Category Archives: Picts

Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church

Maintaining this hectic momentum is obviously difficult but I thought it might be time to try and eat in a tiny bit more to my backlog of seminar reports. This one is slightly unusual, as it involved going back to Cambridge and returning to Oxford in the course of a day, something I’d usually try and avoid, but the cause was Alex Woolf of St Andrews giving the Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture on 30th April 2012 in Hughes Hall (no relation), and as an often-acclaimed Alex Woolf fan I might have tried to make that even if he hadn’t been speaking to the title, “The Churches of Pictavia”. Since he was, I was there, and therefore, despite a recent run of hostile comments about my daring to study Scotland with my mere one-eighth Scots blood, I’m going to write about it.

Slide from lecture by J. Jarrett, "The Kingdoms of the North", British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Slide from my lecture, “The Kingdoms of the North”, British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Now, I have views on the Pictish Church, as you might expect, I’ve even explained them in lecture theatres myself albeit to a rather less exalted audience as you can see above, but my views are not very deep-seated. On the other hand they are not traditional, either. The traditional view of the Pictish Church would be that Bede knew what he was talking about and that half of Pictland was converted by missions from St Columba’s Iona and the other half by missions from St Nynia’s Whithorn, but that the southern half was more or less grabbed by Anglian Northumbria, to whom the Pictish king Nechtan map Der-Ilei entrusted the task of resourcing his new royal Church after he expelled the Columban monks around 717, whereafter the Church in Pictland seems to have remained roughly under royal control, with perhaps a centre at St Andrews (then Kilrymont), maybe later moved to Dunkeld, where its maybe-single bishop was based when not visiting the various monasteries that actually handled what passed for a ministry here.1 You can doubtless see a rather colonial narrative developed there in which the inhabitants of Scotland would be godless heathens but for foreign intervention, and predictably things seem to have been a bit more complex than that. Thanks to James Fraser we now have some doubts about where the Columban missions actually went, thanks to Thomas Owen Clancy we have doubts that St Nynia existed at all, and there’s a whole variety of older work pointing out other churches and founders around the edges of early Christian Pictland: Maelrubi at Applecross, Ethernan on the Black Isle (edit: of May), a Brigidine cult later claimed for Abernethy that might, if its association with the Pictish king-list has anything behind it, be the first `royal’ church centre….2 One could add more. Also, thanks to Thomas, it’s not clear that King Nechtan was actually in control of all of Pictland when he made his suit to Wearmouth-Jarrow, or that the expulsion of the Ionan monks was fully effective or durable, so I think that we have to think of several churches in Pictland: an Ionan one perhaps with a brief pause when they were subsumed into royal charge, an Anglian one that may likewise have later been combined with a royal one maybe based on Abernethy or St Andrews or both, whatever the grouping was that Whithorn apparently claimed in the south and a bunch of other smaller ones, single cells or clumps with their own founder legends.3 Mappings like that of James Fraser below thus seem to me a bit hopeful in their coherence, even when so unambitious.4 All of these groups were probably getting their episcopal ministry from outside quite often, I suspect, from Whithorn, from Anglian Abercorn while that lasted, from Gaelic Lismore, maybe even from Iona, though St Andrews and Dunkeld both have intermittent records of bishops in the Irish Annals in the tenth century so by then the united kingship may have been keener on centralising the Pictish or Alban epispocate near their new centres at St Andrews and Forteviot.5 It’s all so hypothetical, though, and I learnt much of this so long ago and may remember it so badly that I’d happily change any of this for a better-argued point of view; after all, it’s not so long ago that I saw Thomas Owen Clancy confront the questions, “when, where and what for were the churches of the Picts?” and conclude that the only safe answers were “during the Pictish period”, “in Pictland”, and “for the Picts to worship in”, and if anyone knows it’s him.

