Category Archives: France

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.


I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Seminars CXLVII-CXLIX: Chroniclers, Kilwa and Vikings In Normandy

With the usual apologies for backlog taken as read, today’s first post under the new new dispensation should get me slightly more caught up with seminar reports; people keep saying how even the old ones are interesting, and it comforts me to have them done, so, here you go.

Opening of John of Worcester's Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

Opening of John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

First of these was a local speaker, Emily Winkler, a doctoral student working on the image of kingship in Anglo-Norman chronicles. Consequently, her paper, which she gave at the Medieval History Seminar on 22nd October 2012, was entitled “Kings and Conquest in Anglo-Norman Historiography”, and dealt with how two chroniclers in particular, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, both with a strong sense of English identity but working under a régime defined very strongly as Norman, worked towards trying to explain the Danish and Norman conquests of England in a way that left the English some creditable place in the new orders of things. She did this by focussing particularly on Kings Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’, and Harold II, that is, the ones who lost their kingdoms: in both cases, as she argued and as her substantial handout shows, William goes for undermining the skill and character of the English king, thus saving the people themselves from responsibility for God’s subsequent decision against them, whereas John was too proud of the English and their history to accept such a Providential outcome and emphasises ill luck or impossible odds instead, while making the kings heroic and noble, even Æthelred (for which he has to fabricate a reasonable amount). This provoked a lively discussion which centred most of all on the contrast of these texts with the far more negative contemporary portrayals of the English people’s culpability and treachery in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are reasons why that source is that way, of course, but the contrast is still noticeable and Emily suggested that one major factor in the difference is that the Anglo-Norman chroniclers, whether they liked it or not, had grown up amid a kingship that was famedly powerful and effective even when opposed by its people, and that consequently they just had less conceptual space for the rôle of a people to affect the fate of its kings at all…

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE—maybe

The next week, an old sidetrack of this blog was revived when Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones came to talk to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 29th October 2012 about her work on the East African sultanate of Kilwa. My extremely limited knowledge of Kilwa is nothing to do with my medieval study, though I do think most medievalists should at least have heard of the place, but the result of fixing the catalogue entries of some of the relevant coins back at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was also when I first met Dr Wynne-Jones. She has subsequently published a study of Kilwa coinages that raises a lot of interesting problems, but here she was dealing with the other material she’s got from digs there, under the title, “A Material Culture: exploring urbanism and trade in medieval Swahili world”.1 I won’t try and summarise this beyond saying that the amount of standing ruins (largely built of imported coral) at Kilwa Kisiwani gives Stephanie a good basis for working out how houses looked when they were in use, and what she was talking about here was the way in which shifts in available or desired goods could be seen in house decoration and the material culture of the city-dwellers. There were lots of questions here and some day I must type up my notes on them, but today is not that day. It was, however, very informative and interesting, and nice for me to get some sense of what the bigger picture was in which the coins I’d dealt with belonged.

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

The last paper to be covered in this batch was by another inhabitant of the Dreaming Spires, Dr Lesley Abrams, who spoke to the Medieval History Seminar on 5th November 2012 under the simple title, “Early Normandy”. This was mainly an excursus of the problems of knowing anything very much about that principality: the narrative sources are brief to the extreme, telling developingly-less believable stories about the treaty between King Charles the Simple and Rollo the Ganger that established the duchy but not giving us a text of it or recounting its provisions, and the archæology is basically missing. This is not just because it hasn’t been looked for, though that is a factor, but also because, unlike areas like East Anglia or Kiev, the Norse presence in Normandy doesn’t seem to have retained its material culture habits but rapidly to have adopted local ones. We do however have a certain amount of name-change to work with, both of settlements and of people, so it’s not that they were all terribly ashamed of their origins or anything. This is part of a larger complex of situations in which, as we learn it better, we see that the Viking impact was different in every area they went to, and this Lesley has studied in a recent article.2 Making Normandy fit into this picture much before the year 1000 is difficult, however, especially as one may suspect that interest in the duchy’s history and that of its dukes was then a new thing being milked for legitimacy (which would not be without parallels at other parts of the post-Carolingian periphery of course). What we can see, however, suggests low levels of settlement by traders and farmers, and that the Norse were by no means the only ones moving in: Breton and Gaelic influences are also evident on the place-name maps when people look for them. These kinds of subtleties are hard to detect given the evidence, but the subsequent ducal historiography was sufficiently successful that not many people have yet tried! Anyway, I am sufficiently far behind that this paper is now published, so if I have piqued your interest, please see the references below, and next I shall return to more Iberian pastures (though Vikings will continue to be involved). Stay tuned!


1. For the coins, see Jeffrey B. Fleisher & S. Wynne-Jones, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 170 (London 2010), pp. 494-506, and now (what I haven’t), S. Wynne-Jones & J. Fleisher, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal Vol. 22 (Cambridge 2012), pp. 19-36; I see from Stephanie’s publication pages at York that not only has she written an absolute shed-load of other things about these and related issues, but what looks like the book of it is on its way out as S. Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: consumption and practice on the pre-colonial coast of East Africa (Oxford forthcoming), so that should excite anyone whom this post has excited about Kilwa still further!

2. That being L. Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; now see also the rather relevant L. Abrams, “Early Normandy” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 35 (Woodbridge 2013), pp. 45-64!

Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-word

I’m sorry it is taking so long to get momentum up again here. The arrival of Internet at home only occurred quite recently and all my teaching is on new courses so weekly maintenance of them is taking a while. There’s also an issue about exactly what to update with: I’m a year behind with seminars or very nearly, and they’re none of them advertisements for where I now work because I didn’t go to any here in that year, and my non-seminar blogging is even further behind, though that doesn’t date so badly. Obviously one thing that makes no sense to do is to blog papers on which others have already reported, and yet here I am doing just that. The paper in question is one by an ex-colleague, someone else who since got a job, Dr Erica Buchberger, and on the 10th October last year she was speaking at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “Romans in a Frankish World: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Ethnic Identities”, and Magistra already covered this at Magistra et Mater, but I have some things I want to add, what can I say, so here we are a year in the past. What’s a year when we’re discussing the sixth century, after all?

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of what even the Bibliothèque nationale de France call the History of the Franks, from Wikimedia Commons

As Magistra says, the issue at issue here was why Gregory, our foremost source for the early Frankish kingdoms, does not mention Romans among the population of the Frankish kingdoms, and Erica was arguing that because he still thought of everyone in his area as being Roman really, the word never needed to come up, especially as in broad terms it meant much less than an identity based on city and family or origin. In arguing this she has to deal with the fact that Gregory’s contemporary Venantius Fortunatus is quite happy to call people Romans, but as she observed, they are writing very different kinds of text, Gregory’s Histories in a Church tradition and apparently for a small private Church readership, and Venantius public praise poetry of a kind where ancient referents were just a lot more likely to have traction. And I’m fine with that, to an extent, and certainly the bit about Venantius.

