Category Archives: Celts

Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

Once returned to the UK after the trip to Catalonia lately recounted, I was happy to be heading back to the Institute of Historical Research, whose Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has in these last two years run to a shortened programme in the summer. First up in the summer 2013 series on 22nd May was Elizabeth Boyle, an old acquaintance from Cambridge. I would therefore have been down to London for this anyway, but her title, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality and Pilgrimage in 10th- and 11th-Century Ireland”, also intrigued. Since the IHR has been in exile for some years now, it took some finding, but finally with us all gathered in a huge basement room where we could hardly see people come in to find us, Lizzie told us a couple of excellent but odd Irish stories and drew some tentative points of bigger social import out of them.

Folio 53 of the Book of Leinster

Book of Leinster, folio 53” by Áed Ua Crimthainn et al (12th century) – Laighean53a at web site of Trinity College, Dublin. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The common links between the stories are firstly that they are next to each other in the so-called Book of Leinster, secondly that they both involve unnamed kings acting to correct the morals of Irish clerics fallen into sin, and thirdly that they relate to pilgrimage, which was where Lizzie had come in as she was at this time working on a project comparing contacts with Rome between England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries.1 This seems to have been a period in which there was both a substantial rise in pilgrimage (which has certainly been detected in Catalonia too, though there it could be just more evidence; not so in Ireland, where there is actually far less evidence than in the centuries before) and also a current of scepticism about the practice.2 This was neatly expressed in an anonymous ninth-century verse Lizzie gave us in the handout (in both Old Irish and her translation, but I shall stick to the latter because I can’t really even pronounce the Celtic languages, let alone understand them):

“Going to Rome:
great hardship, little benefit.
The King you seek here:
if you don’t take Him with you, you won’t find Him there.”

These stories are in something of the same vein. In the first, Cethrur Macclérech (‘Four Junior Clerics’), the protagonists, whom Lizzie compared to gap-year students, head for Rome and are put up by ‘a renowned man of the Franks’, who makes roughly the above point to them and persuades them to accept a living from him in exchange for their prayers. They go to Rome anyway but when they come back he throws a local hermit out, who is obviously delighted by this further adversity (apparently really),3 and they are just moving in when one of them says, “May it be lucky,” at which point the king responds: “‘Out of the country with them! they are heathens! Let them not even drink the water of the country.'” So they head off dejected, but next day while washing in a stream a box floats down to them and bounces into the arms of their leader (called a bishop, now) and he sends it back to the king. It turns out to contain six bars of silver and one of gold, all of equal weight, and the king expounds this as an allegory on the days of the week and Sunday observance, but accepts the clerics back as long as they never think of “‘luck'” as long as they live. It looks as if there were several moral points knocked into a single story here, but the point about luck being superstition is the one the scribe ran with.

Manuscript depiction of medieval Rome as widow during the period of the Avignon Papacy

This is really nothing to do with the post, but it came up as I searched for medieval images of Rome and is just too much fun not to include, Rome shown as a widow during the residence of the papacy in Avignon. Seriously: how many of the Avignon popes were good husband material, Mrs Allegorical Rome? Consider your options! “BNMsItal81Fol18RomeWidowed“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second interested me more, since I found in it faint points of contact with other stories I know dimly, not least from Chrétien de Troyes, that feature a King of the Greeks (and there are five more of these in the manuscript, apparently).4 Here, that king is the unfortunate butt of the story, but certainly its moral champion. A bishop who has gone to Rome on pilgrimage determines to go on to Jerusalem, and meets a “wonderful king” of a land on the way who points out to him that “God is in every place” and installs him as the royal confessor, and indeed also treasurer. Because the king was frequently out, the bishop heard the queen’s confession more often than the kings and eventually wound up, er, giving her something worth confessing, an incident that quickly becomes habit-forming. The king is told and comes back and besieges his wife and the bishop in their ‘stone mansion’. She won’t open up and in the night the bishop repents, does 300 prostrations and faints, and the angels come and carry him to his church, where he wakes and gratefully starts celebrating nocturns. The king then hears and realises his suspicions are misplaced, so goes to abase himself before the bishop, who is at least conscious that he hasn’t really deserved this break (“It is not upon me alone that disgrace from the devil has been exercised”) and resumes his pilgrimage. The real winner here is the queen, to whom the king had to pay compensation for false accusation so that she would remain with him (which is Irish law, not Roman, as Lizzie noted). The point here is supposed to be that we can’t know what God will or won’t forgive, but again it seems clear that there’s a lot of other points you could make with this tale.

The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry

A stone mansion of the sort imagined by our story-teller? The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry. The linked page gives you a handy short account of the debate over the Céli De.

The points that Lizzie chose to emphasise, at least, hung around the purity of the clergy. This is a fairly obvious target of both these stories, albeit perhaps an incidental one, but there was at this time in Ireland some dispute over the peculiarly Gaelic clerical movement known as the Céli De, ‘clients of God’, who do not easily fit into our categories either of reformers or hermits, being something of both and not enough of either for the Gregorian Reform movement and those moving within it to be quite happy with them.5 They did undertake lay ministry and confession, and these were far from the only tales about how that could go wrong (a style of story I attempted to classify as “swyve or shrive?” in questions, gleefully ignoring the fact that this only works in a different dead language). Whether the clerics here are actually supposed to be Céli De is unclear, however (though the bishop of the Gaels in the second story is so called in its last line) and the manuscript context may even suggest that these were tales in which Céli De poked fun at their mainstream, travel-happy brethren. In the end what was mainly clear here is that there were some moral arguments going on that the writers and users of this manuscript and those who copied its tales were pursuing through low humour, and anything we might want to say beyond that about authorship, purpose and reception was hard to settle. But medieval use of humour is itself worth remembering, and unlike many these stories’ fun has held some of its meaning.6


1. The Book, or Lebor na Nuachongbála to its old friends, is Dublin, Trinity College MS H 2. 18, and is printed as R. I. Best et al. (edd.), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachingbála (Dublin 1954-1983), 6 vols, or so says Lizzie’s handout. Meanwhile, investigation by web reveals that this paper is now published as E. Boyle, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Ireland: Cethrur macclerech and Epscop do Gaedelaib” in Studia Hibernica Vol. 39 (Dublin 2013), pp. 9-48, so you can follow up the references and see if the conclusions changed from what I heard if you like!

2. The locus classicus here is Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1960), pp. 143-151, but I guess there must be more now, and that Lizzie will be providing yet more shortly! The Catalan side of things is covered, again classically, in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), pp. 302-313.

3. Lizzie’s translation has it as: “‘I give thanks to God’, said the hermit: ‘My earthly king ejecting me; my heavenly king coming into it.'”

4. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligés, ed. P. Kunstmann in Base de français médieval, online here, last modified 31 July 2013 as of 27 April 2014, ll. 43–58. For interpretation I’m only immediately able to proffer Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, “Alexander and the Conte du Graal” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 14 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 1–19, but there must be something more general about the world of the Greeks in romance… Aha! Regesta Imperii proffers Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in medieval French literature, Gallica 25 (Cambridge 2012), which I haven’t seen but must at least be relevant.

5. Lizzie cited the work of Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: monastic writing and identity in the early Middle Ages (Woodbridge 2006) here, but her handout also offers Aubrey Gwynn, The Irish Church in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, ed. G. O’Brien (Dublin 1992), which may be what Follett is kicking against? I dunno guv’, this is really not my field!

6. Jokes are a medium hard to interpret over a thousand years and a linguistic divide, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten: here Lizzie cited, as would I have, Guy Halsall, “Introduction: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the key'” in Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 1-21.

Bringing Scotland to Oxford: the O’Donnell Lectures for 2013

The medieval history of Britain outwith England is not terribly well covered at Oxford. I got into the habit of saying that by virtue of my appointment there I was now England’s only professional historian of the Picts even though I haven’t worked on them since last century: this was to stupidly forget Dr Meggen Gondek, but it was still far truer than it ought to have been, especially in the largest history department in the world outside Moscow.1 And this is all very mystifying, because every year in Oxford there is a lecture series on just such matters, the O’Donnell Lectures, in 2013 they were on the theme of Early Medieval Scotland, and they were absolutely packed with interested Oxonians, including of course me. This was a half-day event, organised by Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and the running order was as follows:

Alex kicked off with a typically controversial paper that opened with a typically controversial statement, which was that the term Celtic Scotland was rubbish: when it was Celtic it wasn’t Scotland and Scots is a dialect of English anyway. He went on from there to argue that in fact the whole concept of national languages is anachronistic for this period and area: while everyone would agree that there must have been many dialects across the area we now call Scotland, what was missing was any acrolect, the ‘official’ or master language of which they formed versions. If there was one of those, after Christianization it would have been Latin, effectively disconnecting the vernaculars from each other. Alex argued for Pictish as essentially being several dialects in a P-Celtic continuum of various sorts of Brittonic that had nothing to bind them together, yet still shared changes due to pressures from Old Irish or Old English that didn’t come from any controlling centre. Some kind of British acrolect seems to be evident by the seventh century that may have been centered on the Severn basin in the fifth, when that was the richest and least affected part of the old Roman province and apparently also generating pennanular brooches, but even that had lost its centre to the Anglo-Saxon culture by the time we can see it in names and texts. There was lots to think about here, and many parallels from elsewhere, but the lack of simple categories is not going to make it easy to work with however accurate it may in fact be.

A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Badge of an acrolect? A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Professor Broun, whom I’d not met before, followed in the noble tradition of G. W. S. Barrow (who I now discover sadly died a few months later, unconnectedly) by looking at the high medieval Scottish kingdom’s structures and wondering how old some of them might be.2 He focused particularly on the officer known as a mormaer, who from a Carolingian perspective looks a lot like a count: he seems to have held a court with a bishop, collected fines, coordinated military service, or at least he seems in the twelfth century to have done such things. This was not part of their family status but it was that status that made them appointable to the rôle, and they could be quite hard to manage without. On the other hand, the kingship provided a centralised aspect to this system that nothing else did, which meant that the king was important to these people as a link to any wider importance. Again, this all looks pretty much like a thinly-resourced Carolingian system and as tenth-century as it is twelfth when you look from across the Channel, but how tenth-, or even eighth- or ninth-century, might it have been here? Well, we have basically no evidence, but we can see firstly that Pictish kings could raise large armies, and secondly that mormaers had rights and lands that were not associated with kindred in an age when almost everything else was, suggesting that these were relics of some older system into which new leading (and presumably Gaelic-speaking) kindreds had moved.