Map of Columban influences in seventh-century Pictland, from James Fraser's Caledonia to Pictland

Hardly an ambitious set of claims and yet still I quarrel…

That said, Alex has this habit of making long-vexed questions look unexpectedly simple, so you might wonder whether this was one of those occasions. And I will rediscover this with you, my readers, because though I remember being gobsmacked by this lecture, I was also somewhat blind-sided by a professional faux pas I later realised I’d made and besides it was ten months ago now, I just don’t remember what was said. BUT I HAVE NOTES. So, if they can be trusted, it went something like this. Alex spent some time setting up Pictland for us as a basically-British polity, using the analogy of the carrion and hooded crow which are actually the same species but differently identified in highland and lowland Britain because of a varied colouring more common in the north. This works on many levels, I love it. Pictland’s not some weird alien space, in other words, but a joined-up part of northern Britain. Alex suggested that parallels might be found between the stone sculpture of Iona and that of Dunkeld, fitting nicely with the putative royal take-over of a Columban start but suggesting much more of a Columban reach than I’d have allowed for; he added another founder saint (I told you one could) at St Vigeans, where there is of course yet more sculpture; and he stressed that despite its various possible divisions this Church shared the same literate and artistic culture as its Irish and Saxon brethren, something that Martin Carver’s excavations at Portmahomack also pointed towards by turning up a Pictish symbol stone and styli and possible evidence for parchment-making on the same site.6 These guys may not all have been singing off the same hymn-sheet or singing the same hymns at the same time (Alex elected not to talk about the reckoning of Easter…) but the books out of which they read their hymns would have been decorated much like those anywhere else in Northern Britain. It’s a while ago that the late Julian Brown observed that we may only think we have no Pictish manuscripts because we don’t think there are any but it remains true; there are a good few possible contendors.7

Book of Kells, fo. 27v, showing the four evangelists in their animal significations

Pictish beasts? Brown’s controversial contendor was none other than the Book of Kells, of which this is fol. 27v, from Wikimedia Commons

So far so much nuance; more characteristically iconoclastic in their problem-solving ability were a number of references to later Scottish churches associated with mounds, prompting the suggestion that we have few churches evidenced because worship was done outdoors at old meeting sites, though it is also true that the archæology of early possible church sites in Scotland is basically unknown bar Forteviot and that the one guaranteedly Pictish church site we have, Portmahomack, has no such forebear, at least not very nearby though it’s an area busy with Pictish stones. (I note, though, that the recently-discovered probable monastic site at Fortingall shares its location with a very very old yew tree…) In other respects, however, the Pictish Church probably shouldn’t have been very different from those northern formations with whom it shared artistic tendencies and likely therefore liturgy (since they would be in the same books). The resource concentrations that implies, however, must have taken time to amass, and so the whole realisation of this may have been late, later than Columba, later than Nynia, still in formation perhaps under Adomnán, Columba’s biographer who signally did not claim Columba as apostle of the Pictish kingdom.8 The Church’s ability to do intensive lordship probably attracted the attention of the kings (and here one can find a very similar argument in John Blair’s theory about the decline of minster churches in Anglo-Saxon England) and thus after the take-over we might think of German-style Klosterpfälze, albeit on a lesser scale.9 The chronology of this seems a little uncertain to me in retrospect: I’m sure I’ve heard Alex argue that the Pictish symbol stones are post-conversion so if it signifies that Portmahomack is in an area rich with them must there not be some kind of church structure before it? Isn’t that already really very close to the supposed take-over period? It is likely that I have failed to record the full subtlety of what was being suggested here. In any case, there was evidently so much variety in this ecclesiastical set-up that it is, alas, quite possible that our nice, new and all-but-unique type-site may actually have been unusual.

Three-quarter view of the St Andrews sarcophagus as diplayed in 2006

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives, as displayed in 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

You may be forgiven for thinking that it would take a somewhat impressionable cast of mind to depart from this basically-reasonable and plausible-sounding lecture `gobsmacked’, and OK, that is perhaps true. This is because what I haven’t told you is that in the final minutes Alex brought in the St Andrews Sarcophagus.10 One of the enigmas about this fine article of Pictish sculpture is that its iconography appears to be partly Persian, which takes some explaining. There have been explanations, largely involving motives transmitted in textile, which is sort of fair enough but what’s it doing here? Alex has what must be the answer. But because the Hughes lectures are published, and I’ve already here anticipated half a dozen of the things you might want your copy for, though hopefully only so much as to sharpen your Pictophile appetites, I will leave this one secret so that you have to get hold of it. It’ll be worth it….