I had, however, when this paper was given lately been re-reading Gregory, and I find it harder to be sure whom he meant by `Franks’. The Histories are translated as History of the Franks and for us it’s what they’ve become, but Gregory’s own titles appears just to have been Ten Books of Histories; even here there was no ethnicity.1 It’s not as if Franks don’t come up a lot but I have to say that it seems to me, not having done a proper count or anything, that the places are few, very few, where you could not replace the word `Frank’ with `warrior’ and have it do basically the same job. The Franks, as a group, is most often the army, or so it seems to me. Self-evidently Gregory thought descent and family was important, he praises many a person for the family they belonged to, and sneaks a great many of his own relatives on to stage without giving that away, and some of the people he praises for this nobility of birth are even Franks, in as much as they are in the military or civil government, have Germanic not Latin names and hang out at court. But single Franks identified as such are rare in the narrative, and where they do turn up they’re usually carrying weapons.

Museum display of supposedly-Frankish arms

‘Frankish’ arms, including the axe known for this reason as a ‘francisca’, in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, image from Wikimedia Commons

Obviously there are reasons why I read it like this, and they are principally that I have been using this as a test reading for early medieval texts that seem to be talking about ethnicity for a long time, ever since I read an article a while back that suggested that by the ninth century `Goth’ might be more or less a professional category.2 I also find it possible to get to this point by extrapolation from work like Guy Halsall’s suggesting that `barbarian’ units in the late Roman army might have been as ethnically Roman as they were barbarian, if either category really means much in a world already mixing; an analogy would be football teams like the Washington Redskins, who are not, I believe it is safe to say, native Americans or whatever the correct term is for `people who got here before the people we think we are did’ (to pick a topical example).3 I suspect that Professor Halsall wouldn’t go as far as this but you can see how one could get from there to a position where “Join the Army! Be a Frank!” doesn’t seem like a completely stupid slogan to imagine, especially given that what `Frank’ means etymologically is no more than `free man’. And, as was noted in questions, it’s not as if even Gregory is perfectly clean here; almost all his relatives whom he names are churchmen and have good Latin names, and the exception is a maternal uncle, Gundulf, who is a count. If Gregory didn’t say that man was his relative, I’m sure we’d largely assume he was a Frank. And I suspect he was, in the terms of the time, but I don’t think that has to mean Gregory thought he himself was one. One might even argue that, since families mix all the time and the upper nobility was quite presumably blended between immigrants and locals in most of the Gaulish cities by now, anyone who went into either civil administration or Church probably had both immigrant forebears and local ones and could duly emphasise whichever strand of ancestry he chose as his career developed. But I do wonder if even that much attempt to preserve an idea of ethnic descent is necessary to understand these texts and the time.

Besides: if you want to query Gregory for identities, wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how he uses the word `Gaul’… ?


1. The two translations usually used are The History of the Franks, transl. Oliver M. Dalton (New York 1927) and The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints). They’re both good but that’s not what the title is! The rest of this post would be more rigorous with book and chapter citations, but they would mean me slowly going through the whole work clocking ethnicity terms, duplicating Erica’s work in fact. I didn’t do that when re-reading and I shan’t do it now, so my impressions remain impressionistic; if someone feels they’re wrong and wants to substantiate that I’m more than happy to indicate as much in additions to the post or whatever.

2. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), II pp. 35-74.

3. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 189-194.

Leeds 2012 Report 2

My notes from last year’s International Medieval Congress seem to be pretty good, but I’m disturbed by how little of what I apparently attended I recall in any detail without them. I suppose this is why we take notes, but looking back through them I can see several of the hares that I’ve been coursing through the last year’s thoughts visible here, and I feel as if I actually ought to be using these posts to acknowledge people whose thoughts I obviously soaked up without the care and attention to whose they were that perhaps I should have taken. Anyway, that is a long preamble to the second post from my backlog that will try and give some account of the research I saw being presented at that conference.

504. Politics of Territory I: perceptions and practices of space in Germany and France (c. 850-c. 1100)

The 10th July started for me with a pair of sessions coming out of a project that Jens Schneider introduced, Territorium, which I think could be sort of categorised as geopolitical philosophy, comparing and checking the ways that French and German scholarships think about the connections of territories to the state. For me the interesting thing here was how people would define their ‘territories’, especially since in the first session we seemed to be especially encouraged to consider where territories ended, that is, frontiers, always and forever an interest of mine. This comes through in my notes, from which I relearn the following.

  • Laurence Leleu, “Space, Territory and Border in Saxony”
    Saxony had been outside the Frankish kingdom at the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign, implying a linear border, then became a marca, a province inside the empire but whose character was special, implying a zone. The speaker thought that this zone’s edges were often conceptual compared to geographical features like the River Elbe, even when it wasn’t the border. Within this zone, there were internal divisions, counties and bishoprics and even peoples (according to Adam of Bremen), but they often had islets and exclaves, so, basically, it was complicated, and the classic difference between line and zone was here largely a difference of scale. I thought the last point was the take-away one, though I was struck by the geography versus theory one too.
  • Miriam Czock, “Representations of Swabia: boundaries, spatial organization and power”
    This paper attempted to apply concepts of space to ask more useful questions about what political identities were available to those who lived after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Swabia is interesting in this game because it’s a territory that defies traditional German historiography by not having a ‘root’ people or leader; Dr Czock argued that people’s connections were to the monastery of St Gallen, the local castle network and the fiscal property in the area. I recognise that I’d be vulnerable to this criticism myself, and perhaps that’s why I think of it, but this seems to me like what we can see from the landholding and trial records rather than what was necessarily most important; at the least, though, it gives us an alternative set of structures to test origin theories with.
  • Albrecht Brendler, “Space of Power in Early Medieval Provence”
    Provence emerged from the expulsion of the Muslim garrison at la Garde-Freinet in 903 in some confusion, explained Herr Brendler: the Muslims had been only one side in a many-faceted civil war and though there was a clear Count of Arles, William I, his territory included two other counties and several bishoprics of areas that had been pagi, but no metropolitan ones; William called himself a Marquis, but of which crown wasn’t completely clear though King Conrad I of Germany claimed it. It theoretically belonged to larger organisations and wasn’t quite one itself yet it emerged as one because its parts weren’t part of anything else. I may, in that last bit, be going beyond what Herr Brendler said but if so that’s because I could basically write the same of Catalonia. This is a very interesting parallel, which I don’t seem from my notes to have appreciated at all at the time.
  • Charles West, “Response”
    Here Charles tried to mix up categories by pointing out that power over space is still carried out by acting on people, so that the people and space distinction may not get us anything useful, but that if it does what we are usually seeing is a monastic concept of space, which may not be the general one, especially since several different concepts of space could operate at once. It’s important not to privilege the one we can most easily see.
  • I tried to argue in questions that the sources’ intent was really the best way to approach such issues of importance, a functionalist approach, which Dr Czock argued would miss larger-scale change. Ryan Lavelle pointed out that in UK terms a project like this would be an archæological one and wondered what mapping via GIS would contribute. I also wondered that, but in a rather more negative way; I couldn’t see what it would contribute that plotting things on paper wouldn’t make just as clear. In general good questions came out of this and I think everyone went away thinking.