If that was true, then (argued Professor Broun) Pictland would arguably have been more of a state than Scotland for a good while!3 And that is so, I guess, but it means we have a picture of a system running on ‘public’ obligation to rulers who had nothing to offer to their distant subordinates except not drowning them, which shouldn’t be a sustainable model without some kind of pull factor too (which is probably what is marked by the symbol stones, as Professor Broun and I seem to agree,4 but what significance travelled with their masons dammit?) Here, questions mainly raised the possibility that in the phases of either Pictish or, let’s call it Alban kingship that were less successfully centralised mormaers would probably have been able to be kings or at least reguli of their regions, especially (said Alex with good reason5) if that region was Moray, whose ruling line eventually became kings of the whole kit and caboodle. But I still feel as if we are missing a mechanism that attached those regions to the centralising operation: I think that mechanism is the development of what we classify as Pictishness, and I don’t understand how it worked. At least by the end of the day I could be sure that Professor Broun shared this frustration…

The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside

Monuments of membership? The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside (Moray)

Then there was Thomas’s paper, ably if sometimes sceptically read by Richard Sharpe. This was much more agonised about our state of knowledge than the other two. Basically, it argued for a plurality of competing churches in what is now Scotland in the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish, Northumbrian and Pictish, although the sources that tell us this are arguing about things we just can’t see and are overweeningly concerned with purely local matters when they talk about Scotland, all of which sounded very reasonable to me of course, but that then between 800 and 1100 we just know nothing. Even the very few hints of structure or change we have in the exiguous sources are more confusing than helpful: royal involvement in the tenth-century Church is later claimed by Dunkeld and Abernethy among others, but is there anything in this or were they just then competing for the earlier origin myth? By the time our sources speak again, the Celi Dé, an ascetic monastic order who nonetheless tended to run in families, are obviously very important, and the reform movement is busy trying either to stamp them out or co-opt them, but when did they start to become influential, or even start at all? When we see bishops turning up in this area in records of the tenth century, what or whom are they bishops of? We just don’t know. About as far as we can safely get is that the kings of the tenth century back some Church foundations and that the Celi Dé may be part of this.

There is some hope for a better texturing of the local church, too, by better, finer-grained work on place-names, especially hagiotoponyms, place-names based on the names of saints, and names in Kil- and Eccles-, both of which seem to be specific to areas where Old Norse and Old English influence was felt, respectively. But even then it’s not simple, because of how late they are recorded and what their other components are: we wind up with Old English names Gaelicised under Old Norse influence, which is hard to think about. It all suggests that the system was still varied in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that any royal system of big houses (dare we say minsters? the paper did) is bigger dots in a landscape full of other dots of older or newer and different colours. Alas, even after so long working on this stuff, Thomas felt he had much more still to do.

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait, probably on top of the medieval church of Laggan Mochaid, attested in 1214 but probably older since two Pictish stones have come up here…

As you can probably even tell, part of the problem we seem to be facing here is that of Scotland as an early medieval entity. The current national division encompasses rather a lot of cultural zones and the divisions between dominant cultures, languages, Church organisation and whatever else were not just shifting throughout the early Middle Ages but did not match up at all. Indeed with the Church structures a distribution map might be the only way to catch it, not anything zonal. When we know that there were, nonetheless, kings of Scots and of Picts who apparently ruled these areas, one is forced to ask how such a disjointed uncharacterised polity could be ruled at all and what stuck it together, and at that point one either does as Professor Broun did and argue for a very very light-weight definition of ‘polity’, or remember that there were also subordinate rulers we hardly see and worry that the whole thing is probably a tombola of variegated and mingling relationships between the powerful that didn’t stay put for two minutes together. Both are in fact possible! But one of the nice things about studying early medieval Scotland right now, as Professor Charles-Edwards pointed out in his introduction, is that the field has advanced as far as it has in the last decade or so—even if what that means is that our ignorance is so much better constructed now—largely because it’s being led by these three people and a few others all of whom talk to each other a lot and get on, without which we wouldn’t have even this much of a coherent picture. There’s a lesson here for the Academy at large, but there were also lots of new things to think about early medieval Scotland! Just, a strange place to be hearing them…


1. Such, at least, had been the claim of Chris Wickham at my induction. But seriously, folks, the Picts and Catalonia before the year 1000! How did I manage to wind up with two specialisms about which no institution in England gives a stuff?

2. Referring mainly to G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 2003).

3. Cf. Wendy Davies, “States and Non-States in the Celtic World” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 155-170.

4. Largely, it seems, on the basis of Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967) and “Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture” in Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 97-167.

5. See Alex Woolf, “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2000.79.2.145.

Leeds 2012 Report 3

Part of me would like to see what I can only really call the abuse for the previous one of these posts as a challenge, and try and make it even duller, but part of me would also have to admit that it could have probably been more exciting, and the rest of me is somewhere between amused and grateful at the extra traffic the link has brought me. None of these feelings are strong enough to overcome my wish to clear my backlog, though, so here’s another one. Please, however, don’t miss the notice of this year’s IMC blogger’s meet-up that I posted just beforehand.

Reims Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 385, fo. 1

Images relevant to Hincmar of Rheims are difficult to find, as I’ve said before, but this has to be the one for this blog, the first page of a manuscript he once owned that includes the various writings used to refute the heretic Bishop Felix of Urgell. Proof that Hincmar cared about Catalonia! It is Reims, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 385.

The third day of the International Medieval Congress 2012 was of course the day of Hincmar of Rheims, and there was no way I was going to get through the whole day without getting sucked in. In fact all the sessions in that strand I went to had people on the floor because the seats were all full, which was kind of usual for sessions on the early Middle Ages in that building but still a good sign for the study of this most verbose of Carolingian churchmen. Magistra has already covered the sessions, however, as might be expected, and so I don’t actually plan to do more with them than say firstly how much fun they were, and secondly that I actually felt rather kindlier disposed to Hincmar afterwards than before, as I now had a better sense of the various pressures he was under as he worked to produce the answers his masters and he wanted. It became a plausible case to me that where Hincmar had views, he more or less stuck to them in his writings, and that where we find him inconsistent were the areas where he didn’t really know what the answer was, and was prepared (in the literal sense) to provide the one that was temporarily politically expedient while he found his way. None of this exempts him at all from the charge of being a two-faced self-important schemer, but at least he seems a more human one now. Anyway, that gives you most of what I might have said about the papers, but I will at least list the ones I went to and tag for their authors and remind you that further details of what they all said can be had at Magistra’s place.

1009. Hincmar’s 9th Century, I: the History of Hincmar

  • Jinty Nelson, “The Bearing of Hincmar’s Life on his Historical Writing”
  • Marie-Celine Isaia, “Hagiography and Rules: Hincmar and his Vita S. Remigii
  • Letha Böhringer, “Hero or Villain? Master Narratives of Hincmar in the 19th or 20th Centuries”
  • This was where my day began, and though each paper was interesting, the last of these seemed to get the most discussion, I think because it touched on what even the non-Hincmarians in the audience do because of discussing historians’ over-involvement and over-identification with their material. There’s a continual tension here of course; we are encouraged to make our work ‘relevant’ and of course we do it in the first place because it means something to us; even if objectivity were possible, it’s not clear that it would make very exciting reading. That doesn’t remove the problem of our subjectivity, however, and I guess all we can do is make it clear why we are interested up front.

From there, however, I went back to ground, if you see what I mean, and if you don’t you soon will.

1105. Christian Burial: rites and realities

  • Adrián Maldonado, “Iron Age Christianity: early medieval monastic burial in Scotland”
    The title of this paper hit straight at a problem with some of the scholarship on early medieval northern Britain and Ireland, both of which zones are often said to have Iron Age characteristics; the problem is of course that these zones were substantially Christian for much of the early Middle Ages, which doesn’t just change the implied thought-world but also brings a considerable change in the material culture of the areas and what their inhabitants thought of as display and splendour. Burial, where that display was often made manifest in grave-goods that a typical Christian pattern wouldn’t have involved, as it’s usually theorised, illustrates this problem especially sharply. Goods are rare in Scotland, in fact, but Dr Maldonado ran through some of the things that scientific chronology does for other old ideas about change in burial coinciding with Christianization: coincide it does, but not cleanly, with the shift to inhumation rather than cremation afoot well beforehand, and extended supine east-west burial likewise. Some things did change in the sample Dr Maldonado had, however: most interestingly, the sites he had to work tended to only include male burial till c. 650, at about which point some burials (and only some) also seem to have been given markers. Wooden coffins, some, weirdly, padlocked, also arrive in the record over the seventh century. This applies to the Isle of May and to Inchmarnock, both of which are known to have housed monasteries, and of course a similar burial population at Portmahomack was used to clinch the identification of that site as another monastery, but at Whithorn no such pattern was clear. Even in the earlier phases of those other sites, though, `pattern’ would be too strong a word, variation in location, position and even orientation was common, and so he invoked the work of Howard Williams to wonder if the early cosmology here was a sort of mirror of the ascetic idea of managing without the body as much as possible, so that physical remains were judged unimportant compared to the state of one’s soul. As he put it, “Christianity was being invented here”. I did like this paper, as you can probably tell by the coverage I’ve given it, and I enjoyed a chat with Dr Maldonado afterwards, but it was not alone in raising these issues.
  • Courtney Buchanan, “Furnished Burials in Christian Cemeteries: pagan, Christian, or something else?”
    This paper dealt with so-called ‘Viking’ burials in the Christian cemeteries of England in the wake of the Danish settlements, and concluded that they only involved the very top tiers of society, usually featured weaponry and more or less coincided with the distribution of so-called ‘hogback’ monuments, which is also to say, only at the edges of Viking polities. The speaker tentatively theorised this as a means of expressing a new identity in what they called a ‘third space’,1 but I wonder whether the older idea isn’t still viable here, that people whose identity or value system is under threat or erosion by, for example, being on a frontier against other more coherent and better-established identities, wouldn’t seek ways to emphasise their belonging to one side or other in ways that wouldn’t be necessary at the centre of such a zone.2
  • Anne Paton, “Leprosy and Hagiography in Medieval Ireland”
    This paper got the most attention of the three, perhaps understandably given its subject matter. It had a simple aim, a pathfinder survey of archæological evidence for leprosy in medieval Ireland compared to the way it turns up in literary sources, where it usually seems more like psoriasis or chicken-pox, the latter because highly infectious but the former because primarily a disease of the skin with quite drawn-out development of symptoms. The rather grim observation that lepers’ bodies, which can be identified by the damage the disease does to bones, do generally turn up most often in leper cemeteries but are far from all of the bodies there, was only made slightly more comforting by the suggestion that if diagnosis was good enough it might have caught them before the disease got bad enough to leave traces. If so, though, it suggests that something else killed the sufferers pretty sharpish once they got to the hospital. However, as it transpired, very little of this can be made to apply to Ireland, where only two known medieval leper graves have so far been identified, both very late. If this suggests anything, it suggests that lepers in an earlier period were not isolated, and that infection from them was therefore not feared, but only more data will make things any clearer.