1. One might seek such a view in works such as Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A. D. 80-1000 (London 1984), J. MacQueen, St. Nynia (Edinburgh 1961, rev. edn. 1991), or Alan MacQuarrie, The Saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish Church history A. D. 450-1093 (Edinburgh 1997). Perhaps the key introduction would be Kathleen Hughes, Early Christianity in Pictland, Jarrow Lecture 1970 (Jarrow 1970), repr. in eadem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 38-52, which was of course the prompt for Alex’s lecture subject.

2. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-115; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The real Saint Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; P. A. Yeoman, “Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 75-91; Sally Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display” in eadem (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 36-62 at pp. 42-50; and Abernethy and Dunkeld I have from Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967), pp. 84-90; there must be better references but I found it there in my notes and don’t fancy hunting for more.

3. Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (2004), pp. 125-149.

4. Fraser, Caledonia to Pictland, p. 110, though to be fair he does also observe, pp. 108 & 109: “It is a leap of faith to conclude from such scattered notices [as those he has just gathered] that Nér and Banchory were Columban monasteries in seventh-century Pictland….”

5. Henderson as in n. 2 above; for Forteviot, see Leslie Alcock, “Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal church and palace” in Susan Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 211-239, though there must by now be something more given recent digs. Ah yes: websearching reveals Nicholas Aitchison, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal centre (Stroud 2006), though I’ve not seen this myself.

6. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Jarrow 2008); for wider context see Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 297-398.

7. Julian Brown, Northumbria and the Book of Kells, Jarrow Lecture 1971 (Jarrow 1972), rev. as “Northumbria and the Book of Kells” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 1 (Cambridge 1972), pp. 219-246; repr. in Brown, A Palaeographer’s View: the selected writings of Julian Brown, edd. Janet Bately, Michelle Brown and J. Roberts (London 1993), pp. 141-178.

8. Adomnán, Vita Columbae, edd. & transl. Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Anderson as Adomnán’s Life of Columba (London 1961), rev. M. Anderson as Adomnán: Life of Columba (Oxford 1991), II.32-35.

9. John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 323-341; for Klosterpfälze see John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in early medieval Germany, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series, 21 (Cambridge 1993).

10. Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus.

Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Largely drafted offline, 28/10/11]

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland

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

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

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

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south

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

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

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

Edinburgh city lights

Edinburgh city lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeds 2011 report two at last

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

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

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

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

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

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dangerously empty bloviation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:

1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005),, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period

2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.

3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.


Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and anyone who prefers not to align themselves with such categories, welcome! Welcome one and all to the August 2010 edition of Carnivalesque, every thinkin’ antiquarian’s choice of historical blog carnival, today with its ancient and medieval showin’. Yer host finds hisself somewhat in the Victorian mode as he sets about the confection of this display of learnin’, so fetch yerself some seats and prepare for stories of Discovery! strange Curiosities! lively Controversies! and Instances of Scholarly Resource and Sagacity! the like of which ye’ve never seen before, or at least, so I shall claim. And pride of place—wait a minute there, madam, please—pride of place goes to the two of you who submitted posts for the carnival, you can sit at the front in this pair of carven thrones I brought back from Niger on me grand tour, dontcherknow. And indeed, before I start, let me congratulate one of ‘em doubly by sayin’, I’m never sure whether or not to include prehistoric matter in Carnivalesque, but on this occasion Judith Weingarten has saved me the bother by hostin’ the renowned Anthropology Carnival, Four Stone Hearth, over at Zenobia: Empress of the East, and by Jove, there’s a fair deal of medieval and ancient stuff there too, I declare, so if after the extravaganza below you find yerself unsated, get thee thither I tell you! So then!


