sent back, honest, and (late) wah no-one will lend me books why is the world so cruel? I may do him the injustice of rapid reading though, it was a while ago I formed this impression. I assume that you know Einhard’s work, but in case not the translation of resort is now that of David Ganz, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), replacing the older one of the same title by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1969, repr. 1984 and often thereafter). The still older one of Samuel Turner is online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook here.

2. Philip Grierson, “Carolingian Europe and the Arabs: the myth of the mancus” in Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire vol. 31 (Bruxelles 1954), pp. 1059-1074; repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), III with important addenda. Cf. among others Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543.

3 On these and other imitative mancusi see now Lutz Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. `Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit” in Reinhard Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Klüßendorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hannover 2004), pp. 91-106, a reference for which I must thank Dr Marcus Phillips.

Seminars LXXX & LXXXI: two takes on really big changes

Okay, it’s been a while since last post. I’m not going to apologise, this term has just been a lot higher-pressure than last one and many of you know what that’s like. I do regret it, but what profits it you to know that? So I’ll write when I can and here I am doing it. My load is at least slightly lightened by the fact that the first seminar in my to-blog pile, Julia Smith speaking to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar with the title, “Rethinking relics in the medieval west: evidence and approaches c. 700-c. 1200″, which was excellent, has already been excellently written up by Magistra et Mater and so I shall direct you there for that and move on to stuff more local and, at last, less related to dead bodies. Do have a look, though. [Edit: light editing below to close up unfinished sentences, correct typoes and add the final missing footnote, and then one big and obvious edit to patch a mistake in my recollection, with thanks to Mark Handley for querying it!]

Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

Postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne, possibly the second most famous Belgian

Instead, I can offer brief reports on a couple of truly macro-scale papers that I heard in Oxford in the early part of the year, and first of these was the inestimable Dr Mark Whittow, who at rather short notice had to draft himself in to address the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 17th January, and did so with the title, “Pirenne, Mohammed and Bohemond: before Orientalism”. You will immediately observe that this is a title implying a fairly broad sweep of knowledge and a deliberately provoking argument, and so it was. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll do it the hopefully venal injustice of a short summary. Mark asserted that in some fundamental ways the famous Pirenne thesis, originated by the gent on the stamp above and arguing that the ancient world’s economic arrangement persisted long after Rome’s fall and was only really broken up by the Muslim conquests that separated Africa from the Christian territories on the north of the Mediterranean, has now more or less been proven by archæological finds (such as the occupation at the Crypta Balbi in Rome and Pella in Jordan, which stopped receiving imports from across the Mediterranean only in the eighth century), as well as a cursory reading of the letters of the trans-Mediterranean traveller Pope Gregory the Great.1 Whether or not the territories of the West belonged to it in any direct sense, they all belonged to the political context and mental world of the Empire still.

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

After the Muslim conquests, however, the conquered lands were fundamentally reoriented, quite literally, in both commercial and mentality terms, eastwards, and those Christian territories lined up against them were similarly so. But, argued Mark, though the East may have forgotten the West, the West did not forget the East, the source of the Christianity even then making its way among new peoples whose fascination with the Holy Land and knowledge of its ancient state soon far outstripped their knowledge of their much nearer neighbours. Around the Irish Sea, for example, there were works about the Holy Places circulating but no contact, for example, with Spain (at least not since the British diaspora, I might condition).2 Everywhere in the West you could find relics of the Holy Land, bits of it that people had got hold of or brought home. In some ways the East remained the spiritual home of Western Christians, and this fascination was played upon to the ultimate effect when the First Crusade was called, and may explain the massive response to Emperor Alexius’s call for help, [Edit: here's what the above deletion should have said...] a response, we may note, which was far larger for the Holy Land than for similar calls to action in Spain and Italy at earlier points. [You see how this makes more sense. Sorry Mark!] What followed, however, was a rapid disenchantment as the East, in all its manifold divisions, proved less accepting of the West than had been assumed it would and the West found itself not among brothers but among all manner of difference, leading the Crusader kingdoms’ élites to keep themselves Latinately separate from their subjects and Europe to redefine itself against this finally-noticed Other.3

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries (from English Wikipedia)

This is of course a powerfully explanatory thesis, and I’m certainly not equipped to critique it all, nor, given how massively helpful Mark has been to me since I arrived, do I really feel like doing so. At the time, this seemed almost insuperably convincing and questions mainly centred on whether Pirenne’s picture could be called right given what we know of the alternative networks developing, in the North Sea and through the Caucasus and Baltic regions, which drain focus from the Mediterranean economy anyway. Chris Wickham also pointed out a long tradition of dismissing the East which predates the First Crusade, visible for example in Western responses to Iconoclasm, which Mark suggested came from the Roman tradition of sneering at the Greeks. It does seem to me, however, that to stand up fully the broader thesis requires that we accept arguments from silence about networks and connections in the West, which someone like Martin Carver might question,4 while at the same time dismissing such arguments in the central Mediterranean in the light of recent finds. New finds might obviously also mess with the picture in the West. Likewise, the quantity of evidence feels important. The ending of Roman grain shipments from Africa to Rome, and then to Constantinople, must have reduced the weight of trade across those routes.5 If the contacts were already attenuating before the Muslim advent, and it was the Muslim conquests that finally caused them to drop off completely, the effects that Mark was arguing for would have been under way before the Muslim conquests and Pirenne’s thesis would be right, perhaps, but lose much of its explanatory value. Michael Bentley did also ask if there was any evidence that would actually disprove a theory so based in a subjective reading of patchy manuscript preservation. This, in as much as it amounted to demanding the proof of a negative, seemed a bit unfair, but the question of falsifiability does still lurk. We may never be able to prove Mark wrong if he decides to run with this, but it will also be very hard to be sure that he’s right. History is fun like that, isn’t it?