Then after that and after lunch, which was slightly more of a challenge than it might have been after such a session, it was back to Hincmar and so I will once again be brief.

1209. Hincmar’s 9th Century, III: Hincmar and Frankish Rulers

  • Elina Screen, “An Unfortunate Necessity? Hincmar’s Relationship with Lothar I (843-55)”
    The thing I took from this with most interest was that even Lothar, so often represented as the villain of the Carolingian civil wars of the 840s, could worry about the possibility of things happening to him and his kingdom because of God’s disfavour. I wish Elina would finish her book on the man, it is badly needed.3
  • Clémentine Bernard-Valette, “‘We are between the hammer and the anvil': Hincmar of Rheims and West Frankish Bishops in Front of Louis, King of Germany, 875″
    What do you do the second time your king’s brother comes to invade your kingdom? Less than you could first time, apparently, if you’re Hincmar…
  • Margaret McCarthy, “Hincmar’s Influence during Louis the Stammerer’s Reign”
    In fact, just generally the 870s were a bit of a downward slide for the old bishop’s influence, it seems, though as Margaret said in questions, it is always possible that he was deliberately stepping back a bit as he was, you know, quite old.
  • If so, however, it was not necessarily down to a waning of his powers, as one of the reasons he is usually supposed still to have been hungry for power is his manual on palace government that followed a few years later, which seems to have his ideal job description in it, and as Pauline Stafford observed in discussion his work in the crisis of 875 promulgates doctrines and thinking that could be seen as the roots of the Peace of God as well as theorising consent to kingship, with the seal of ancient authority on each of his innovations. What panic and urgency can bring out of the tired intellectual, hey? Perhaps that’s how our whole enterprise survives…

1309. Hincmar’s 9th Century, IV: Hincmar and socio-political culture

  • Sylvie Joye, “Family Order and Kingship According to Hincmar”
  • Rachel Stone, “Hincmar and the Nun: Carolingian gender order at the Synod of Douzy, 874″
    This was promoted to us on the basis of featuring a topless nun, which, by implication, it indeed did, but I find that what I’ve marked in my notes rather than that is the quote, “Patriarchy doesn’t need to be coherent to be effective”, which is altogether too true not to be put on the Internet.
  • Christine Kleinjung, “‘To Fight with Words': the case of Hincmar of Laon in the Annals of St-Bertin
    An obvious point, but worth making again because rarely do we see it so clearly: in Hincmar’s jurisdictional battle as metropolitan of Rheims with his nephew of the same name, bishop of Laon, since our only detailed source is the former’s own account, we don’t have the full story. This is presumably not just that Hincmar didn’t want to broadcast the truth, even if he could perceive it impartially which seems unlikely as suggested above, but also that, since he was largely writing the Annals in question for himself by this stage, he didn’t need to; he already knew, so we don’t.
  • Charles West, “Extremely Good Advice: Hincmar’s view of the parish and its priests”
    As will perhaps be clear the ways that priests got involved in their local communities and how other people used them to reach those communities is a keen interest of mine just now, and Charles did what I would do in his shoes by way of getting at some of those issues, took a well-documented microcosm and built up from it, as Hincmar laid down an ancient past and Patristic authority for a parish that in this case was probably of very recent creation, even if he didn’t know that.
  • This turned into an argument in questions between Charles, myself and Geoff Koziol about whether places and communities got put in a parish or might instead have opted into one of a range of available ones, which is part of a wider question about whether territories and jurisdictions were geographically coherent or not in this period, but it also showed that tendency that Hincmar’s thought seems to have had, which is to reimagine the rule on a case-by-case basis. And again, in this sphere too he may not have needed to be coherent to be effective, indeed it’s easy to see how an adaptable way of thinking would work better in local reorganisation when existing local organisations could be so various. Systematization may not always be the answer! Who said Hincmar had nothing to teach us? Well: none of the presenters in this strand, that’s for sure…

However, my Leeds day didn’t end there: against my habit, I went to one of the evening round-tables, and various things will probably explain why when I describe it.

1403. The Staffordshire Hoard: interpretation and display – a Round Table discussion

    In theory this was a Round Table, but actually what happened was a series of people gave short talks and there there wasn’t very much time for questions, so how not to call it a regular session in a much larger room isn’t very clear. The people were Leslie Webster, who explained how the research project had been set up, none of other than Morn Capper explaining what the public contact with the Hoard and the displays had been like, what questions they had and how happily similar those questions seemed to be to what the archæologists want to know—how is it being looked after, what’s in it, who put it there and why, and so on. She also observed a number of interesting but disconnected things: the tools needed to make the Hoard items must have been flipping tiny, many of the objects are quite worn, and more significantly, it is about the furthest north-west of any Anglo-Saxon treasure so far found, so there’s a great any ways it has to be thought of as an outlier. Then Dr Webster spoke again, wondering about ways we might think round the obvious paradox of the hoard, a few apparently religious items among a mass of wargear-fittings, and in the course of this identified the famous lettered strip as part of a cross decoration on something like a house-shrine, which was news to me. They also have a mystery item which she tentatively identified as a fitting from an episcopal headdress modelled on a Jewish high-priest’s depicted in a Wearmouth-Jarrow manuscript, which raises even more interesting questions. Then lastly Alex Woolf spoke, professing ignorance (and also penury) and as usual coming up with gems of insight anyway, seeing the Hoard as a craftsman’s store (including pointing out that it was deposited near Hammerwich…), doubting that it could ever have been deposited secretly, and wondering if the decoration, which is of a loosely-coherent style despite the various ages of the bits, might have been an identifiable branding that had to be taken off things their owner intended to give to someone else. All of that merits consideration, some of it fits with the ideas I myself find more plausible about the hoard, and after it there wasn’t very much time left for discussion…

And then I must have made it to the dance, because I remember talking to people animatedly afterwards, but apparently I didn’t do myself too much damage because my notes for the next morning’s sessions start coherently. So that would be another and final post, which will follow shortly! Feel free to rate this one for tedium in comments…


1. The name checked here was Honi Bhabha, unknown to me at that point but whose The Location of Culture (Abingdon 2004) I should apparently read!

2. My pet cite here is Gloria Anzáldua, Borderlands: the new mestiza (San Francisco 1987) but this again is something I know rather than have read, and the time I have spent flicking through it has led me to wonder what else there might be that did the same work in a way I could borrow more easily. Any suggestions welcomed!

3. Should you be unable to wait, however, I can at least promise you E. Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834-40: charters and authority”, in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout in press), rather sooner!

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

A lightweight one, to get the wheels back on the road! I’d like to dedicate this post to Ted Buttrey, who knows what I mean when I say this: there’s a particular form of academic achievement that is not often recognised as highly as it should be, which is the joke in the footnote. This is a special achievement, not just because one is always up against a word-count and it has to survive, fitter than some other reference you might have put, but also because it then has to satisfy the referees and editors that it’s worth leaving even though academia r srs bizniz and so on. If it does, though, it’s one of the few things where endnotes rather than footnotes are preferable, because it adds distance between feedline and pay-off. For example, when I was putting this virtual exhibition together, I was reading quite a lot because as you can see it’s not about something I really know much on myself, and when I found in Dick Doty’s history of the Soho mint a sentence saying that a whole history could be written from what Matthew Boulton’s correspondence revealed about the world of eighteenth-century art production, with a reference, the faff of having to find my way to the right place two hundred pages further on actually made it funnier when I found that the reference was merely, “But not by me.”1 And on the morning of the day when I first drafted this post I had just found Chris Lewis doing similar, and the passage in question is Quite Interesting so I thought I’d just quote it all.2 You don’t mind, right? The pay-off is in the second footnote, so you have to read to the end.

The origin of the name Englefield… has to be sought… in an English adaptation of the territory’s Welsh name, Tegeingl…. The processes by which ‘Tegeingl’ was Anglicized as ‘Englefield’ are perhaps illuminated by Gerald of Wales in the course of recounting a laboured joke which he alleged illustrated the witticisms of the Welsh. The joke hinged on the coincidence that Tegeingl was also the name of a woman who had slept with each of the two princes, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother, who ruled the territory of Tegeingl in turn. Its punchline was a supposed saying from that time that Dafydd succeeded his brother as prince: ‘I don’t think Dafydd should have Tegeingl. His brother’s had her already.28 At first sight Gerald’s shaping of the story seems to be directed against the Welsh (dirty-minded, not funny), but it also acts in a more sophisticated way to score points off the English too. Teg was the Welsh for ‘beautiful’, and Teg-engl might be (deliberately) mistaken by a quick-witted Anglo-Welsh bilingual, such as Gerald, as meaning ‘the beautiful English(woman)’. Read like that, Gerald’s unfunny joke may have concealed a clever dig at the English: by ruling successively over the province of Tegeingl the two princely brothers had taken turns with a beautiful Englishwoman.29 When English speakers first reached north-east Wales, they may well have heard the Welsh name of of the territory as Gerald later would, as teg eingl, and understood its proper name to be Eingl, particularly appropriate (if misunderstood as a homophone) when they settled in part of it.