George Scott in Burma

George Scott, explorer, administrator, photographer and introducer of football to Burma, who is completely unrelated to this blog but who will be the unofficial voice of this post all the same

Startin’, as a proper Victorian explorer should, in the bowels of a pyramid in the Nile Delta, what are these strange words inscribed at the end of an apparently dead-ended tunnel? Heather Pringle at the Last Word on Nothing quite literally has the inside information.

Back in old Albion, however, everything has been comin’ up Roman, be it literally thousands of silver coins in Frome as described here at Antiquarian’s Attic, or what may be the old home of the unfortunate fella who is best known to history as Emperor Pertinax (reigned 193 to, er, 193), described via Archaeology in Europe.1

Oddly, however, the medieval discovery of the month, in yer humble host’s still more humble imagination, comes not from Europe at all but from that lot over the water who gave us Benjamin Franklin and the Dukes of Hazzard, and who also, it would seem, preserve microfilms of otherwise-lost medieval Bibles, almost unbeknownst even to themselves. Whoever tells you there are no more medieval sources to be discovered, I tell you sir, that cad is a charlatan and a bounder, and furthermore wrong to boot. That somewhat controversial couple at are still the only ones with the story, here.


International exhibition watercolour by Joseph Nash

Watercolour of the International Exhibition, London 1862, by Joseph Nash

Now, let’s turn our minds to the divertin’ and unusual. Back to the Romans again. You may never have wondered how on earth those cunning fellows went about keeping the legions on the Rhine fed, but Gabriele Campbell has, and characteristically has pictures of the boats used to do it, over at the Lost Fort. Then, if you prefer your history to be about the ladies as much or more than the gentlemen, you may wish to give an eye to to a rather surprisin’ instance of a Sassanian royal lady trying to be both: Queen Bōrān, King of Kings, whose story is told by Judith Weingarten once again at Zenobia: Empress of the East! Next, no medieval carnival is complete without those dastardly yet colourful Vikings. After all, they were responsible for the end of Pictland dontcherknow, or at least so Tim Clarkson argues at Senchus. But what on earth were they up to with these strange stones in their graves? Melissa Snell, Guide to Medieval History, has some answers.

Now, it is said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but sometimes it’s dangerous even to leave the bed: the lately-rebloggified Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard has some surprises from the great unwritten book of Muslim political strategies that may make us all look askance at our family members, as long as our family happens to be a powerful one in twelfth-century Syria anyway. Which is, of course, not to say that politics was exactly safe at the same sort of time in the West, as the Headsman at Executed Today illustrates with a post on the dangers of speaking your mind during the Hundred Years War. Then, more peaceful but far less effective, a poignant tale of failed diplomacy when the nearly-last Byzantine Emperor visited the England of Henry IV is told by Tom Sawford at Byzantine Blog. Finally in this section, possibly early modern really but far too curious for a Victorian explorer not to pick up and take home on dubious terms, had you ever wondered what Henry VIII’s religion was like before England went Protestant? A recent acquisition by the British Library makes his younger piety look look positively medieval, and is described by that controversial couple again, this time at Early Modern England.


Uncle Wattleberry bounding and plunging, from the Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Antipodean scholarly disagreement circa 1918

Now, it is the nature of scholarship for men and women of strong opinions to demur from one another. Sometimes this is the product of earnest and well-founded differences of view, and sometimes, we fear, it is a battle of those who know somethin’ about a subject versus those who care to know nothin’ about it but wish to speak out anyway. Without specifyin’ which is which, may I humbly draw your attention to the worthy writings of the followin’:

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

On some matters of controversy, however, it doesn’t behove an Englishman to comment, still less one posing temporarily as a Victorian imperialist: we refer of course to the decision, bitterly protested in certain quarters, by the Medieval Academy of America not to move their annual meeting from Arizona despite its recent anti-immigration bills. On this a great deal has been written and I would refer you especially to posts in the following places:

Enough to make a chap glad to be living in the past, were the past only any less troubled of course, which I think we can safely say, given much of the above, it wasn’t. However, the task of discerning its nature becomes ever easier, or do I mean more complex, thanks to endeavours like those we shall now unfold!

