Category Archives: Byzantium

Seminar CXLVII: de-emphasising Greece in Byzantine history

Long before I knew what my next job would be, on 13th March 2014, I was persuaded to attend the University of Birmingham’s General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I have been doing this on and off since then, and naturally more regularly given my new employment, but I think I am still the only person not speaking who attends from outside the Centre, which is slightly odd. I came along because I was told by someone who should know that I’d be interested in this particular paper, however, and so it proved, that paper being one called “Byzantine Greece — Microcosm of Empire? Retrospect and Prospect”, by Dr Archie Dunn.

Map of Byzantine Greece c.900

Byzantine Greece c. 900. By Cplakidas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn’s basic starting contention was that, at least since its revival as a nation in 1830, modern Greece has been central to Byzantine studies, since its area preserves or generated many of the major narratives and almost all the surviving Byzantine documentary material, and was the location of many of the pioneering digs in Byzantine archæology. It’s just taken places like Turkey who have less interest in claiming some kind of continuity with their Byzantine predecessor longer to decide this stuff might still be interesting, I think, though it is now happening, and a Greek-language academy presumably also helps. Anyway, this presents problems of generalisation, because Greece thus drives the older and still basic synthetic narratives of Byzantine history but wasn’t necessarily typical of the wider empire. So Dr Dunn here attempted, using the archæology that he knows best, to set up a new synthetic model of landscape development in Byzantine Greece and then test it against Thrace to see just how bad this problem is. The basic lynchpins of this picture were cities, castles and churches and their interrelations, so you can probably already see how I would find thinking material in this.

The Angelokastron in Corfu

The Angelokastro in Corfu, about the best copyright-free image of a Greek Byzantine kastron I can find even if well out of area… By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The synthetic model for Greece went something like this. By the fifth century Greece, once a landscape of cities, still counted a lot of cities in its territorial organisation but far fewer than before and not all of them actually physically instantiated, rather than just being organisational constructs, settlement having moved out to rural settlements like Italian hill-villages (a comparison I thought of about a minute before Dr Dunn invoked it), walled in undressed timber-braced stone, and articulated also by churches separated by 4-10 km distances. Over the sixth to eighth centuries the cities continued to fade but from the seventh century on fortifications arise instead, partly as a reaction to Slav incursions. Those incursions were gathered under more or less willing jurisdiction eventually, however: by the ninth centuries some such notional groups have official seals, for example. These new kastroi, castles, often had bishops, despite the tiny territories thus implied, but even so were not poleis, cities, to the government but choria, villages, even when abandoned cities were close by. They were however centres for military organisation, and however they’d got there were incorporated into systems of government.

Castles at Didymoteicho in Thrace, now Greece

Castles at Didymoteicho, which we do have textual evidence was founded by Justinian I. By Aramgar (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn then compared the situation of Thrace, roughly modern Bulgaria and a bit west into Greece, where a lot of the same factors could apply but somehow, don’t all. Here, though the scattering of new villages and kastroi did occur, it did so without the end of the urban network that had preceded it; the bishops stayed in the old poleis and the kastroi fitted in new places between these. Dr Dunn argued, I think from my notes, that this was an attempt by central govenment to impose a similar system to that that was being managed in Greece over a landscape whose old jurisdictional anchors were still in place, and which couldn’t be ignored—the Thracian cities did revive somewhat over the seventh to ninth centuries—but which weren’t the focus of attention from the state any more. Some of the new fortifications subsequently became towns, however, which prompted me as the then-temporary-Anglo-Saxonist to ask if, as with the fortress-towns of Alfred the Great’s burghal system, they took a long time to do this; sadly, the archæology hasn’t yet been done that would ground that comparison.

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece. By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The main points that came out of this paper, then, were firstly and mainly that Greece can’t be taken as typical of Byzantium even if much of our information comes from it, but also a point about scales of comparison. To make a real point when dealing with a state of this size, one’s micro-regions need to be quite large. No one or few of these city districts would tell a typical story; comparing chosen themata across the two provinces would probably miss the general shape of change entirely. That then implies that to compare at this scale you have to look at something that occurs widely enough but thinly enough to be manageable; cities may be too slight, churches is heading for the feasible maximum, house types would be impossible, it seems to me. Other questions did arise, of course. The obvious one, asked by Ruth Macrides, was, well, why is Thrace different, to which the obvious answer seemed to be proximity to Constantinople, leading to better-funded development of both defences and agriculture because the capital needed them both in a way that it didn’t from further-off Greece. Someone I didn’t know asked about agency, whether these new foundations were necessarily top-down, to which the honest answer could only be that we know some are so there is some kind of central effort to do things, but whether other sites are in on the plan, who knows? And Rebecca Darley asked what was organising society at the village level before they started getting churches, and whether they might have replaced an older religious articulation, to which Dr Dunn said that if there was such an older sacred landscape, it is now largely invisible, though a few cases could be adduced. Here again it seems to me that scale of comparison is important. In the previous answer, a few cases were indicative because we know there was some linkage of them together; in this one a few cases were not, because we don’t have that linkage. Such a linkage would have to be some organised pagan Greek priesthood for which there’s no evidence, of course, so that’s probably OK, but looking at it now the argument from silence still sits oddly next to that from information. It would be nicest of all to be able to show this by digging of course, and I’m sure Dr Dunn would be more than happy to start on that given funding! It was certainly clear that he would know where to start or, indeed, carry on looking.