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Harder to understand, but (if I did) much less disputable was a paper the very next day, 18th January, given by Professor Bruce Campbell to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford under the title, “Population, Disease and Environmental Change in the Fourteenth Century”. This was a paper about the Black Death, except that it was not about the disease itself or its spread, about which indeed there have been lots of recent new discoveries largely covered by Michelle of Heavenfield at her Contagions blog, if you’re interested. Instead, it took in a huge range of climate evidence, taken from all over Europe, and sourced from lake cores, tree rings, stalactite build-up, and all manner of different things to build up a very complicated picture of global climate over the central Middle Ages. This was of course different all round the globe: one of the biggest problems with doing palæoclimatology, as I’ve said here before, is that people generalise from Greenland to Barcelona quite happily when actually Lake Geneva gives you a different story, and so on. Campbell was fully emphasising this variation across the globe, and conditioning almost all his general trends with local or micro-level exceptions. This made it all the more powerful that he was able to emphasise, from all his sorts of evidence, almost all of which you can check out yourself at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Paleoclimatology Data website if you choose, that all over the globe climate was in violent flux over the course of the fourteenth century. It was not simply getting warmer or getting colder, it was all over the shop everywhere, with different overall trends in different places—in Western Europe passing eventually from the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (as I now sort of understand why we have to call it, seeing as ‘warm’ is a bit subjective) to the Little Ice Age—but such serious variation in the period between that big freezes, droughts and, consequently, serious agricultural disruption dominated most of the period 1250-1450. This doesn’t explain the Black Death, at least not directly; the unusual travel of rats is still not understood and it seems unlikely that the archæology will ever be there. What it may well explain, however, is the incredible gravity of the plague’s effects, especially since they came on the back of an under-explored wave of cattle disease which meant that much of the affected area, in East and West, was already running very short on meat and milk, in turn messing with population replacement rates. Everywhere was short of resource and resistance. The results, catastrophe (and a quasi-Malthusian fat time for the survivors, though it was not Malthusian crisis that had thinned things out previously).6

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Obligatory toiling peasants illustration, from about the right period too

This was powerful stuff. I was mainly excited because of the variety of subtle ways in and the massive source of free data with which I might now reconsider the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, and others there were more interested in knowing if they could use this sort of techniques to look at other plagues (and suspicious that it doesn’t seem to work half so well for the Justinianic plague). To this Campbell was keen to emphasise, as he had throughout, that he was looking here at an incredibly complex set of environmental systems, with almost-chaotic looking interrelations. Changes in, for example, the Pacific Ocean’s oscillation, as we are seeing even today, have complex causes and affect climate all over the world, but depending on what else climate is doing in each area, and a dozen or more other factors, the results are very different on the micro-scale. (Failure to appreciate this leads to Daily Express stories ‘disproving’ global warming because of huge snowfall in Britain as the Guardian runs stories about historically-unparalleled droughts in Kenya at about the same time.) For the current debates over climate, only the big trends are truly significant, but for our sort of researches, the local variation is immensely important, and there are some ways here to approach it at the same time as the big trends that make up its background. This applies to more than just climate, as a way of thinking… For the second time in two days I’d been thrown into some really big thoughts about changes affecting the whole world that I study and had to come away thinking myself quite lucky just to be where I am when I am, in this way at least.7


1. Some quick web-digging finds the Crypta Balbi excavations reported in Daniele Manacorda, Crypta Balbi. Archeologia e storia di un paesaggio urbano (Rome 2001) and Gregory’s letters are now all translated in John R. C. Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great (Toronto 2004). I don’t have a reference for Pella.

2. The obvious one is Adomnán of Iona’s De locis sanctis, ed. & transl. Denis Meehan as Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Dublin 1958) though you could if you liked find an older translation online here. Bede like Admonán’s work so much he wrote his own, and you can find that translated online here, transl. A. van der Nat as “Regarding the Holy Places, by the Venerable Bede”, from the edition of Paul Geyer of it as “Bædae Liber de locis sanctis” in idem (ed.), Itinera Hierosolymitana, sæculi IIII-VIII, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiae latinorum XXXVIIII (Vienna 1898).

3. On which a quick study might be Jonathan Phillips, “The Latin East, 1098-1291″ in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford 1995), pp. 112-140.

4. A suspicion I have mainly on the scale of connections I’ve heard him attribute to monastic centres in Pictland, as for example in his “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St Andrews House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40, but shared by a number of the contributors to Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998).

5. My cite of resort for this remains Chris Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98, and of course that does mean I’m twenty years out of date and new evidence may very well have changed the picture. I know what the answer to this is, of course, and it’s now quite close to the top of the to-read pile but as ever other stuff is more immediately urgent.

6. Professor Campbell’s paper was loaded with references, which he displayed by adding them onto the relevant presentation slide as he wound up each point. This was very stylish but left one little time to copy them down. However, I bet most of them are in what seems to be a related publication, B. M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della “Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi” 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32 and online as PDF here. Meanwhile, the damn handy graph I’ve used as illustration is from Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105 and otherwise online unpaginated here.

7. Not, of course, that I’m happy about living in the era where this is a sudden and urgent political concern that the reigning world-system is completely unequipped to tackle. I have a son, after all, I’m not really happy about the world I’m bequeathing to him.