Instances of Resource and Sagacity!

The Mariner in How the Whale Got His Throat, by Rudyard Kipling, as the protagonists meet

A fellow of famously-infinite resource and sagacity, about to meet a spot of bother

We note, for example, the availability of a new database of Ancient Greek epigraphic epigrams, greeted sardonically by Roger Pearse at his eponymous weblog (with a tip of the solar topee to Muhlberger’s World History).

Likewise sardonic is the take of relative newcomer but prolific bloggist Dr Beachcombing on recent research into the causes of death at Pompeii. Obvious, a chap might think, what with that volcano next door, but it is surprising how few medicos have stood around volcanic eruptions checking on how people die and so the Pompeii finds are actually advancing pathology. Is this mere quackery? Read Dr B and discern!

Similarly ingenious efforts with the dead have allowed some scientist wallahs in Bristol to determine the identity of a body in a royal Englishwoman’s grave in Magdeburg Cathedral, and Michelle of Heavenfield reckons up the score.

All this scholarship does us little good if no-one is readin’, of course, and so we can all be grateful for the blog of the so-called Medieval History Geek, who often seems to do nothin’ but! Here he begins to digest the most recent issue of Early Medieval Europe and ponders the question of how many great ladies of Carolingian Europe might have been able to read and write.

Almost lastly, it always does us good to reflect on how we go about our scholarship, and I might therefore point the finger of note at m’colleague Magistra et Mater, who has been wondering whether the current vogue for crowd-sourcing is ever likely to help the strugglin’ medievalist, and at Bavardess, who has been thrown bodily into a field of which she knew little, the oral history of her countrymen, and found some peculiar parallels of methodology; both of these are reflective but worthwhile readin’.

And finally, though our work is largely private, the real success is to get the government behind your work of course. The question is, who puts the government behind you? One answer is the United Nations, and very recently they have announced this year’s additions to the list of World Heritage sites, as well as some deletions, sad to tell; Dis Manibus has the full run-down at Votum Solvit, including not a little ancient and medieval both, and a whole range of places to consider for the next grand tour, though this time I must take those dem’ marbles out of my baggage before I pass through Customs, what?3 So, I hope you’ve had a diverting read, and you can find out where the next edition, modern style, will be at the usual address. And with that it only remains to say, pip pip!

1. I realise that though Archaeology in Europe is immensely useful, it is only repeating others’ content, but this blog has an old affection for Emperor Pertinax and I couldn’t let it go unsatisfied.

2. And, as you may have seen, the proposed mosque is not the silliest or most redundant thing anyone’s been proposing to build in the area… (h/t to Edge of the American West).

3. Didn’t bring any chalk, either, so I couldn’t get a game in any case.

Leeds 2010 Report III

The amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that last time. So, Wednesday. I woke up extremely confused for non-academic reasons and eventually got myself together to head over to Weetwood for some really small-scale stuff.

1003. Landscape and Settlement in Early Medieval England: using the evidence of minor names

This session was mainly about getting down into not just place-names but field names to try and dig down into really old toponymy in various areas of England.

Map of field names circa 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire

None of these field names, recorded c. 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire, were harmed in the course of this session