This was probably particularly evident in how many of us came straight back after coffee for the second half!

604. Politics of Territory, II: perceptions and practices of space in Southern France (c. 750-c. 1200)

  • Adrien Bayard, “Fortifications and the Organisation of Power in Carolingian Aquitaine”
    This paper looked specifically at fortifications in the campaigns of King Pippin III by which Aquitaine was dragged more or less unwillingly to rejoin the kingdom of the Franks in the second half of the eighth century. Archaeology has shown a huge variety of sites in the area, ‘private refuges’, small hilltop forts, walled villages and big cities, some of which (like Bourges, notice the name) Pippin took by siege. The south was in general a zone of fortresses, even this early, unlike the north where palaces seem to have organised the territories (and Septimania where monasteries were key), and no matter what they were controlling, in terms of territory, service, renders and so on, a hilltop site seems always to have been the basis of lordly power in these zones.
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Reforming Church, Producing Territory: the second birth of the diocese of Die (c. 1000-c. 1200)”
    This paper was interesting in as much as it was chasing a ghost: the bishopric of Die is dissolved, and the extent of its medieval territory is unclear, though it was much larger than the modern province and seems to have included several exclaves. Over the eleventh century, during which time the bishops’ power was on the rise not least because of Bishop Hugh who became the papal legate to France under Pope Gregory VII, the county of Die seems to have sunk underneath the bishopric in people’s minds as the thing that defined the area. The counts wound up lords of only small parts of the area as the bishops profited from their increasingly international connections. (I have to admit that I wasn’t clear how they were profiting, exactly, but something seems to have brought about this change.) This however only lasted until the more powerful counts of Valence succeeded to the county of Die and their tame bishops started muscling in. M. le Coq saw this as an area where bishops were always in charge but which one might vary; I have to admit that again I wonder if ecclesiastical sources would show us enough of comital power to be sure of that, but I haven’t looked at the documents and M. le Coq has.
  • Steffen Patzold, “Some Reflections on Interregional Comparisons: France and Germany”
    Here Professor Patzold laid out some of the problems that arise with comparative projects like this: even though the team had picked peripheries that more or less match and scholars at similar career stages using similar questions, the sources vary considerably over the zones chosen and may still have been leading their conclusions. For example, with mostly non-royal charters in the south of France and far fewer and only royal ones from Saxony, we ineluctably have a middle-range perspective in the former and only a top-down one from the latter. But is the source difference itself a result of difference, or merely accident? On the other hand, because of the difference of languages, things that genuinely were similar between the two zones may be hard to recognise: is a vicarius a minister or were the two offices different across the language divide, and so on…
  • Discussion this time was less fruitful, I felt. People, including me, suggested various extra questions that might be bases for comparison, such as what use people had for the kings (this was me, based on the Königsfern idea that I took from Kalamazoo 2010), who appointed bishops and so on. Wendy Davies stressed that a comparison like this must rest on things that are similar otherwise it’s apples and oranges, but the various project members were keener on pointing out differences or reasons these questions wouldn’t work, and a particular boundary got set up around the project aims, the ideas of territory and space, over which I for one could not see. I realise that there is loads of work on space at the moment but when we’re talking about spaces of power, I agree with what Charles had said: spaces of power are spaces over which authority is claimed, and if no-one recognises it then those claims are empty. I don’t see how these spaces can exist except in the minds of the people in them, and the way we get at that is not by ignoring the dealings of those people in favour of deconceptualised mapping. That wasn’t what any of the speakers had been doing, either, but it seemed to be the platonic idea to which the discussion retreated as more traditional practitioners tried to make their favourite questions help.

Of course, sometimes such questions genuinely aren’t helpful. Even if they might be, they feel as if people are suggesting that if you’d only asked them first, they could have told you how to do your project much better! Nonetheless, this is supposed to be one of the things that presenting your work in public gets you, other ways to think about your problems, and I was quite surprised how reluctant some of the people in this comparative project were to try actual comparison, in their own terms or ours. I hope some day to organise conference sessions that actually demand this of speakers, I think it’s the only way forward in some areas and frontiers is definitely one of them. Well, anyway, then there was lunch and after that I returned very much to my own comfort zone, if I had even yet left it.

727. Producing, Keeping, and Reusing Documents: charters and cartularies from Northern Iberia, 9th-12th Century

  • Wendy Davies, “Keeping Charters Before Cartularies”
    Quite a lot of this paper was a summary of the patterns of the survival of the charter evidence from Northern Spain prior to 1000, and as such quite familiar to me. The points that did stand out for me were that enough charters were updated that it is clear that they could usually be got at; that they seem to have been stored in church treasuries quite often, but that that the marks that most bear on the dorses suggest some record of the records; and that laymen clearly kept documents too, as we have so many lay ones that survive to us even if through Church archives, so they presumably dealt with the same dilemmas of storage albeit on a smaller scale, unless the layman in question chose to keep them at a church.1
  • Leticia Agúndez San Miguel, “A Monastic Power in Reconstruction: the versatility of the past and the present time in the Becerro Gótico of Sahagún”
    It was quite strange to hear anyone other than Wendy talk about Sahagún, in fact, but this was a quite detailed codicological treatment of the monastery’s earliest cartulary, which the speaker thought had been put together as part of a project to get King Alfonso VI to confirm and add to the monastery’s property at a time when the Bishop of León and the Cluniac congregation were moving in on the old monastery’s area. This meant inventing a number of royal documents, but after a while the real ones they apparently did have got added in anyway, once the immediate need was past. Almost everything that got put in the cartulary was put there defensively, though, was the general conclusion, which is not how I have come to see some of my target archive’s early cartularies I must admit. I may have to rethink.
  • David Peterson, “The Becerro Gótico of San Millán: the reconstruction of a lost cartulary”
    This was a detective-work paper, trying to piece together from an archive loaded with forgeries and a later cartulary what was in the earliest cartulary which is now lost. It seems to have been available to a couple of historians shortly after the monastery was dissolved in 1835, but ‘seems’ is the operative word. From what can be reconstructed, it seems that the later cartulary was heavily selective, containing only two-thirds as many documents in rather nicer copies. The picture of the lost one that emerges is of a book that was compiled as sort of quire-length dossiers of documents bound together and then continuing to expand, some onto extra sheets, some into the next quire. The new cartulary rearranged much of this at the top level, the order of the dossiers, to serve in a dispute with Calahorra, and some of the initial quires of the Becerro Gótico also had their origins in disputes, this seems to be more and more what we find behind cartulary compilation these days, which may also explain why their arrangements sometimes don’t make much sense to us; firstly, we would probably have had to be there, but secondly, their production was probably often quite urgent and may have cut some corners… This was a very suggestive paper despite its micro-study premises, which is in many ways my favourite sort of paper and the kind I like to write myself, so I am suitably envious!
  • Discussion here was good, but perhaps only if you’re a charter geek; especially worth considering, though, was the role of script change in the compilation of these things. The two Becerros Goticos there above are so called because they were in Visigothic minuscule, which is, shall we say, an acquired faculty; at San Millán the replacement is called the Becerro Galecana, from its Frankish-style script. These things must also have affected the use of original documents, and the sources themselves tend to stress such issues when cartularies explain themselves at all, but we keep finding reasons the task was finally undertaken to be more immediate.2 There’s a tension here to work out with future cases.