Seminar CXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

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

All Saints Brixworth

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

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

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

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

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

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I've now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it's that successful. So if you haven't already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery...]

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 3 February 2015

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 beginning of February 2015.

Leeds 2013 report part 4 and final

I probably stayed at the dance of the International-Medieval-Congress-before-last longer than I should have done given that I was presenting the next day, but nonetheless I was on time, just, to my own session, and in practice it would have upset few enough people if I had been late, as there were only four people in the audience!

1525. Expressions of Ecclesiastic Authority: from priests to popes

The lessons here, I suppose, apart from the obvious “hope not to be scheduled the morning after the dance“, are to aim to be part of a session, not just to fling a paper title at the organisers as I had done (and as I am avoiding doing next year: had you seen the Call for Papers? I’d be happy to have some more submissions…). All the same, I’d spent quite a lot of the conference in a funk about leaving the profession, although I had during it in fact been offered my next job had I but known this, and this morning audience did not, shall we say, help me with feeling as if my work had value, as didn’t my knowing that because of Montserrat’s e-mail silence I didn’t have the facts I really needed to make it work. Nonetheless, I gave it my best, and I think that certainly the other two papers were very interesting in their own ways. The trouble was rather that there was no single way in which all three were on someone’s wavelength…

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Priests of Montpeità: Competing Ecclesiastical Interests at the 10th-Century Catalan Frontier”
  • Patricia Dalcanale Meneses, “‘Roman Gothic': Giuliano della Rovere in Avignon”
  • David Kennett, “Trouble Finding Bishops: the episcopal crises of Henry VII”
  • My morning offering was, as you can see, the second part of the Manresa project. Having in my previous paper on this (seen, of course, by none of the same people but hey) tried to set apart the monastic clergy of Sant Benet de Bages from their dense recording of parts of the territory of the city of Manresa in the tenth century, I now tried to see past them to the wider priesthood, concentrating in particular on one of the most densely-documented parts of the record there, a place that is now a basically empty hillside called Montpeità. Having first taken the twenty most frequently-appearing people and shown that they were surprisingly free of direct associations with the monastery, I demonstrated the intermittent monk problem then tried the same trick with the clergy, and yeah, the top three are monastics, one of them being the place’s advocate but never actually dealing with it direct (a sign how little weight this kind of work can bear) but numbers 4-10 of the top 10 are just the actual local priests as far as I can see, albeit that one of them was apparently quite senior at the era of the monastery’s foundation and wrote their foundation and endowment documents (the latter seen below, with his distinctive spelling of his name and signature in capitals). So it does kind of work, there is a possibility of getting at the local clerical distribution through this sample despite the weight of the monastery. But it wasn’t what you could call a finished set of findings.

    The act of endowment of Sant Benet de Bages

    The act of endowment of Sant Benet de Bages, not in great shape alas, but signed at bottom left by SUNIÆRUS. Slightly larger version linked through, but even at the biggest size I have this is still basically no longer legible

    As for the other two speakers, Dr Dalcanale showed us how the man who would become Pope Julius II had, by the time he did, architecturally implanted himself all over the centre of Avignon so that even before his election one could hardly avoid seeing his works, which were furthermore strongly French Gothic in style, rather than the Romanising architecture he might have adopted. Then Mr Kennett looked at the accusations often levelled at King Henry VII of England that he kept bishoprics open for longer than other kings (thus profiting from their revenues). According to Mr Kennett, while there is a statistical justice in this it can be mostly explained by the fact that as Henry took the throne almost all of his bishops were seventy years old or more, and that very rapidly they died: he had 14 new vacancies over the period 1502 to 1505, and it understandably took him time to find competent candidates for so many sees, especially given the kind of hierarchy of importance and income they seem to have had which meant that only some of them could honourably be used as entry-level positions. This was interesting, as was Dr Dalcanale’s paper, but you can see what I mean when I say that there was very little that joined all three of us together in era, geography or focus…

I did get what looked as if it might be a useful contact for the Montserrat problem out of this, though, so I left in a better humour than I’d entered. (Ironically, firstly the contact has been unable to help, and secondly they found me independently though here a few months later anyway! But I wasn’t to know that then.) It was good to have finally done my turn, anyway, and the rest of the day was much more fun for me.