  • Simon Draper, “Minor Names as Evidence for the Roman to Medieval Transition”, focussing on Wiltshire about which he has a book out, argued that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate Roman site survival into the Romano-British and Saxon periods, and among sites where this has been demonstrated those with names containing the elements ‘wic’ and ‘chester’ feature strongly, as we might expect, and thus encouraged us to look at them suspiciously. I raised awkward points about whether it would not in fact be unusual for an Anglo-Saxon site to be on virgin ground, given how densely the land was settled under the Romans, and Dr Draper conceded there was a point there, but his technique was still fairly demonstrably valid, as far as it went.
  • Susan Oosthuizen, “Early Medieval Land Use and its Wider Context”, was working on areas local to my current home, which made it especially interesting to me; she thought that areas of pastoral agriculture could be differentiated from those where arable farming had been carried out from the names for the fields that survived, and these names matched the geology and flood area of those lands quite well. So another proof of concept, but perhaps questionable how much it told us that wasn’t obvious; I suppose the point is that we can check things haven’t changed and that the landscape isn’t misleading like this.
  • Chris Lewis, “Field Names as Evidence for Dispersed Settlement: an example from East Sussex”, was why I was really there, because Chris is always interesting whether he’s working at tiny scale or national, largely because he is capable of both. Here he was also trying to prove a concept, which was what can we do with this sort of evidence in areas where there is almost no other, and picked an area of the South Downs about which this is the case to try it with, the villages of Medehurst and Heberden, the latter of which is the older name, meaning ‘Hygeburgh’s swine pasture’, but which appears to have been a dependent of the older which looks like a hundred meeting site even though it’s not attested till 1120. From this he teased out strings of history of dispersal and agglomeration of bits of settlements like a slightly tentative conjurer, all very hypothetical but certainly a valid demonstration of his exercise.

I quite like this stuff but it’s arguable that I don’t learn very much from it, I just like seeing the little picture drawn out by people who care. The big picture remains the one that offers the chance of making big connections, though, so after much-needed coffee I admitted necessity and went and rejoined the Texts and Identities sessions, which had now stopped talking about Modes of Identity and started talking about Louis the Pious, a subject on which they have been fruitful for many years now. Additionally, now the Hludowicus project have all got themselves t-shirts, identifying them with notable figures of the era in football-player style. I approve of this, mainly. I see that no-one has got Bernard of Septimania, which is tempting, but Mayke de Jong has the Judith shirt (of course) and that makes the ultimate Barcelona-based Carolingian bad boy an awkward choice. Anyway, I’m not part of the group, so let me talk about people who are.

1105. Texts and Identities, VIII: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), I

  • Stefan Esders, “Missi and Inquisition Procedure under Louis the Pious: a new style of government”. I should make clear here for web-searchers that this is not inquisition like Monty Python and Torquemada, this is inquisition in the sense of inquest: Stefan was talking about the representatives of the court, missi, who were sent out to settle cases by holding inquiries. Stefan saw these as the hands and ears of the general initiative of correctio that formed so much of Louis’s royal policy, although he stressed that they only dealt with cases where ‘public’, that is royal, property or persons were involved, not often enough realised I think; monasteries and churches were allowed to conduct their own such proceedings. There is a particular flurry of these enquiries in 829, though they had been running since the beginning of the reign and never clearing their own backlog of cases. His main point was the sheer disruption that all these suits, enquiries and threats to office-holders would have caused; it could not have aided the smooth running of the empire to question all its operators like this, and so Stefan asked what kind of crisis Louis and court thought they were in that it might actually be better to do this. Not for the first time, parallels between the way people are thinking about Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready were unavoidable for anyone who’d been at both this and my session, I think.
  • Martin Gravel, “From Theory to Practice: top-down governnance and long-distance communications in Louis the Pious’s ordinatio of 825″ added to this by tracing the manuscript context of the so-called Programmatic Capitulary and including the second half of it that isn’t very programmatic, usually separated, what are cc. 25-28 if you care about such things, seeing the whole thing as a set of instructions for the operation of the Empire’s system of long-distance reporting, pragmatic as well as programmatic. I thought this was perfectly convincing, though I don’t know the text half as well as some so other views would be interesting.
  • Philippe Depreux, “Videte ut nullam negligentiam habeatis: reception of the King’s missi, tractoria and the Carolingian sense of proportion for hospitality of travelling agents”, took this a stage closer to the ground by looking at how much the royal agents of this sort were allowed to demand by way of hospitality from the king’s subjects when about their business. He stressed that while such provisions go back to Marculf’s Formulary, and therefore this was a seventh-century mechanism, it was being used much more heavily by the Carolingians, and so Louis the Pious was engaged in an ongoing effort to restrict the opportunities within the rules for venality and thus for corruption.
  • Whether this all actually worked would be a project for another time of course: it was stressed in question that though we have a lot of orders for how this was supposed to be done we have very few documents showing it being carried out, though Mark Mersiowsky predictably knew of a few. I offered to explore the early Girona documents for this question for them next year but was rebuffed with polite confusion; I might still do it for Kalamazoo. Rosamond McKitterick made the last, excellent but somewhat acerbic point, that Charlemagne and Louis both wanted people to be able to reach them to complain of malpractice,1 but that the officials those people had to go through were not necessarily so keen, especially the ones in the local positions who were likely to wind up ‘corrected’.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