Powered by tea, I now did something I’ve never before tried at Leeds, which was to start a timeslot in one session and dash to another after the paper I wanted to hear. I try not to do this, because it’s rude to the organisers and the speakers whom one ignores in the first session and not exactly helpful to the second session, but sometimes one is just caught between senses of obligation and the proximity of the sessions makes it possible, and when the first session also has one of its speakers drop out, the temptation just gets too much. It seems best to combine the reports because they were experienced as one block, so, here goes.

808. Political Rupture in the Early Middle Ages & 809. Cultural Memory, III: Inclusion and Exclusion (i)

  • Geoffrey Koziol, “Principles Know No Law: justifying insurgency after the Carolingians – Boso, Robert of Neustria, and the Saxons”
    It was a definite bonus of last year’s Leeds that Geoff Koziol was present, enlivening many a discussion and one of the people out there most energetically interested in the late- and post-Carolingian era where my own work resides. At the time I write this I very lately finished properly reading his first book and I really enjoyed it, not something I would say of every history book I read.3 Reactions to this paper exist that are less enthusiastic, however, and although its general suggestion, worked through rebellions against kings of 879, 923 and 1073, that those raising rebellion rarely actually addressed or raised specifics in their propaganda but instead asserted big moral imperatives, was reasonable, there was room for counter-examples or arguments that like and like had not been compared here. Nonetheless, the comparative range and conceptual power was as engaging as Geoff’s stuff usually is and I was glad I’d heard it, even if I promptly ran away…
  • Clemens Gantner, “The Popes and their Frankish Others in the 8th Century”
    The timing worked out just right and I got to hear all of this paper, which was looking at the extent to which the diplomatic contacts between popes and Franks of this period indicated that the popes saw Franks as a gens, and therefore not the same group as themselves. The Franks were evidently easier to define than the Byzantines (obviously not Romans any more, but not ‘Greeks’ till the ninth century) or the Muslims (many many ethnonyms), not least as they worked the ‘gentile’ concept quite hard themselves at times, but anyway, the eighth-century popes seem to have never reckoned the Franks as other than foreigners.
  • Mayke de Jong, “The Temptations of a Foreign Past: the early medieval West and alterity”
    I don’t like the word `alterity’, as is well-established, so it was nice to find that neither does Professor de Jong, though I don’t like it mainly because `otherness’ would plainly do; Prof. de Jong was arguing for its removal from our work as a theme on higher grounds, though, that it makes the period seem strange, foreign, easy to dismiss and incomprehensible. As Prof. de Jong observed, assuming we don’t rule out the idea that things change for the better completely, there must be a worse `before’ and a better `after’ when this happens, but this is no reason to let other people stick this onto us.4 Likewise, any effort to define ourselves involves defining what we are not but for Prof. de Jong, it’s important for early medievalists to throw bridges across the ensuing gap and storm it, resetting connections that others might prefer to ignore.5
  • The most interesting question here was one that Clemens had to face, of whether there was in fact a neutral way to talk of another political unit’s people in this period. Clemens thought that the fact that the way the popes conceptualised Franks was not the same as the way in which they did other Others made his conclusions valid, but Walter Pohl floated the much more unsettling answer that if a way of describing a group was neutral this would probably not be clear to us now!

I suppose that as Paul Edward Dutton said at a different conference, “The best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways”, which still sounds like a lot of fun to me.


1. Since this paper was given, of course, these issues are now given what is really the full treatment in Warren C. Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), the long-awaited publication of work from the Lay Archives Project for which I was once a data monkey. I will write more on that in due course, when I’ve actually read the volume, which is not yet though it is one of the very very few academic books I bought as soon as it came out at full price. (Quite why, I’m not sure, given I will very shortly be able to buy it cheaper at Leeds and haven’t used it yet, but obviously I meant to.) Anyway, leaving that aside, even before that volume emerged one could find related concerns being raised in Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and it’s obviously no accident that they were in the Lay Archives Project too.

2. The text of standard resort here is of course Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium (Princeton 1994), which is still excellent, but although it will be a long time before its general case doesn’t stand up, exceptions to it do keep emerging. One can get some other perspectives from Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle & Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires : Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993) and Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (edd.), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002).

3. G. Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: ritual and political order in early medieval France (Ithaca 1992).

4. This is well set-out in Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), which I cite much more than my mean review of it would make one think I would, though I stand by that in as much as this issue is well set-out several times over…

5. And in fact I read, only a day before writing this, another attack on the same issue by no less than Jinty Nelson, that being Janet L. Nelson, “Liturgy or Law: misconceived alternatives?” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Nelson & David Pelteret, Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, Studies in Early Medieval Britain (Farnham 2009), pp. 433-447, who argues that both sides of the line lose something by not crossing it.

Leeds 2012 Report 1

I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between giving a bald itinerary of papers seen I can barely remember or else reconstructing the whole thing at length from my notes. But the only way to find out what transpires is to try, so here goes.

Entrance to Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, adorned with banner for the 2012 International Medieval Congress

The soon-to-be-late and lamented Bodington Hall, entrance thereto

As is by now traditional, I got through breakfast slightly too late to make it to the main room in which the keynote lectures were held and had the weird experience of arriving on the already-full video relay room to see no-one there I knew, which takes some doing at Leeds usually. Luckily this was a misleading omen. The actual lectures, meanwhile, were more or less perceptible if slightly blue-tinged on the video, and were as follows.