28  Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae in Works, ed. J. S. Brewer, James F. Dimock and George F. Warner, 8 vols, RS 21 (1861-91) VI, 153-227, at pp. 190-1.

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

How true those words are, even today. More serious content shortly I hope!


1. Richard Doty, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London 1998).

2. C. P. Lewis, “Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 130-143 at p. 138.

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…


1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

Much prefigured, this post! I noticed last October, you might recall, that Alex Woolf was more or less doing a speaking tour of the south, to which I was going to be able to make it for only a few of the papers (and thus Magistra kindly blogged one of them for me); then in November I mentioned that he’d just been to Oxford and I’d been able to talk Picts to him, and said something similar when I finally got round to talking about his Leeds paper. Since then I have been citing him a lot and now we finally get to the Oxford paper. Yes, I am behind, I cannot tell a lie. You will deduce that I follow the man’s work, and indeed, Alex put on the first conference I ever presented at and thus indirectly got me my first offer of publication, so I owe him a favour or two. I had encouraged the convenors of the Oxford Medieval History Seminar to invite him, for all these reasons, and was not at all disappointed when on 7th November he gave us a paper called “Framing Scotland in the Early Middle Ages”.

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, from Wikimedia Commons

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, by David Wyatt and licensed under Creative Commons, from Wikimedia Commons; this is the alleged 'capital' of Dál Riata

The title, as you may have spotted, comes from the fact that one of the convenors has this little book called Framing the Early Middle Ages, which is extensive in coverage but for various reasons doesn’t cover Scotland.1 Alex thus wondered out loud for fifty minutes on how Scotland might be fitted into that larger picture, looking not at political developments primarily but at socio-economic ones. There is of course really not much evidence for this sort of thing (though it benefits a lot more from the ever-increasing archaeological data than does the political account) but Alex argued that we can probably still do better than just extrapolating from Ireland and England instead… The first thing he focused on was the weirdness that in 600 or so, Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland all had their political centres in areas that have almost always otherwise been politically marginal in these kingdoms, what’s now Northumberland, what’s now Argyll, and what’s now Donegal, and that by 900 this had stopped in all three cases. This is not just because these area generated written sources, though they certainly did, because we can also get the same clues from fortresses, of which small ones were springing up in all three zones at around this time. The development of the North Sea trade network in the eighth century however seems to have pulled power over to the east coast ports, in Britain, when we get York and Portmahomack developing as (very different) sites and Ireland generally falling back somewhat.2 Alex suggested that when this sort of system developed, these marginal areas became principally exporters of men, military or otherwise, looking for prospects beyond the marginal economy of their homelands, but that when those possibilities didn’t really exist, it became viable to turn military power into a base of local influence because there was a surplus of manpower with which to do it, and sites like the Mote of Mark were where these little sub-royal powers found their links into the trade zone that their presence drove. This may have a lot to do with why King Edwin was so keen to drive into Cumbria and Carlisle, and the kings of Northumbria were generally so active on the West coast, and why Dál Riata, which was surely a miscellaneous gathering of squabbling islands in its natural state, became a political power of any standing: it must have been the main route for goods travelling on that network to go into Pictland.3 That kind of influence might, indeed, get Irish missionaries received at the top of Loch Ness and sea-kings received into alliance with Pictish monarchs; annoying or not, those people were in a position to cut off the flow of shiny things on which early medieval kingship seems to have tried to enjoy a monopoly. For the short time in which that could continue, this Great Game, whose later more famous sibling would occupy so many Irish and Scottish soldiers, was in the West.

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons, a bit late for our purposes (10th-century) but very sharp and shiny

My notes on this are pretty much covered in asterisks of emphasis; you who know my very limited work on Scotland will see how it makes things I want to argue make sense, or at least certainly could do. Chris Wickham asked why the eastern zones should ever have lost their influence, and Alex answered that they had been much more plugged into the Roman Empire and so suffered a greater degree of collapse when it withdrew. Since that’s been argued as an effect in many other places, it was hard to deny here.4 The western margins simply didn’t have as much to lose. George Molyneaux asked why such powers hadn’t generated more written sources, and Alex brought out various survival arguments as well as a plea not to think that these are big powers on a European scale.5 I asked about symbol stones, but Alex just thinks they’re later than I want to, well, OK. Thomas Charles-Edwards argued for the importance of the central zone where these powers met their eventual supplanters,6 and I also think we see that focus become very important during the eighth century and then the Viking Age, but obviously there could be lots of reasons for that…

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland: culture contact or culture clash... ?

You can see, firstly, that it was a very full seminar, and secondly that there was an immense potential for discussion. I subsequently gathered from Alex that this paper, and the others he’d been doing on his tour, were sort of rehearsals of chapters from a book he’s putting together, partly because these are days in which almost all UK academics would like to have a book published between 2008 and mid-2013 but also because he feels there is room beside James Fraser’s book for something that takes this kind of socio-economic view. I think a book by Alex on the early period would form a very interesting counterpart to Fraser’s, as their approaches are probably different enough that one could profit from both, but I think two things are for sure when it comes out; firstly, it’ll be fascinating and invoke parallels from periods and places no-one else would ever have thought of comparing, and secondly, it will cause avid discussion. Both of these things happen a lot round Alex, and here’s to it.


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), Scotland’s absence regretted p. 6 n. 6.

2. For the development of the North Sea zone the classic account is Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989), though his new Dark Age Economics: a new audit, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2011) might have some repositioning of his argument. For York, I’m going on Richard Hall, “The Making of Domesday York” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988) and Dominic Tweddle, “York, Ciudad de Alcuino” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (Barcelona 1999), pp. 171-174, transl. as “York: Alcuin’s Town” ibid., pp. 504-506, though I realise there must be more recent stuff out there, I just haven’t read it yet; Portmahomack is a different matter, with the latest published word, at least, being Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

3. Here, I am actually working substantially off James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, Edinburgh New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), but it would be worth adding Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: A Dark Age Hillfort in South-West Scotland, Oxbow Monographs (Oxford 2006) and, even now, James Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriata (Edinburgh 1974).

4. Here I think principally of Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), though fairness would probably also oblige me to mention Richard Hodges, “Anglo-Saxon England and the Origins of the Modern World System” in Hooke, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, pp. 291-304, which attempts a similar argument with rather less basis in about half a page.

5. In this question George was riffing on, and Alex largely conforming to, a piece by Kathleen Hughes called “Where are the writings of early Scotland?” in idem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 1-21.

6. Professor Charles-Edwards has a small and well-groomed dog in this particular fight, as he has been arguing that kingship really develops around the control of land, not the supply of shiny things, for a very long time now, and archæologists have increasingly not been paying attention to him because, of course, we have shiny things from the period than information about land control: see his “Kinship, Status and the Origins of the Hide” in Past and Present no. 56 (Oxford 1972), pp. 3-33, “The Distinction Between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement: continuity and change (London 1979), pp. 180-187, and “Early Medieval Kingships in the British Isles” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 28-39, the first of these picked up and applied interestingly to English archæology, at least, by Chris Scull in his “Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 17-24, though the latter two are in the bibliography of Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003).

Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland

[Largely drafted offline, 28/10/11]

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795

When I first conceived my research interest, such as it be, in Pictish Scotland, one of the things I thought that the field sorely needed was a new and sincere attempt to write the period’s narrative history, not pulling the punches about the difficulties of the sources but convinced all the same that they could be used to mount some kind of story. Instead, we had Alfred Smyth’s Warlords and Holy Men, which while stimulating can also be extremely misleading and by its very title contributes to a conception of Scotland as a Celtic strangeness, whereas the field has for the last few years been trying very much to link Scotland and Pictland up to the wider world of Church, art and politics in which they clearly participated.1 I actually determined that I would some day write such a book, since I didn’t see anyone else who thought it feasible. Since I got properly stuck into Catalonia, however, several others have seen such a need and, in most cases, attempted to supply it: we now have Tim Clarkson’s The Picts, Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests (which insists that no narrative is possible but provides a comprehensive summary of the evidence from which it can’t be done and many useful insights about life and culture in the period) and now James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh 2009).2

In the course of this period an incredible amount of work has been done that upsets or resets some of the basic chronological and political foundations of this area and period, substantially by Alex Woolf, Thomas Owen Clancy and, not least, Fraser himself. We are now rather cautious in believing that Columba’s mission to the Picts took him north rather than south of the Great Glen (although since Adomnán’s claimed results of this mission are so embarrassingly scant I myself find an explanation of the episode as a claim of later territory inadequate to replace the simpler understanding of the text on this occasion), we do not believe in St Ninian at all any more and we have moved a substantial part of Pictland to the north of the Mounth rather than south of it.3 A new synthesis is badly needed, and Fraser is well-placed to provide it.

