Category Archives: Byzantium

Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…


The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

Seminar CLI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.


1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

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.