1. Keynote Lectures 2012

  • Sverre Bagge, “Changing the Rules of the Game: when did regicide go out of fashion and why?”
    As an early medievalist, I had not realised that no European king was killed by his successor or replacements between 1282 and 1792. That does seem to want some explanation, and Professor Bagge made dynastic legitimacy a part of it, a factor of stability, but other explanations were harder to come by, and there was some difficulty with the sovereign paradox, the problem that the king makes the law and is thereby able to choose if it applies to him.1 Certainly, there is something special about kingship, but why it should only have acquired full force then was not really resolved.
  • Nicole Bériou, “Just Follow Christ and the Gospels? Monastic Rules and Christian Rules in the 13th Century”
    This lecture opened up for us a twelfth-century debate about the worth of monastic rules; in an era when individual concern for one’s own salvation could be put before other’s views of what your soul required for its health, some put the view that the Gospels were the only ‘rule’ that counted. This was not how monastic life had traditionally been envisaged, of course, indeed it rather questioned the necessity or utility of that life for oneself, and such theorists thus started seeing other vocations as monk-like, and society itself as the monastery, which then meant that things like marriage could be seen as requiring Rules too! None of this was ever what you’d call widespread, as we were told it, but it’s interesting to see such thinking in the high era of papal monarchy, which could be imagined as more or less stamping down such autonomous theologising.

Then after that, and after coffee, it was charter time.

133. Nulli… si quis & Co.: sanctiones, corroborationes and penal forms in medieval charters

The number of people who can get excited about a whole session on what set of repeated words scribes used to threaten those who infringed on transactions is probably limited, but no-one would be fooled that I am not among them, and indeed I was not the only one here to hear these:

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “Rules in the document: Carolingian corroborations”
    Few people have seen as many early medieval charters as Professor Mersiowsky, in fact I might go so far as to guess that no-one has, and that means he’s seen a lot of charter issuers signing off by way of confirmation. He took us through the earliest Carolingian monarchs’ chosen ways of doing this, largely with crosses or monograms that he thought were in fact done in the monarchs’ own hands until the time of Charles the Bald (840-877) but whose accompanying phrases suggest older referents, perhaps Byzantine or late Roman. The transition from that is the great gap in the evidence that swallows all conjectures, of course, but it was interesting to see rules being set by these kings of correctio in still another way.
  • Sébastien Barret, “The sanctiones of the Cluniac charters of the 10th-11th centuries”
    Sébastien looked for rules slightly further up his documents, in the penalty clauses already mentioned of the charters of St-Pierre de Cluny in Burgundy, now of course searchable, and found that certain words almost only appear in those clauses, such as, “componat“, ‘let him compensate with’, and indeed more surprisingly “Si quis…”, ‘If anyone…’, though this was something I would also shortly find in my own work, I have to say.2 It was not uniform practice in these clauses: innovation and especially elaboration was possible, even if exact grammar and sense were not, always. Nonetheless, something had to do this job recognisably in these documents, and we may here be crossing the difference between what computers can recognise and what the people of the time could.
  • Arnold Otto, “Nulli… Si Quis and their Copycats: penal forms in later medieval charters”
    The trouble with later medieval charters is that the vernaculars get in and changes everything, so Dr Otto was sensible and went for numbers instead, looking the size of penalties in the penalty clauses of Emperor Charles IV. These, again, varied within fairly regular patterns; though their effect was more deterrent than real, even for a king like Charles, that deterrent was still worth ramping up on special occasions it seems!
  • In questions there was much asked about how many stages these documents were written in and whether penalties were ever carried out, but my notes don’t suggest any patterns emerged from that, not least because we probably only spoke up if we thought we had a difference to add. But then it was lunch and a canter across to Weetwood Hall for some archaeology.

204. Rules for Early Medieval Grave-Goods? Implications for the World of the Living from the World of the Dead

    Set phrases in documents, dead bodies, let no-one say I don’t know where the fun is in medieval studies… This session was introduced by Roland Steinacher, who wanted to remind us all that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I actually passed law allowing the recovery of treasure from graves for the benefit of the state, and then we moved on to the papers.

  • Marion Sorg, “Are Brooches Personal Possessions of the Deceased?: An Empiric Investigation Based on Analyzing Age-Relatedness of Brooches”
    This was a question about an assumption, one that could be more general than just with brooches, that the goods in a grave belonged to the deceased. With brooches in the early Middle Ages it’s even a specific assumption that a woman would own a set of brooches that were almost her identity kit, and keep them all her life, which if it were true would mean that they had an age similar to that of the skeletons with which they are found. Enter the evidence, gathered from 27 cemeteries in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where only about 11·5% of individuals had brooches anyway, but where all age groups could have new brooches but worn brooches were certainly most commonly found with older individuals. This provoked Dr Sorg to wonder whether there might be several stages of a woman’s life where she would acquire such brooches, but I have to say that to me the figures she was presenting seemed to show more or less the same levels of wear in all age groups, so that these intervals would be suspiciously evenly spaced at about 20 years. I asked if we might be looking at object lifespans rather than people’s, I must have been reading something… There’s more work needed to identify what’s active here, I think.
  • Mirjam Kars, “Invisible Rules: the study of grave goods in the context of privately organized intergenerational transmission in families”
    What would mess up such paradigms of course is heirlooms, goods being passed to new owners, and that was the subject of this paper. Women in early medieval cemeteries seem to be buried with fewer goods as they age, suggesting a dispersal of their early kit to younger relatives or friends, which Dr Kars linked with group identification signification. She found very little that wouldn’t be circulated, which itself was interesting given what such analyses show in other cultures; her theory was coming from gift exchange stuff but I wonder now what commodities theory would do for her view.3
  • Stephanie Zintl, “Things to be Taken from the Dead: a case study on reopened graves”
    This paper was about grave-robbing, except that as the speaker said, that’s how we might see it but it’s not clear that the early medieval populations of Francia or Kent did, because it was pretty widespread. She asserted that half of the 600 graves she’d checked had at some point before excavation been reopened, early on as she figured, although this turned out to be on the basis of the very few with several eras of goods in, what is not what you’d call a perfect measure. That half was, however, substantially the ones containing goods, not those without, suggesting firstly that robbery was not the motive and secondly that those opening them could tell which was which still, implying some kind of marker above the surface. The reburiers must have firstly wanted to change the graves somehow and secondly presumably have known that the same would likely happen to theirs. This provoked a lot of discussion and you can see why, a very interesting set of questions despite the methodological difficulties.