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south, from Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, he does so; this book presents a sophisticated picture of slow shifts of meaning, of political self-conceptions, of the identities of peoples and of territories, and of kingship and religion, without ignoring the potential for exceptional times, individuals or groups to accelerate these changes in local or immediate contexts to considerable and significant degrees. In Fraser’s conception of Scotland both geography and climate and kings and saints make a difference to developments. This makes his book for a start much to be preferred to textbook variations on histories seen only in terms of warlords and holy men (for example), the charismatic wyrd of wild individuals building a nation that stands peculiarly and Celtically different from its contemporaries, or the contrary trend to connect Scotland so tightly to Europe that its genuine distinctivenesses are over-ridden in a picture of its participation in the greater changes of European (by which is usually meant, Carolingian) history in the period.4 (This is simply to say that the biggest warlords and holy men somehow directed the rest in a great progress towards the EU!) Fraser’s North is linked to the outside, and its distinctivenesses of language and material culture are not made large parts of the story, but nonetheless the distinctiveness of the material that he deploys will reassure the reader that this is an area with its own history. Moreover, it is an area that is not solely the cradle of a great clash of Gaelic and Pictish nations that has dominated some other versions of the period, but one which definitively includes Northumbria from its earliest emergence (albeit that Fraser puts that later than is traditionally accepted, seeing its supposed kings before Æthelfrith of Bernicia as effectively genealogical ciphers5) and also has a place for the Britons of the North, although due to Fraser’s focus as much as the extremely limited evidence, that place is largely as a bank of possible genealogical links and political allies that assist the story of the other participants in the narrative, rather than a fully-developed role of their own.6

Both the evidence and the scholarship for this period are, in fact, as Fraser makes clear, better than is conventionally imagined. Indeed, by his essentially text-based approach, justified (p. 9) by reference to the volume of new archaeological synthesis such as Alcock’s book, he is leaving a considerable amount of other evidence aside; the Pictish symbol stones, for example, are mentioned on six pages only. It is also true, however, that the sources, primary and secondary both, are still extremely bitty, enigmatic and widely dispersed, even if with the scholarship much can be hoovered up via the Innes Review, Scottish Historical Review and one or two other established journals). That Fraser has mastered this granularity of material does not, unfortunately, permit him entirely to overcome it in synthesis, and so the book’s overriding themes, helpfully set out in the introduction albeit in self-deprecating periphrasis (“If the book has any single theme…”, p. 10; my emphasis), can sometimes be hard to perceive in a wash of tiny discussions over points of art. It cannot be helped that almost all of the progress in this field must be made by hypothesis; there is no other way to deal with this evidence except to admit that we do not have enough pieces of the jigsaw to reconstruct the full picture, and that we are all arranging the pieces into something that could make a picture we each happen to like. The best outcome we can hope for is that others like our picture well enough to repeat it, as happened with the narrative of the Gaelic take-over last century. Nonetheless, Fraser does not always find a comfortable balance between the pressures to account for the positioning of each piece in detail and that of making a manageable and comprehensible book (pressures of which he is keenly aware and which he discusses, pp. 7-10); there are many references to dispute and to hypothesis, too many for easy following of many threads. (Occasionally these are broken out into separate text-boxes sitting within the main discussion, though one may question whether thus having the appendices inline with the main text is really an `innovative format’ as claimed on p. 8.) As Fraser himself writes, “Specialists in particular may feel that too many points of light have been joined up”, but the resultant task for the non-specialist may be somewhat like trying to use those points of light as the air traveller might do, to try and imagine a street-map when passing over a town in an airliner.

Edinburgh city lights

Edinburgh city lights

The specialist will, in fact, find a great deal here to stimulate, and even if Fraser’s picture is constituted of a thousand variables, the presence of some well-known and fixed points in the narrative, and perhaps more than there might have been in many others’, mean that we can proceed with a reasonable belief that the variability averages out rather than distorting in one or other particular direction. Thus, although Fraser shares the near-universal love of the Scottish medievalist for explaining politics with reference to reconstructed genealogy, it would not cripple his narrative if, for example, one were to find fault with his idea that the Miathi mentioned by Adomnán were in fact once part of a wider polity that included British Strathclyde and whose rulers retained links there for a long time after this was broken up, if Clancy’s reconstruction of the relationships of the four kings who vied for power in Pictland in the early eighth century should not in fact explain the effective power-base of the carnifex King Unuist map Uurguist (Oengus mac Fergus) or if, as I once argued, the sons of Ædán mac Gabráin should after all have found kingdoms in southern Pictland instead of in Ireland (as Fraser substantially believes).7 The courses of events and their interpretation by Fraser would realign, more or less, with most reasonable persons’ sense of what was likely based on his (and our) evidence before the next heading was reached. We might be more irritated by the occasional jokes about contemporary relevance,8 and suspicious of repeated phrases such as “Is it a coincidence that… ?” for which amateur conspiracists have equipped us with a Pavlovian distaste. All the same, there is no way that a book like this could be written, by anyone, without each reader who feels that they have expertise in the field too periodically suffering attacks of difference of opinion. If such a reader, after shouting, “Oh come on!” to the empty room, goes on reading because the book is so interesting, the author can probably consider this a success, and that was certainly this reader’s experience.

The book may however be harder going for the non-specialist. Despite Fraser’s detailed explanation of his refusal to accept that many of our sources, especially the Vita Columbae, tell us as much about the times they describe as that when they were written—something that Fraser can ignore fairly cheerfully when an unexplained entry in the Irish Annals supports a hypothesis, but if this were a crime who then should ‘scape whipping?—the reader new to these materials will likely be led to distrust everything the sources, and their mediator, says, even if he describes this process with the catchphrase, “opening the door to the historian’s laboratory”, borrowed from Marc Bloch but here a hokey claim to scientific credibility that may irritate more than reassure.9 Such a reader might also be better served if Fraser’s admirable and dogged pursuit of accuracy in name-forms, including Northumbrian rather than West Saxon spelling of the Old English ones—thus Aeðilred not Æthelred, Edwini not Eadwine, still less Ethelred or Edwin—had been relaxed so that, for example, they were served with Dalriadans not Corcu Réti and so forth, however much more accurate Fraser’s choices may be. (There may be good reasons for having a place called Fortriu that is described with the adjective Verturian and whose people are Waerteras, but it will certainly mislead the new reader.10) The only names that reliably occur in the forms in which a reader is used to them from older work are the Gaelic ones, in fact, and while Fraser’s intended audience may have been Gaelic-literate, philologically-educated but historically-untrained Scotophiles, because of these strategies of presentation one cannot comfortably set this book for the students or recommend it to the laypersons who could also benefit from such a volume. This is a pity, as it may be a long time before we see a better, cleverer and more erudite attempt to make sense of the history of this period, and the fact that it entertains, both structurally and philologically, this love of obscurities clouds more of its considerable scholarly and interpretative merit than those deserve.


1. Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (London 1984), repr. New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 1989), excellently reviewed by W. D. H. Sellar in “Warlords, Holy Men and Matrilineal Succession (‘Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, A. D. 80-1000′ by Alfred P. Smyth)” in Innes Review Vol. 36 (Glasgow 1985), pp. 29-42; The other books that were being set when I started on this stuff were Archibald Duncan, Scotland: the making of the kingdom (Edinburgh 1975), which runs through the early Middle Ages pretty fast, and Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots: early historic Scotland (London 1996, rev. 2004), which is more of an introduction to the archaeology than any kind of history. There is also Michael Lynch, Scotland: a new history (London 1991, rev. 1992), which is really no use for the Middle Ages at all.

2. T. Clarkson, The Picts: a history (Stroud 2008, 2nd edn. Edinburgh 2010); Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003); note also Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), the second volume in the series of which Fraser’s is now the first.

3. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 94-111; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The Real St Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; Alex Woolf, “Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85 (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 182-201.

4. The former trend perfectly embodied in Smyth, Warlords; for the latter see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum': a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in dark age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 6 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Martin Carver, “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40.

5. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 149-154.

6. Though here we now have Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh 2010).

7. Respectively, Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 15-17, 45-49 & 135-136; Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-king: Nechtan mac Der Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125; Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex’ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill (ed.), Aethelbald and Offa. Two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42; Jonathan Jarret [sic], “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 15 (Balgavies 2008), pp. 3-24, corrected version online here in PDF with Bibliography here.

8. For example, the crack, “For some, the vessels bearing vikings [sic] to Britain and Ireland a few years later were a part of God’s message to the Insular world. They would have had a field day with the combined threats of climate change and international terrorism!” (p. 341) seems to me, for example, to use a perceived silliness in the thinking of the time to make ours seem equally silly, and one suspects that the monks of Lindisfarne or the modern farmers of Kenya would not see the funny side.

9. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 2 & 8 and frequently thereafter, at the former citing Bloch without reference, though his Feudal Society, transl. L. A. Manyon (London 1989), 2 vols, is in the Bibliography.

10. Such a reader will be stymied especially by the fact that the reasons there are for this practice are set out not in this book at all but in Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, p. 31 n. 45!

Leeds 2011 Report 4 and final

[Written offline on the same trip to Birmingham as previous.]

The last day of Leeds was made extra-special for me, as had the last day of Kalamazoo been both this year and the last—it’s stopped being funny now and my have something to do with my decision not to present at either next year—by having to be up first thing in the morning after the dance to make sure my sessions ran OK, including, you know, my own paper. Basically the whole of the rest of Leeds for me was the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions and then missing booksellers with whom I’d reserved stuff, and finally goodbyes. So, the latter two need no discussion here and the former is quickly dealt with, thus!

1507. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, I: royal charters and royal representatives

Portrait of Charles the Bald in the so-called Vivian Bible

Portrait of Charles the Bald in the so-called Vivian Bible

  • Alaric Trousdale, “Some Thoughts on the Charters of King Eadred, 946-55″
  • Shigeto Kikuchi, “How High the King? Monarchical Representation in Carolingian Royal Charters”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Taking it to the March: Carolingian justice in 9th-century Girona”
  • Attendance was surprisingly good given the circumstances; even Alaric turned up eventually… But seriously folks: this was a pleasant mix of new and old because, well, you know, I was there at the start of these sessions and presented in every one of the six years they ran; Alaric was an early adopter; and Shigeto had only just met us all. Alaric showed indisputably that there is more that can be said about the politics of Eadred’s rule of England than what’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (though even there I think he shows up pretty well, consistently defeating all comers); Shigeto used both charters and art history to demonstrate that Carolingian kings or their clerks probably really did have a policy about what titles they used in describing their power in their documents, which was excellent—diplomatic and art history should meet more often—and then there was mine. I’ve already said I didn’t think much of mine: it was a game attempt to make something of a research question that didn’t come good, and I had to try and argue a trend from three instances of my chosen phenomenon (shifts in the representation of royal power at court hearings in Girona) because that was all there were. But hey, it made for a couple of good blog posts.

1607. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, II: members and margins

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm", Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

  • Julie Hofmann, “Women and Witnessing under the Carolingians: a reappraisal”
  • Arkady Hodge, “When is a Charter not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe”
  • Fabrice Rossi and Nathalie Villa-Vialaneix, “Exploration of a Large Database of Charters with Social Network Methods”
  • This session was, in all ways, a bit less traditional in its modes. Julie was raising difficult questions about the assumptions people have made about what women were and weren’t allowed to do, in terms of dealing with property and being generally legally active, and even beginning to answer them using her forthcoming database of the material from Carolingian-period Fulda. Then, you may have occasionally heard, especially if you work on Ireland, Scotland or Bavaria, of property transfers being written into Gospel books or similarly solemn but non-documentary contexts. But wait: Scotland… and Bavaria? And in fact more widely than that, which is what Arkady was showing: he argued strongly that when you have this many instances of a weird oddity, we probably have to stop thinking it’s odd, which will mean actually thinking about it! And lastly Fabrice, who was the one of this pair actually giving the paper (though weirdly I met Nathalie at the next conference I went to), made a complex system with lots of maths in it understandable to a lay audience and I think left them fairly excited that they could probably get something new out of their datasets, however large, using this kind of technology. This is not easy to do, and he did it well, even though he was speaking in his second language, so I was impressed. And, of course, that this paper even exists is ultimately down to this blog post, and it may the most academic impact this blog’s ever had (unless stories of students printing posts for study purposes are actually true, which would be worrying). So it closes a circle or two to have ended with it.