1602. ‘Defended Communities': fortified settlements of the 8th-10th centuries – origins, forms and functions, II

  • Rossina Kostova, “The Western Black Sea Coast: how and how much was it defended?”
  • Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier along the River Ter: ‘Roda Civitas’ identified in the archaeological site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)”
  • This thread was ill-favoured by its position on the last day, as all the sessions I could make were really interesting but people kept leaving during them. This session here had even lost one of the planned speakers, but to me this mattered not at all because what it meant was that the small-scale Catalan invasion got to take up far more of the session than it otherwise would have been allowed. (You may have recognised some of the names…) But before that happened, Dr Kostova gave us an interesting summary of the medieval fortress archæology along the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea. She saw a division at the Danube, south of which the Byzantines kept forts active in some places, planted settlements when they could and generally kept the space full, and which the Bulgars subsequently blocked up with earth dykes to prevent easy movement of armies; the Byzantines recapture of this zone during the eleventh and twelfth centuries didn’t change that much but they did make a good attempt to hold the Danube. North of the Danube, however, whether Byzantine or Bulgar (or, briefly, Avar) there was much less investment except at a few notable coastal centres. What this seemed to show to the audience was that whoever held that territory, they could usually mobilise a good deal of labour: the Bulgarian dyke system extends for 120 km in some of its lengths! But though the how is impressive, the why of all of this would also be informative if we could get closer to figuring it out.

    Aerial view of l'Esquerda

    Aerial view of l’Esquerda

    Then, however, came a site dear to my work, good old l’Esquerda, being presented in the UK for the first time in a long time, and with much done since then.1 The site has a very long chronology, late Bronze Age to twelfth century, so Dr Rocafiguera took us through the background, which included one more big square Iberian tower than they thought they had when I was last there, possible Punic War defences that became the gateways of a Roman village. They now also have a hitherto unsuspected Visigothic phase, however, dating evidence including a radio-carbon date centering around 614, and it comprises a thoroughgoing refortification period with a huge new wall slighting the older defences. Within it, however, the excavated area seems to have been turned over to silos that eventually became rubbish pits and cut through each other, with burials going on in the area of the walls. A village was presumably there somewhere but as of the 2012 season they hadn’t yet found it. It was this somewhat dilapidated complex, anyway, rather than a half-functional Iberian fortress-town, that the Carolingians inherited and refurbished, then.2 There was obviously enough for the Carolingian forces to reuse.

    The newly-discovered wall of l'Esquerda exposed in the 2012 excavations

    The newly-discovered wall exposed in the 2012 excavations

    The star find in all this, however, was a silver denier of Louis the Pious that came from the Carolingian destruction layers, whose deposition we can thus reasonably date to 826 or very narrowly before, an unusually close chronology. Coins are just vanishingly rare finds in Catalonia anyway, so they were understandably excited, but the find also helps remove any doubt (if there were any) that this is the Roda mentioned as destroyed in the rebellion of Aizó in the Royal Frankish Annals.3 That’s great, because pinning textually-attested events to archæology so closely hardly ever happens, but now we have quite a lot more questions about what on earth the Visigothic-period site was for and who was using it…

All of that gave me quite an appetite for lunch, once I managed to stop talking Catalonia. But I was clear which strand I needed to be in for what remained of the conference now! First, however, came lunch with friends and also some unexpected neighbours…

Hawks and owls at the 2013 International Medieval Congress

Hawks and owls peacefully waiting for showtime

I didn’t get to see the actual show, however, because I had more fortresses to go and hear about!

‘Defended Communities': Fortified Settlements of the 8th-10th Centuries – Origins, Forms, and Functions, III

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early Medieval ‘Incastellamento’ in the North of Iberia”
  • Alessandra Molinari, “Rural Landscapes of Sicily between Byzantines and Muslims (7th-11th c.)”
  • Neil Christie, “Creating Defended Communities in late Saxon Wessex”
  • Yes, that’s right, every single session I went to this day had something about Spain in it and I only had to supply one of them! (This was not least because I’d suggested a bunch of Spanish castellologists to Hajnalka Herold when she was setting the sessions up and they apparently proved agreeable, but hey, you do what you have to.) Nonetheless, and despite his prodigious output, much of it internationally aimed, this was the first time I’d actually seen and met Professor Quirós. He was here to tell us of a sea-change, however, in which Pierre Toubert’s model of castles as the social centres that drive everything because of élite demand have been shunted out in the archaeolography (if there can be such a word) of northern Iberia in favour of villages being the key, and castles being basically defence apparatus, more symbols of power than agents of it.4