325. Post Mortem Problems: Saints, Sinners, and Popular Piety

    Having done murder, confinement, threats and burial what could be left but zombies? I have a space to fill, after all.4

  • Stephen Gordon, “Practical Innovation, Local Belief, and the Containment of the Troublesome Dead”
    This was a study of some of the many English stories about dead bodies found walking, which the speaker suggested might get more common once the idea of Purgatory lengthened the chronology of death rather. Maybe so, but it’s certainly a common thing before that too, even when we have so few sources!5
  • Brian Reynolds, “Dodging Damnation: The Virgin’s Advocacy in Medieval Theology and Popular Piety”
    This paper looked at the development of the idea that Mary will basically be calming Jesus down at the Last Judgement and urging forgiveness of those who appealed to her in life. This placed the real action 1200-1500, but did make the point, probably widely realised, that because Mary was supposedly assumed into Heaven, there are no relics of her body, meaning that her cult is easier to diffuse widely, which I suppose is true.
  • Isabel Moreira, “Hector of Marseilles is Purged: political rehabilitation and guilt by association in the 7th-century Passion of Leudegar of Autun
    If you were a churchman of seventh-century France, as we’ve observed here indeed, you were probably deeply involved in government; escape from worldly cares was basically impossible, and this means that those who would write lives of saints in that era had to be imaginative about their interactions with laymen of less exalted characters. The patrician Hector of Marseilles was such a layman, a rebel against the king with whom St Leudegar got mixed up, and this paper argued that Leudegar’s biographer tried to get round this by giving him a martyr’s death that should have purged any sin, with imagery of being tested in the fire like gold, and so on, an idea that might possibly have been applied to others of the Merovingian-era nobility who lived messy lives with horrible ends.

So that was the first day of Leeds 2012 for me, and that seems worth the writing, both for me and hopefully for you; I guess I’ll do the rest in their turn…

N. B.: alternative coverage of some of these sessions by Magistra et Mater also exists


1. Addressed repeatedly by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, inter alia, all more or less in the same words, but it’s worth reading one of the occurrences.

2. J. Jarrett, “Comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in J. Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Brepols forthcoming), pp. 000-00.

3. That largely because since then I finally read Arjan Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), which is really interesting and will generate a future blog post.

4. The most relevant reflection of that place’s nature being John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560. Why have I never thought before about the significance of putting a piece about the unquiet dead in a memorial volume? I’m pretty sure John didn’t mean any of the things that might be implied by that…

5. Much of the early material gathered either in Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, or Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.

Feudal Transformations XVI: two fields or three?

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system

Diagram of a three-field agriculture system


As with so many of the best bits of learning, a while ago I came up against something in a book that I was reading, for completely different reasons, that made me think anew about the fabled old feudal transformation (and you might think I’d thought enough about that, these days). This thing was a chapter by one Helmut Hildebrandt about the spread of the three-field system in Central Europe, by which he turned out to mean substantially Germany with a glance at the Paris basin.1 Over that area he argued that over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that. I wasn’t thinking much of this till the date 1000 crossed the text and I suddenly wondered about the effects of increased yield on the economy, since as you may recall as much of an answer as I have to the whole transformation question is that, “it’s the economy, stupid”. So, does all this add up to anything I should have thought about by now?

Well, the evidence Hildebrandt had for the phenomenon is kind of horrible: he’s very largely arguing from the ways that rents were collected by ecclesiastical landowners over the period, as revealed in sources like polyptychs and leases. That makes sense in so far as they’re kind of all we have (though in England I don’t think anyone would try and argue about this without using survey evidence too2) but it has all kinds of issues. Churches had long-term land strategies in ways that lay landowners didn’t necessarily: they could be supporting a lot more unproductive mouths than the average lay household, not just in the community but in terms of poor relief and hospitality, and of course their land was never divided by inheritance so they could plan in a longer term.3 Their rents might therefore be exactly the place we’d expect to see systematisation but we can’t really argue from that that it got any further into the community. Of course, the churches were a lot of landownership, so it’s still significant. But since Hildebrandt was very happy here to argue against deducing significant change from such evidence where it would take away from his overall picture, on the grounds that underneath a rent structure the land can be organised any way that pays it, there are still problems.4 In fairness, there he was mainly talking about common fields, and the more work I see about common fields in the earlier Middle Ages the more I think the debate is basically anachronistic in the hands of everyone but Gaspar Feliu.5 No, I am cautious about accepting this phenomenon as anything like universal, but then so was Hildebrandt, emphasising variation and alternatives and making a complex picture of a tendency towards a three-field system that in some areas with special conditions worked out differently.6 But even if we say that it’s only a trend and that the ecclesiastical landowners we see doing it may be leading that trend, it ought to make some kind of difference to how much wealth is in the system and that is kind of the motor of change either side of 1000 as far as I’m concerned. So is this where that change is coming from?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Well, as we’ve seen before and will doubtless see again, there’s a problem with most ’causes’ of broad social change in the Middle Ages, which is that they tend to happen together and so one can usually argue that any one is causing all the others. This is the point of my famous diagram, above, after all. The biggest problem I have with this change in agriculture being such a driver is that it was new to me, because in Catalonia the situation is a lot more varied, with three-field going back to an uncertain date but two-field arable and grassland rotation equally common and vines messing up the picture by being a cash crop. People here at the right time tended to have land in a variety of small plots good for only one thing and a system is hard to construct for it.7 Hildebrandt’s picture really only covers Germany, the Low Countries and North-Eastern France, and the problem is that only the last of these really undergoes something that is easily recognisable as part of the feudal transformation model, and even there there’s a degree of top-down collapse of authority for other reasons that might be enough all by itself.8 Meanwhile, where this change is most marked is where there’s least other change. So if it’s a motor it isn’t much of one.

The other problem is one of the chicken and the egg. Here this is especially important. Hildebrandt did consider why this change that he saw was happening, and his belief was that the change towards common fields, at least, which is later than the change of field rotation as he saw it, is down to the increase of population requiring a greater yield from existing land and so idle land in awkward locations being brought into cultivation where before individual ownership had not been able to work it usefully.9 I think that seigneurial renders should probably also be considered as a driver there but we can easily guess where I got that from.10 Either way, the shift of systems is a consequence here of other things that have their place in the debate as causes. Even though it’s earlier than most of the big social changes embroiled in the feudal transformation model, a partial change in crop rotation seems likely to be an effect, not a cause, part of the bigger take-off run of the European economy in this era.11

So at the end I don’t think this gets me any new answers. But I am suddenly very conscious that to the best of my knowledge this kind of work has not been done for my area, and I’m not sure that sources exist from which it could, as yet. And that bothers me, because if I’m going to discount this there I’d like to do so from more than silence.


1. Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290. You can see why it was an unexpected find given that it’s about neither Anglo-Saxons nor settlement.

2. I suppose I think of Christopher Taylor, Village and Farmstead: rural settlement in medieval England (London 1983) but his “The Anglo-Saxon Countryside” in Trevor Rowley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlement and Landscape. Papers Presented to a Symposium, Oxford 1973, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 6 (Oxford 1974), pp. 5-15, might be a better parallel.

3. Nowhere witnessed so thoroughly as in the regulations on bread in the Statutes of Adalhard Abbot of Corbie, translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32.

4. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 284-287.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “La pagesia i els béns comunals” in Els grans espais baronials a l’Edat Mitjana: desenvolupament socioeconòmic. Reunió científica. I Curs d’Estiu Comtat d’Urgell (Balaguer, 10, 11 i 12 de juliol de 1996) (Lleida 2002), pp. 23-40; cf. C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5, about which as you may remember I had views.

6. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 279-284 (esp. 282-283) and 287-290.

7. Working from Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507, and further work collected in Immaculada Ollich, Maria Ocañ & Montserrat Rocafiguera (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), online at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sK1ptZDwfV8C as of 28 July 2011, where they really don’t have an archaeological basis for separating the early and high medieval field systems; Reynolds’s initial paper describes them using both two-field and three-field in their tests precisely for this reason.

8. Classically described in Jean-François Lemarignier, “La dislocation du « pagus » et le problème des « consuetudines », Xe-XIe siècles” in Charles-Edmond Perrin (ed.), Mélanges d’histoire du moyen âge dédiés à la mémoire de Louis Halphen (Paris 1951), pp. 401-410, repr. in Lemarignier, Structures politiques et religieuses dans la France du haut Moyen Âge, ed. Dominique Barthélemy, Publications de l’Université de Rouen 206 (Rouen 1995), pp. 245-254.

9. Hildebrandt, “Systems”, pp. 286-287.

10. Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and his “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32, the last of which is where I read it.

11. On which see La croissance agricole du haut Moyen Âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

Conferring in Naples, II: papers in the p. m.

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

The reason I had all the time I had to go sight-seeing in Naples was that the conference I was at didn’t start till the somewhat advanced hour of three o’clock the same afternoon. It then ran on till after eight, mind, but if you’re used to Mediterranean time-keeping that’s actually perfectly sensible. Anyway, I arrived slightly early, things started slightly later so I had the chance to catch up on old acquaintance here and there before the papers commenced. The venue for the first two days was the newer, less splendid part of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in the Palazzo degli Uffici, but on the other hand it was one of the most technically well-equipped conference centres I’ve been lucky enough to present in, full PA and three projection screens, etc. One thing to its detriment was that the designers seemed to have expected people to be using all three screens at once; everyone who was on only one found, I think, that the detail of their slides was hard to see at the size it finished up at. This may be another way of saying that all digital diplomatists pack their slides too full.

Frontage of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

The old building's kind of nice too, mind, and much easier to find

Anyway, there was an opening address that I understood only a third of (the third that was in French) and then there were some sessions. I’m conscious that much of the below is a bit technical, combining as it does computers and diplomatic, neither of them fields averse to labelling things with their own new words, so feel free to tune in next post if you’d rather. I’m guessing, though, that there are some people who would like to hear about it so I’m not skimping what’s necessary to make it meaningful for them. (Abstracts of all the papers are online, too, from this page which also has links to all our slides, so I’ll link the abstracts from the titles. Almost like being there!)

Linguistical Statistics

  • Nicolas Perreaux, “From Accumulation to Exploitation? Experiments and Proposals for Indexing and for the Use of Diplomatics Databases“, opened up with a dilemma that we would keep coming back to again and again through the conference: there are now some really impressive digital corpora of charters online or otherwise available, about 150,000 documents at the time of presentation, with which some incredible work ought to be possible, and very few projects actually exploiting them.1 He suggested that it might be because it still all needs sorting out and indexing, but really wanted to tell us about the testing of traditional diplomatic categories of document that he’d done in trying to work out if this could be done automatically. Basically, by lexical analysis as he did it, looking for distinct groups of words, only notitiae and episcopal acta are typologically distinct.2 Even this, he thought, was a start in separating things out, but I thought that actually he’d shown that the categories themselves are pretty much bunk. This fits with a documented tendency of mine to ignore work coming from the German Rechtschule however, and it’s hard to say which of us is thinking more progressively here. The advantage of it as a technique is that it’s interested in what the sources themselves emphasise, rather than looking for what we think they meant, but in that case I think we should be ready to define new categories. But then would anyone outside the digital field ever use the stuff? He ended, however, with another big point, which I’ve noted as: “There is no perfect software: what questions do you have?” This, also, many people would pick up, and I thought this paper was a marvellous choice for an opener as it really turned out to encapsulate some of the conference’s agenda.
  • I’ve gone on in detail about this one, because I resonated with a lot of it as you can tell (both in and out of phase), but I must be briefer with the rest.

  • Olivier Canteaut & Frédéric Glorieux, “Essai de classificiation automatique des actes royaux français (XIVe-XVe siècles)“, was as you can see related, and trying to get at the chancery practice revealed by a 13,000 document sample without being swamped by it. Their first problem was how much Latin inflection messes up searches for word groupings; their results were much better with French-language documents. This is going to have to be dealt with: surely we can come up with a Latin parser that rolls words back to their stems for these purposes? But it’s a bit of an overhead. They were instead going to come back round by assessing institutional culture and then matching the phenomena there to linguistic data, but again this seems to me to be giving up and using external models rather than letting the data speak for itself. Some useful issues highlighted all the same, however!
  • Michael Gervers & Gelila Tilahun, “Statistical Methods for Dating Collections of Medieval Documents“, was talking about the DEEDS project at the University of Toronto. I’ve heard a lot of flak for this project from outside so it was interesting to get a view from inside on what it was actually doing, of which however this was only a tiny part. Basically, DEEDS have the problem that most of their documents aren’t dated, so they were using linguistic analysis to see if they could do a sort of linguistical palæography and date them by language use.3 Here again the key turned out to be very small word-groups, ‘shingles’ as they were calling them, and with an analysis based on two-word shingles deployed on a test set with known dates they were able to get a mean error in dating down as small as nine years, although in some periods when documents were fewer the results were a lot less certain. Still far better than `undated’ however! Professor Gervers was happy to admit that the method still needed work but that it works at all was fun to see.
  • The session was split over a coffee break, which was the first time I came across an important regional phenomenon. I am told that the further south you go in Italy, the smaller and stronger ‘a coffee’ gets. The next day on the way to the conference I was introduced to Neapolitan coffee as served in street kiosks and well, yes, it’s about four thimblefuls of espresso for which you pay a Euro twenty, but you don’t need more that soon. My then-companion described it as “punctuation for the day”, which I loved. However, a lot of people at this conference were from a lot further north and expected larger servings. It went quickly. I had two little plastic mugs and then found myself a bit shaky (and as I type this up I’m off caffeine briefly so now I shiver with envy of my autumn self). But I was in no danger of nodding off!