Because that was the end of the Problems and Possibilities sessions, and I think it genuinely is the end. We certainly aren’t running any next year, whoever `we’ would be, and I don’t think it’s needed. Though we’ve managed to rally every time, it’s often been a struggle to get speakers for these, but this year that was because a lot of people who might have been interested were already presenting in other related sessions. There were other sessions dedicated to being clever about charter evidence. It would be nice to think we’d started a trend—maybe we did, maybe we were just on one—but at the very least it is no longer up to us, and specifically me, to keep it trending. So, for now, Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic ran from 2006 to 2011, inclusive, and thankyou to all who helped it do so.

But it doesn’t end with the sessions, folks! The reason that blogging has been so sporadic of immediate late is actually exactly the opposite of that. After the peak year in 2007 when we had nine papers and a tremendous audience, my co-organiser Allan Scott McKinley observed, “If people want to hear this stuff we should really think about publishing it!” and he was of course right, as I have found he usually is. It has just taken us a while, for various reasons, to get round to it.1 But the other thing that happened at this Leeds was that we got given a deadline to come up with a book by our prospective publishers, and that deadline was December 31st. Yowch! It is of immense credit to our planned contributors that only one of the seventeen of them did not agree to try and meet this, and all but one have in fact managed it at time of writing despite immense odds against in several cases. I owe them each a considerable debt. I typed this on the way to and from meeting with Allan, now my co-editor as well, and as a result of that meeting I can say that I’m pretty sure this thing is going to happen, and that it will be pretty damn good. There’s two chapters here I already wish I could set for my students, they’re so helpful, and a bunch of other interesting things too. I won’t plug it in detail yet: firstly it has to go through full review still, and secondly it’s not yet clear exactly what the running order will be, but as well as the last two blog posts I wrote two thousand words of introduction today while perched on Allan’s sofa and this reaffirms in me the conviction I’ve had every time I pile this stuff up and look at it; this will be an exciting volume, which I think may be an unusual boast about something to do with charters. So look out for more as we have it. And that will have been the final upshot of my Leeds 2011 conference experience.


1. And I believe I still owe Kathleen Neal several drinks (or one big drink) for helping dispel one of those reasons without offence to anyone.

Leeds 2011 report two at last

Sorry! Publication deadlines, as you saw, then admissions interviews (about which I have seriously mixed feelings and may eventually write), then the wedding of a good friend and erstwhile medievalist, at which apart from, y’know, attending the marriage (hic præsens et testis fui!), I learnt a lot about Cassiodorus that will come in useful next term. And then, for various reasons, I’ve wanted to take a good deal of care with this post. But now here it is, my mandated Leeds report, part the two, covering the events of the 12th July 2011.

508. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, III – Romans and barbarians

Since, as recounted two posts ago, I’d realised on turning up in this strand that not only did it have a set of titles long enough to be a monograph series by some German academy, but also that it was where the excitement was likely to be for its duration, I was back in the Mortain Link Room at nine in the morning to see more. That went as follows:

  • Alex Woolf, “From Civitas to Kingdom? Romanitas in the British provinces and beyond”.
  • Alex here raised with his customary sharpness of perception some important questions, not the least of which is what period were the “sub-Roman” British interested in imitating? The Roman buildings of Roman Britain were largely pre-third-century, for example. Does that mean that if someone was continuing to live like a fifth-century Romano-British noble, we would see him in his material leavings as British not Roman? Was public building and sculpture really the mark of Romanitas for these people, as it has been for some modern scholars? (Was it instead stone monumental inscriptions, basically only preserved from outwith the area of Roman government?) Alex also made the excellent point that the Old English wealh, usually translated as `foreigner’, was however not used of foreigners like the Vikings, the Gaels, Syrians, and so on, and that we might therefore do well to think of it as being linguistic, and applying to Romance-speakers only. How far Romance actually describes the language of lowland post-Roman Britain would be one of those questions where fewer people than usual would follow Alex’s arguments, I suspect, but the difference still wants an explanation.1 Lots to think about here.

  • James Fraser, “Thoughts on the Roman and Native Discoveries of Pictishness”
  • The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    This paper came very close to my areas of British interest, as you will understand when I say that James started by critiquing the idea that the Picts were a single people for whom a material culture identity might be detected. In this sense, as he observed, the classic volume The Problem of the Picts has itself become the problem.2 Thereafter the paper became more of a historiographical survey of whom it is that the Picts’ identity has mattered to and how, but there were still some similarly live points, such as the observation that the word Brittones and its derivatives, originally Latin, appears to have been borrowed into the insular vernaculars only after a distinction had arisen between Britones and Picti; James can be found on record saying that probably the only difference between these groups was being inside or outside the frontier of the Roman Empire, which makes for linguistic difficulties as we’ve lately been seeing, but whether or not you buy that, he here has something that appears to need an explanation.3 James finally suggested that Pictishness was really a late construct used by state-building kings to meld a nation of disparate groups of peoples only lately differentiated from a generalised British identity, into a political unity opposed to English or Brittonic or indeed maybe Gaelic, stressing `barbarian’ cultural practices that were identifiable as such in Roman terms, like tattooing, like inscribing stones but not with Latin, and like deriving one’s origins from the Scythians, a reference that only makes sense in a Roman cultural complex.

    I found all this pretty powerful, as you might expect from things I’ve said in the past, and asked in questions whom he thought the agents of this new cultural formation might be; he blamed the Church, which I think makes some kind of sense if we can see the Church as a tool of kings in this area. Before that however the session had been completed by…

  • Fraser Hunter, “Breaking Down the Wall: Rome and North Britain in the late Roman period”
  • This was perhaps the least provocative paper of the three but that was not least because it was by far the best-evidenced, and left much less room for debate: Hunter showed simply that Roman luxury goods got beyond the wall into the lowland zone, and that after these goods stopped coming local cultural innovation attempted to make up the gap, which we kind of know, but that inside the walls a similar transition is happening from Roman soldier’s goods, money and gear to stuff that we would recognise as warband material. Rome, while it was active in the North of Britain, created haves and have-nots, but after it went only some of these people’s centres could keep some kind of supremacy going by continuing to import Romanitas. Thus, Dumbarton Rock and Edinburgh kept going, Birdoswald and others failed, and so the new political landscape was formed.

I don’t mind telling you that after this session was over my head was so full of thoughts that I obtained coffee, or at least the best available facsimile, and tried talking to Alex but had to excuse myself because I needed to try and write something down before everything I was thinking escaped; I couldn’t speak even to Alex in case it overwrote what I was struggling to articulate. After twenty-five minutes I had something like the plan of a paper, restating with extra nuance my thoughts about the regionality of the Pictish kingdom, and was able to put it away confident that some day I could write it (as indeed I subsequently have, though much of that first rush has then turned out to be unsustainable). That was the kind of session this had been for me, the kind that could not be fully contained in my head for the explosion of possibilities. “And I’m not even lying.”

608. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, IV – new narratives in Hispania

Of course I don’t really work on Scotland any more, and if I ever finish that aforesaid paper it will likely be my goodbye to the research area. How convenient for me, then, that Professor Halsall’s excellent contributors also included a number of people interested in the Iberian peninsula!4? They were:

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Fragmentation and Thin Polities: dynamics of the post-Roman Duero plateau”
  • The Duero plateau had been an integrated part of Roman Hispania, not rich but with many villas, but the events of the fifth century turned it into a frontier zone between the Sueves and Visigoths, neither of whom really had much governmental presence there, and as such seems to have localised its identity, with seniores loci mentioned by John of Biclaro and perhaps local coinage being issued. Hillforts grew up, though none have yet been dug so the association is kind of hypothetical. The Visigothic kingdom, when it re-established itself here, seems to have done so not least by giving the local élites rights to tax or withdrawing them, but the lack of towns meant that it was never an integrated part of Toledo’s enterprise. This does not however mean, argued Professor Martín, that it was not part of the state, and he argued that we should recognise this as a kind of `soft hegemony’ that might let us think usefully about how the successor states worked in their own terms, with the kings getting the status that kept them in power and the regions getting the autonomy that stopped them from wanting away from kings. We’ve seen something like this idea expressed here before, I think, so I was right down with this.

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Alfonso Vigil-Escalera, “The Elephant in the Room: new approaches to early medieval cemeteries in Spain”
  • Pretty much everything I know about burial in Visigothic Spain I read either in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations or at Historian on the Edge, so I was keen to hear more from two names I have on several reading lists but have never quite got round to reading.5 The two of them, represented by Dr Vigil-Escalera alone, argued that categories like `Roman’ and `barbarian’ won’t cover this kind of evidence, which has urban `barbarians’, rustic `Romans’ and all kinds of other cross-category burials to accommodate, and that the variation could be explained without recourse to foreign populations, even if those were there; the burial evidence in their eyes neither proves nor disproves immigration. The archaeology instead shows a restlessness that is to be expected from a peninsula in political and economic turmoil. Instead of the stereotypes, they detect in the burial evidence a militarised élite interred in lead coffins, a lower grade of burial with few or no grave goods, and nothing visible beneath. Where there are cemeteries that associate with a settlement, 60-95% of graves are furnished, the figure being lower the later the cemetery runs; by the eighth century (but not till then!) grave furnishing had completely stopped. Beyond these generalisations, however, variation in this mortuary landscape was at the community level, not the level of whole `peoples’, and certainly can’t be broken down as `Roman’ vs. `Germanic’. Therefore, they asked, why blame barbarians?