    Castillo d'Arganzón

    The Castillo d’Arganzón, another of those Professor Quirós has been digging

    That fits what I see in Catalonia quite well, but it is also something much more likely to come up in archæology because the units the newest digs, his type site here being a place called Treviño, are showing up are effectively self-contained, so would not show up in transactions. I’m less sure about that argument or whether any such places exist outside mountain Navarre, but I suppose that the Catalan archæologists would probably brandish Roc d’Enclar at me and they’d probably have a point.5 From the survey Professor Quirós’s team have, in any case, early medieval castles in Navarra and the Basque Country seem to have been exterior to settlements, churches were more integral and a late antique precedent is also often common; it’s only in the twelfth century that the picture of a castle as the obvious tool of social domination begins to stick, which means that such incastallamento as was being carried out was being done from existing, centralised, sites. That paradigm was already struggling, but this doesn’t do it much good…6

    Meanwhile, in Sicily, wouldn’t you know, it’s the tenth century that turns out to be crucial; Dr Molinari painted us a picture of a society where late antique settlement organisation went on till quite late, and while it began to be dotted with Byzantine fortresses in the face of the Muslim invasion in the ninth century, it’s only in the tenth that peasant settlement moves up to the hills. What is missing from the picture so far is much sign of Islamic fortification; the Byzantine state here seems to have been attenuated enough that it just withered back in the face of opposition. And lastly, Neil Christie, co-organiser of the sessions, took us through the now-appreciated variety of the Anglo-Saxon burghal system of fortresses against the Vikings and added to it a perspective that many of the other papers had also adopted, that control of territory may not have been as important for their location as control of routeways (including waterways).7 This interests me because, as I hope to show soon, it just doesn’t work in Catalonia (except maybe the waterways, but the Ter is no quick way to get anywhere, especially upstream). The other factor that came up again here was the workforce needed to get these sites up, which was not just a matter of a quick bit of earth-moving but often demolition, clearance, and then quite heavy building for all that stone was not usually involved. Of course, Asser tells us about how this was resented, but it was good to have the Anglo-Saxon sites brought into the same dialogue as everyone else was having.8

So, that was it; after that it was an hour or so of hanging about, gathering bags, drinking tea and saying goodbye, and then I set off home, quite possibly as I then thought having just done my last Leeds as an academic. I’m pleased that this was not so, and I had extensive plans for how to handle it if it were so, but all the same the abyss yawned near, and spending most of a day remembering that other people are also interested in the things I’m interested in and get paid for investigating them was a boost in an otherwise slightly dark time. But it’s OK: I was about to head for the sunshine…


1. That first presentation being Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer & Montserrat Rocafiguera, “Ancient patterns in settlement and urbanism: the medieval site of L’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Rural Settlement, Medieval Europe 1992: a conference on medieval archaeology in Europe, 21st-24th September 1992 at the University of York volume 4 (York 1992), pp. 131-137.

2. Cf., well, basically everything previously published on the site alas. Happily, in a way, there’s still basically no later ninth- or tenth-century evidence beyond the church, so J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 87-99, is still basically OK on the place, and you can find there the other most useful earlier references.

3. Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), transl. in B. Scholz & B. Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. a. 826. On the coinage of the area see most easily J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London: Royal Numismatic Society 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243.

4. Toubert, classically, in Pierre Toubert, Les Structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle, Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome CCXXI (Paris 1973), 2 vols, but now cf. his “L’Incastellamento aujourd’hui : Quelques réflexions en marge de deux colloques” in Miquel Barcelo & Toubert (edd.), L’incastellamento : Actes des recontres de Gerone (26-27 novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 mai 1994), Collection de l’École française de Rome 241 (Rome 1999), pp. xi-xviii, also printed as “L’incastellamento, mode d’emploi” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (Espagne, Italie et sud de la France Xe-XIIIe s.) : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 119-124. For Professor Quirós the new gospel appears to be the work of Iñaki Martín Viso, most obviously I suppose his “Un mundo en transformación: los espacios rurales en la Hispania post-romana (siglos V-VII)” in Luis Caballero Zoreda, Pedro Mateos Cruz & Tomás Cordero Ruiz (edd.), Visigodos y omeyas: el territorio (Mérida 2012), pp. 31-63.

5. There’s probably a full report on Roc d’Enclar by now but I know it from J. M. Bosch Casadevall, “El Roc d’Enclar: el poblado fortificado d’época carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos I y X), pp. 107-110, transl. as “El Roc d’Enclar. The Fortified Site in the Carolingian Age”, ibid. pp. 473-476.

6. See Richard Hodges, “Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 223-229.

7. Here the cite of choice, which I must follow up some day when world enough etc., was Jeremy Haslam, Urban-rural connections in Domesday Book and late Anglo-Saxon royal administration, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 571 (Oxford 2012).

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. Since August 2014, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one


Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.

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