  • Els de Paermentier, “Diplomatica Belgica. Analysing medieval charter texts (dictamen) through a quantitative approach: the case of Flanders and Hainaut (1191-1244)“, was trying something more directed than simple significance-fishing, deliberately looking for ways to recognise documents that were made by the comital chanceries of her two target counties from those that the recipients drafted and just got signed off. She was more or less able to do this, and thus establish that the chancery sometimes issues documents on behalf of relatives of the counts and lesser comital officials as well as just the counts. She also noticed that between 1200 and 1225 the chanceries also stood out for their modifications of phrases that everyone used into their own special versions, which I thought was quite interesting as the assumption is usually that documentary forms are set top-down, but of course over as short a period as that certain individuals could be entirely to blame. I actually don’t think that upsets the point…
  • Robin Sutherland-Harris, “Applications of the DEEDS database to Somerset Charters: dating, diplomatics, and historical context“, was a paper by another member of the DEEDS team but showing the way forward by effectively having used DEEDS as a test set for undigitised records she was using for her own project, which were likewise broadly undated (“thirteenth-century”, sort of level). The things that Robin said that most caught my ear was a mention of a word only two of her charters use for the action of enclosing land, ‘perprisere‘; that is a word I know and was surprised to see here.4 Since her sample was 45 documents, however, it also seemed to me that any changes she is picking up must be personal choices, and she was kind enough to agree that that would be a next step.
  • Timo Korkiakangas, “Challenges for the Linguistic Annotation of an Early Medieval Charter Corpus“, was an analysis of the charters from eighth- and ninth-century Tuscany, and was looking for software that would automate an analysis he was doing of variation from formulae, trying to sort willing alteration from mistakes. So far he had not found such software though he had tested a few! This was I think a good thing for the conference, because it caught again this mismatch between tools and historical enquiry that we had already come up against in the first paper.

Key Note

    The closing presentation of the evening was given by Benoît-Michel Tock, under the title, “Digital Diplomatics, Magic Diplomatics”. This was essentially a retrospective from a man who has seen almost all of this stuff happen, having been involved for a long time with the ARTEM project that eventually went online via TELMA, putting all French original charters from before 1121 on the web. So he knows, and could also tell us that the copies are about to follow the originals up. The problem, of course, is in using these resources together: not all are full-text, different standards of mark-up have been used,5 and of course not everything is very relevant to everything else anyway. Little problems like the fact that many projects only digitise the faces of their charters make certain projects no more possible.6 Even something as basic as lists of what material there is and ideally, where it’s been written about) is often lacking, although weirdly (my point not his) this is where Anglo-Saxon diplomatic began the process, even though its sample is so much smaller. (Perhaps because of that!) There was, too, the very salient and often bitter point that it is both more interesting to do and easier to fund new projects than the maintenance of old ones, something anyone who has worked on an old database which people actually use knows all too well. Also, and this I thought was notable in a very digital conference, he pled for the continuation of publication of printed editions of charter material, arguing that anyone who has worked with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century editions knows that they are far from useless and that they will outlast many a format change and institutional bankruptcy. As long, of course, as we don’t ‘kill all the libraries‘… I think, quite frankly, we should be seeing print now primarily as a stable archive format, which is something we really do not have in the digital world, and so entirely agreed with this point, hence my emphasis here.

And then there was a very excellent dinner, in which I met some very cool people (despite the geekiness of the subject, there were a lot of cool people here), got to tell my father’s story about a friend of his who turned off a god’s electricity and so on, and it was all very good. Nonetheless, when I get to the second day’s report, it’s going to have to be briefer isn’t it? Sorry about that…


1. To name only some of the resources that he did (i. e. those I knew well enough to note): the numerous databases hanging off TELMA : traitement électronique des manuscrits et des archives, MŌM: Europe’s virtual documents online (a. k. a. Monasterium.net), the various online publications of the Fundació Noguera (on which more here), DEEDS as above and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi (already lauded here).

2. If by some chance you don’t understand these terms but would like to, I’m afraid there is little of use online or (non-exclusive) in English (though it’s possible that there is stuff of use online not in English: anybody know some?) and you should probably start with either Olivier Guyotjeannin, Benoît-Michel Tock and Michel Pycke, Diplomatique Médiévale, L’Atelier du Médiéviste 2 (Turnhout 1993) or now Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter, Historische Hilfswissenschaften (Wien 2011), whichever you’re more linguistically comfortable with, though note that Härtel does not cover royal documents; he gives plentiful reference to those who do. If you are stuck with only English there’s a short piece that by now really needs replacing in the form of Leonard E. Boyle, “Diplomatics” in James M. Powell (ed.), Medieval Studies (Syracuse 1976), pp. 82-113, and that at least is online (as far as I can see completely and free of thumbs) via Google Books.

3. And having heard this paper I must really now get round to reading my copy of the presumably related Michael Gervers (ed.), Dating Undated Medieval Charters (Woodbridge 2000), which was something of an aspirational purchase I-won’t-say-how-long ago.

4. See J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 335-336.

5. There were some jokes made in the papers the next day about the number of different Encoding Initiatives there seem to be in our worlds, all spinning off the Text Encoding Initiative, a project that was begun to develop an International Standard for the digital encoding of texts, but it was an odd truth that the Charters Encoding Initiative, started because TEI didn’t then quite supply the mark-up it was felt charters needed, was not in use by any of the people presenting at this conference, almost all of whom had opted to use TEI instead so as to increase interoperability with other projects.

6. I think that the first team to break the mould here were probably the guys publishing the facsimile editions of the St Gallen material, which very often has preliminary versions drafted on the dorse of its charters, but they may have just been the first ones I noticed: Peter Erhart (ed.), Chartae Latinae Antiquiores (2) 100: Switzerland 3 (Zürich 2006), Erhart & Bernhard Zeller with Karl Heidecker (edd.), … 101: Switzerland 4 (2008), Erhart, Zeller & Heidecker, … 102: Switzerland 5 (2009), eidem (edd.), … 103: Switzerland 6 (2010) and eidem (edd.), … 104: Switzerland 7 (2011), with vol 105, Switzerland 8, to follow. But of course this is neither online nor open-access.