  • Guy Halsall, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?”
  • In answer to that question came the last paper of the strand by Professor Halsall himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve heard him speak or read him on the Internet, this was the one that really started the war. [Edit: and, indeed, some changes have been made to these paragraphs by request of one of those involved.] The consequences, if not of this actual speech, at least of its subsequent display on the Internet, have been various, unpleasant and generally regrettable, and I don’t want any of them myself. However, I think that what Professor Halsall was doing, which was to demand attention to the way that terms like `barbarians’ and `immigrants’ have been and are now deployed in political discourse, in short, to think who might be listening when we deploy these terms and for what, is something that it’s necessary to discuss. There may be other ways to say what he was saying, though they might be less effective. After all, an old colleague of mine sometimes gloomily observed of his scholarly opponents, “Y’know, you can’t change these guys’ minds, you can only wait until they die,” and obviously that’s not going to do much for public feeling and policy right now, which is where the fight is needed.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron expounding his party's `Big Society` ideology

    Dangerously empty bloviation

    But the issues must not be dropped! Since 2006 I have been on the web proclaiming somewhat casually that when history is used it is almost always misused; glib and untheorised though that was when I wrote it, there is a point there, and it behoves us to keep an eye on what our work may be used for. Some people are more conscious of this than others, as the recent furore over the way that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK appears to have picked up and run with the Conservative party’s campaign slogan in the last UK national elections shows; but this consciousness is usually with the misusers, and we could do with the same awareness from people who aren’t deliberately selling themselves for political funding (although it should be noted that the AHRC have claimed that they weren’t, without responding in any way to pressure to actually alter their agenda). How then do we fight the misuse of history by those with political agendas? Professor Halsall argued in questions that we have to take the fight to popular sources of information, to publish opinion columns, to get on the Internet, to colonise Wikipedia and not to assume that people can’t handle our sophistication. These seem like worthwhile, if taxing, endeavours that would bring us benefit whatever our politics. If the humanities were any good at coordinating our defence this would already have been encouraged in every faculty across the land, as PR for the industry of academia itself, dammit; instead they have successfully set us against each other and this is the result. Party politics, whether left-wing (do we still have one of those?), centrist or comfortable Conservative’s, really don’t signify here: there is no UK political party interested in funding the humanities. But you’ve read me on this before and you’ll read me on it again, so no more here.

The whole strand had been extremely provocative, as you can tell, and events subsequently revealed that it had perhaps been too much so, but I also think that we need to awaken some kind of social awareness about the uses, misuses, impact and importance of history. Everyone in the field must surely agree that that importance currently needs all the acknowledging, emphasising and directing that it can get. The furore over this presentation has unfortunately hidden these issues, which deserved to continue under discussion and not to become so personal as to be swamped in antagonism and threats. I’ll have more to say about this here—probably not very insightful but one should not stay silent—but for the meantime I can only advise you to keep a close eye on Historian on the Edge, for reflection on the social and moral imperatives of our work, whether you agree with him or not. We’d all like to think our work was socially and morally important, I’m sure, so it seems natural to consider how that might work out, doesn’t it?

717. Between Palatium and Civitas: political and symbolic spaces throughout the Middle Ages

Anyway. That was the final session in Professor Halsall’s strand, and things calmed down somewhat after lunch. Since time is short and the backlog long I’m therefore going to tackle the rest of the day in briefer form. I crossed the campus now to Weetwood Hall and there heard these people speak:

  • Martin Gravel, “Built on Expectation and Remembrance: the visitation of kings as the symbolic recognition of palaces in Carolingian West Francia”
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Contestation, Networks, and Places of Power in Grenoble during the Gregorian Reform: Guigues of Albon’s trajectory”
  • Alexandra Beauchamp, “Royal Court and Capitals of the Crown of Aragon in the XIVth century”
  • Originally scheduled for this session had been Josianne Barbier, doyenne of the Frankish fisc, and given how much her work featured in my reading for that dead-stick Kalamazoo paper of a couple of years back, I’d been rather hoping to meet her. Alas it was not to be, but these papers were also interesting, for especially Martin’s, which wanted to look closer at what kings actually do with their palaces beyond turn up, issue charters (not always them of course) and leave. With a few documents of Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer he was able to do this, showing that certain palaces had certain functions and that they weren’t all equivalent. Obvious, perhaps, conceptually, but hard to prove! Martin did so. We subsequently proved to have an almost-inconvenient overlap of interests with regard to the later Carolingians and I’m looking forward to more of his work. Le Coq, meanwhile, I would like to give due honour for using the term “ecclesiamento” to describe the way that Grenoble came to be grouped around the bishop’s properties and interests in his period of study, and Beauchamp’s careful attempt to try and say something about how large the Aragonese court actually was, on a day-to-day basis, from an unpromising source base, was a near-perfect example of how to present a few key interesting things from what was clearly a much larger piece of work.

805. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Different Regions of Europe

I try and go to as much of the relevant archaeological stuff at Leeds as possible, because there’s never very much and I want to encourage it, but also because it’s usually very interesting and full of information I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This time I was also hoping to see and meet Marco Valenti, who is a name that crops up all over what had then been my recent reading, but in this I was disappointed. What we got was:

  • Neil Christie, “Burhs and Defence: assessing the military status of later Saxon burhs
  • Marco Valenti, “Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Italy from the 6th to the 10th Centuries”
  • Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries in Central Europe”
  • You will be observing that Valenti appears still to have been there, but in fact, his paper was read by Professor Christie, a compromise that was certainly better than no paper but didn’t enable the kind of debate it would have been good to have. In short, Christie himself gave the audience a quick introduction to the fortification programme rolled out by the kings of Wessex in their fight back against the Vikings, and asked how much actual use the fortifications, many of which have come to be towns now and may always have been meant to, were. Christie preferred to see them more as exercises in literally building community, while I might prefer to see them as exercises in power demonstration, like Offa’s Dyke; certainly, Asser seems to show us that the relevant communities didn’t necessarily feel it.6 The Valenti paper, next, concentrated on castles in Tuscany, for a long time supposedly part of a major set of social changes just before or in the eleventh century that we know well round here, but by the kind of survey Valenti has been able to demonstrably a much longer-term phenomenon, starting in the ninth century if not before. There has of course been very little digging of such sites but what has been dug has forced this kind of re-evaluation too (as previously reported here indeed). Lastly Hajnalka, whose work I’d met at Kalamazoo the previous year, reintroduced me and introduced everyone else to her extremely interesting élite settlement at Gars Thunau in Austria, which has in its history a ninth-century building programme that seems to be chronologically, but not otherwise, connected to a sea-change in the development of such sites over a wider area, all of which nonetheless show no archaeological connections with each other. There’s something big here which has yet to be identified, clearly; Dawn Hadley asked what and Hajnalka said that the presence of the Church needs to be looked at, but that it will only explain some sites. Nonetheless, paradigms like Martin Carver‘s of a reaction in stone to such new power groups might well help here.7

Now, after this was the blogger meet-up, which was quite odd in the way it worked out. I was late, I forget why but probably not for any good reason, and the Naked Philologist and Magistra were left to coordinate the initial stages without me even though neither knew each other. By the time I arrived, it was busy but not with people I knew, which was good but unexpected. I can now remember only two of these people, Livejournallers rather than deliberate academic bloggers both, so I won’t name them in case they don’t want their personal lives linked to, but it was a pleasure to meet them and others, and I seem to recall that the gathering went on for a long time. I know that by the time I got to the St Andrews reception they’d run out of wine, but I also remember that this had somehow happened far faster than they’d anticipated so it may still have been quite early. In any case, company remained good and chatter plentiful, as afterwards seemed to have been so for a great deal of the conference, and it had been a stirring day.


1. The classic discussion of the term `wealh‘ is M. Faull, “The semantic development of Old English wealh” in Leeds Studies in English Vol. 8 (Leeds 1975), pp. 20-37; Alex’s take on such matters can currently mostly be found in his “Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 115-129, online here, last modified 18th October 2007 as of 10th December 2011, though for the linguistics he largely rests here on Peter Schrijver, “What Britons Spoke Around 400″, ibid. pp. 165-171.

2. Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955).

3. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 785, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 44-49.

4. I probably don’t need to explain the range of circumlocutions I use here to avoid the word `Spain’, or indeed that the paper titles do, but suffice to say that if this seems clumsy to you, the modern country’s name really doesn’t cover what we’re trying to include here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 296-300 & 338-346, but I should add at least J. A. Quirós Castillo and A. Vigil-Escalera Guirado, “Networks of peasant villages between Toledo and Velegia Alabense, North-western Spain (V-X centuries)” in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 33 (Firenze 2006), pp. 79-130 and now Quirós, “Early medieval landscapes in north-west Spain: local powers and communities, fifth-tenth centuries” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 285-311.

6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91:

For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well… to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm. But if, during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the people’s laziness, or else (having been begun too late in a time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet [c. 883] been begun, or else, having been begun late in the day, have not yet been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land or by sea (or, as frequently happens, by both!) then those who had opposed the royal commands were humiliated in meaningless repentance by being reduced to virtual extinction.

This passage doesn’t make me like Asser or Alfred any better, actually.

7. As in for example M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings (London 1998), esp. pp. 52-93.

On reading more Richard Hodges

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Lately, or at least, as I first wrote this post it was lately, I have been chomping through Richard Hodges’s Goodbye to the Vikings?, which is a reprint volume containing ten of the controversial archæologist’s more recent papers and a couple of new bits.1 I was doing this because someone had asked me, in the then-continuing absence of Hodges’s update of his 1982 book Dark Age Economics, the one that made his name, whether there was anything relevant in this volume, and there is in fact an essay reprinted from W. A. van Es’s Festschrift called “Dark Age Economics Revisited”.2 Having skimmed that I thought I’d probably better read the book while I had it out of the library and having done that, I thought I might give some kind of account of it here.

I have been something of a fan of Hodges’s work, which I put down partly to its genuine quality—Dark Age Economics is legendarily impenetrable in parts but the other parts gave me a completely different view of the development of early medieval Western Europe than I could have got from anywhere else, and you’ve seen me praise his The Anglo-Saxon Achievement here before, even though I understand that it is not well-thought of3—but my adulation was doubtless also down to the way he habitually pitches his work. Only reading this volume has made this advertising strategy fully visible to me. Firstly, the reader is told that historians now have to give way to archæologists to fully understand the early medieval period, because texts have all these problems and there are only so many of them, whereas archæology on the other hand is always producing new stuff. Secondly, Hodges and his friends are the sole merchants of this new learning; it’s not that everyone else is stupid or blinkered, it’s just that the sites Hodges chooses to be interested in or is excavating are presented as the most exciting, significant and revolutionary ones there are. And, fair enough, Hamwic and San Vincenzo al Volturno really have changed our ideas about early medieval material culture and its interconnections. I’m less convinced about the revolutionary potential of Butrint, its big significance appears to be more or less ‘sites in Albania surprisingly like sites elsewhere on Balkan coast despite Albanian exceptionalism’.4 But, never mind that; the point is that the revolution is always happening right now, because of this new site, even though when you go back to Hodges’s earliest work you realise that this has now been his line for thirty years.

This kind of presentation, pursued with relentless energy and a considerable writing productivity, is a big part of what makes Hodges’s work exciting.5 It may therefore have been a mistake to combine so many papers that pitch this line from so many different eras in the one book, as one starts to wonder why the revolution hasn’t yet happened. It must not be 1998 yet! and so on. We have a mission statement of an introduction, revised heavily from a piece in Archaeology magazine, which is then reprised in the conclusion (new in the volume); its agendas are also picked up in a chapter on Pirenne, and somewhat in the van Es tribute piece. More England-focussed pieces reprise the themes of The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, and one paper on Butrint (or, more interestingly, on the politics of Albanian archæology) stands rather alone. There is also a solid seventy pages pulled out of various publications on San Vincenzo al Volturno, and these are perhaps the most valuable because they have been very well-chosen to give an overall view of the site and its significance, and also present some change in its evaluation over time.6 It may be significant that Hodges says in his introduction that these are the pieces he hasn’t revised.7 This also means that you can see the spin developing, mind, as we move from the presentation of the place that he published as A Dark Age Pompeii (because of the site’s rapid destruction and abandonment in 881 after a Saracen attack) to a more nuanced one incorporating a durée plus longue that chooses explicitly not to see the site as a Pompeii-like snapshot.8 The reader doesn’t get this shift in thinking in order, but one can see it happening. Only very rarely, however, does Hodges reflect on his own views; even in “Dark Age Economics Revisited” this is kept to a minimum compared to lining up more data in pursuit of the original study’s aims. So it always looks new and exciting.

The volume mainly impressed me with style, then, but that shouldn’t be taken to diminish the quality of the actual data or analysis, just the way it’s presented. Actually you can learn a lot from this volume, even if you might learn less if you’ve already read The Anglo-Saxon Achievement or (especially) Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne.9 Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the presentation has got on top of the sense. So with a paper called “Charlemagne’s Elephant”, which is quite fun in its way, using the elephant as a synecdoche of the long-range trade routes of Charlemagne’s era, and especially with the title article, “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, originally only two pages in History Today, which expands one of the other piece’s ideas.10 The core idea will look familiar to anyone who’s followed either Guy Halsall’s take on the fall of the Roman Empire or me telling you about that here; just as Guy argues that the fall of the Empire caused the barbarian invasions and not vice versa, so here Hodges argues that it was the collapse of the trade and patronage networks of Charlemagne’s era as the Carolingian Empire broke up that created the massive Scandinavian attacks of the First Viking Age. The problem with this as pitched by Hodges, however, is twofold. Firstly, of course, it falls victim to the Grierson Objection, that not all goods move by trade.11 This looks particularly obvious when Hodges pauses to marvel at how the towns of the English Danelaw, created out of almost nothing, could start and sustain a good silver coinage where Northumbria itself had only had copper coins before the Vikings arrive. Leaving aside that that copper coinage is now being seen as a sign of commercialisation, I tell you, the words Danegeld or tribute do not feature here; it’s all trade.12 No matter how important long-distance trade may or may not have been, there is something missing here.

Then of course there’s the chronology. It is certainly true that the bulk of the Viking attacks occurred in the second half of the ninth century and thereafter, and possibly even truer that the break-up of the Danish state has something to do with the collapse of its neighbour (which had been piling wealth into its various factions for a while) even if that process is obscure to us. But since the attacks began well before Charlemagne was even Emperor, it’s obviously not the whole answer, and then Timothy Reuter’s explanations based on richness and military over-stretch return to play and look very much as if they would explain both phases of activity.13 So: at the very least, I don’t think we can “say goodbye to the Vikings as we have known them”, if by that Hodges means forget that they appropriated wealth by many means and especially violence as well as trade.14 But also, although there is loads of good stuff here, the same things are made so much of so repeatedly that I am now much less anxious to read Dark Age Economics: a new audit than I was before it came out, because I suspect it will tell me rather less than I’d hoped, and this was not the result I expected from reading this volume.


1. R. Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006).

2. R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989); idem, “Dark Age Economics Revisited” in H. Sarfati, W. J.  Verwers & P. J. Woltering (edd.), Discussion with the Past: archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (Zwolle 1999), pp. 227-232; repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 63-71.

3. If you would like a less favourable view of that book, there is Nicholas Brooks’s review in Speculum Vol. 68 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 170-172, which lambasts Hodges for “factual errors and misleading inferences that pervade the whole book” (p. 172), and concludes (ibid.):

It is good for historians and archaeologists to be provoked into rethinking the fundamental development of early English society, but this book is a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, many of his assertive conjectures will attract blind support. Had he indulged his penchant for the latest anthropological theories at the start, had he administered our dose of “commoditisation” before the last chapter, we could have been sure that only reviewers would have struggled with the whole book!

I deduce from the opening satire of Hodges’s stand against élite-driven text-based history (much like mine above) that the writer of the The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester 1984) felt himself implicated in the critique, but that closing paragraph tells you quite a lot about both book and reviewer.

4. Although the article here about Butrint, Hodges & W. Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts? Nationalism and the Question of Rural Continuity in Albania” in Neil Christie (ed.), Landscapes of Change: rural evolution in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (Aldershot 2004), pp. 195-222, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 39-62, is interesting precisely because it tackles the historiography of that exceptionalism and does quite a lot to set the Albanian finds in context.

5. There are of course other things that are exciting about Hodges’s work too, and they might include, for example: a genuinely large-scale perspective with many comparanda; a theory-informed view of the economy, even of this period, as a system with rules that can be understood; an eye for the ordinary person in the record; and a good choice of illustrative anecdote. But the polemical prose certainly has to come in there too.

6. In order referred to, with reprint pages in brackets: R. Hodges, “The Not-So-Dark Ages” in Archaeology Vol. 51 no. 5 (Long Island City 1998), pp. 61-65, rev. as “Introduction: new light on the Dark Ages” (1-18); idem, “Pirenne and the Question of Demand in the Sixth Century” in W. Bowden & R. Hodges (edd.), The Sixth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 3 (Leiden 2003), pp. 3-14 (rev. 19-27); idem, “Dark Age EconomicsRevisited”; idem, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” (new 28-38); idem, “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157 (rev. 163-175); Hodges & Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts”; Hodges, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St. Gall” in R. Hodges (ed.), San Vincenzo al Volturno 2: the 1980-86 excavations, part II (London 1995), pp. 153-175 (80-116); Hodges, “Beyond Feudalism: monasteries and their management in the eighth and ninth centuries” in I longobardi dei ducati di Spoleto e Benevento: atti del XVI Congresso internazionale di studi sull’alto Medioevo, Spoleto, 20-23 ottobre 2002, Benevento 24-27 ottobre 2002 (Spoleto 2003), pp. 1077-1098 (141-156); Hodges, “The Ninth-Century Collective Workshop at San Vincenzo al Volturno” in J. Emerick (ed.), Archaeology in Architecture: essays in honour of Cecil Lee Striker (Mainz 2005), pp. 75-87 (117-140).

7. He says, p. viii:

Some essays have been either partially rewritten or modified for this book; others, such as those relating to the ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno (Italy), are unaltered. Even where the essays have been altered, I have not attempted to provide amplified bibliographies. To do this would belie the purpose of the book as impressionable sketches about general historical themes.

This leaves it fairly unclear what has been messed with how much, though all but the San Vincenzo chapters do have updated references.

8. R. Hodges, A Dark Age Pompeii: San Vincenzo al Volturno (London 1990); cf. idem, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St Gall” from five years later where he says, “The essence of modern archaeology is not what has been termed the ‘Pompeii premise’ – the prospect of finding a place fossilised from one moment in time (Binford 1981) – but the reverse, the opportunity to record how a place has evolved through time” (pp. 80-81 of the reprint, citing L. R. Binford, “Behavioural Archaeology and the ‘Pompeii Premise'” in Journal of Anthropological Research Vol. 37 (1981), pp. 195-208).

9. R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989), as rev. by Brooks, ref. n. 2 above; Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000).

10. Hodges, “Charlemagne’s Elephant” in History Today Vol. 50 (London 2000), pp. 21-27, and “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, ibid. 54 (London 2004), pp. 29-30, repr. in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 72-79 & 157-162.

11. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

12. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, pp. 159-160 of the reprint:

Worse still, Northumbrian coins of the central decades of this period – the so-called stycas – contained pitiful measures of silver in their otherwise copper-rich contents (Hodges 1989: 162). How, we should be asking, did the Danish kings of Jorvik suddenly find the silver to replace the devalued Northumbrian currency with a silver-rich coinage meeting international standards?

He goes on to look for, but not explicitly to find, the explanation in the levels of monetisation demonstrated by the so-called ‘productive sites’, on which see Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003), in this case especially Mark Blackburn, “‘Productive’ Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180″, pp. 20-36 there. Cf. also D. M. Metcalf, “The Monetary Economy of Ninth-Century England South of the Humber: a topographical analysis” in Mark Blackburn & David Dumville (edd.), Kings, Currencies and Alliances: history and coinage of southern England in the ninth century (Cambridge 1998), pp. 167-198.

13. T. Reuter, “Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 35 (London 1985), pp. 75-94, repr. in †Reuter, Medieval polities and modern mentalities, ed. Janet Nelson (Cambridge 2006), pp. 231-250.

14. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, p. 162 of the reprint.