This then continued after lunch, with a slightly less administrative and more ideological bent.

1205. Texts and Identities, IX: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), II

    Here we had hoped to see Steffen Patzold, who had been so thoroughly invoked two days previously, but though we must have said his name five times, he was still unable to attend so instead things went like this…

  • Jens Schneider, “Louis the Pious on the Road”, which was an old-fashioned attempt to map Louis’s itinerary. This has of course been done, and big problems since found with the technique because we are no longer half so sure that the charters that are issued in king’s names with places of issue on them necessarily indicate any presence of the king, even if the dates are to do with the grant rather than whatever occasion, maybe weeks later, that the document was actually drawn up. Jens elected at the outset to ignore these problems, and so I thought it wasn’t surprising that he found that charter issue locations didn’t look the same as the spread of recorded assembly locations. He wound up with a further methodological problem, in as much as we don’t know how far the king was able to set these locations or how far they were guided by events: I was minded of Jennifer Davis’s argument at Kalamazoo that most of Charlemagne’s so-called policy was a reaction to immediate and present crisis. So as you can probably tell I thought that any charter historian would find big problems with this and so it may not surprise the attentive reader that Mark Mersiowsky stood up in questions and basically tore the method to pieces, allowing as a saving throw the fact that the documents still allowed us to show a connection between king and subject. Stuart Airlie, who was moderating, said he was cancelling his subscription to Archiv für Diplomatik forthwith, which would be a pity if he meant it as I’m in the next one. Anyway…
  • Between these questions and that paper was a rather calmer one, Eric Goldberg, “Hludowicus venator“, which asked what we should take from the unusual attention that is paid to Louis the Pious’s hunting in the sources. It’s not that Charlemagne, who built a huge deer park around his palace and so on, was immune to the thrill of the case, but the chronicles and biographies that cover Louis’s reign do largely pay a lot of attention to his hunts. It has been suggested that this was a way to engage a military élite who were having to come to terms with the fact that there would be no more big conquests, a means of continuing to supply victory, albeit on a smaller scale. Eric balanced the sources that make so much of this with others that don’t (Nithard and Thegan for example) and suggested that though it was plainly only one strategy out of many for leading an imperial-style court lifestyle, it might well be one in which Louis was a greater success than his father.
  • Because we’d only had two papers, Dr Airlie as moderator gave us an improvised “Response” to fill some of the time, reminding us that the court authors and even the legislators of the Carolingian era were often aware of each other’s work, and that while Aachen might well not be the be-all and end-all of Carolingian power, as it sometimes seems, it is still a pretty big deal, a centre of tension and above all suspicion. (Dr Airlie’s vision of ninth-century politics is often darker than many others’.) However, he also said, people were not just passive consumers of Aachen: the audience who beheld it also thought about it and interpreted it to their needs, and they evidently did interpret it as the key centre even though perhaps, in realpolitikal terms, it wasn’t. This seems like a good point, though somehow cheating in a way I can’t pin down.

By the later afternoon, I was flagging. I’d been up too late the night before, it had been three fairly intense days, and caffeine was becoming vital. Also, the rain impeded use of the silver machine, which is the only way I can explain why I was late to the next session, which was a pity. It was this one.

1302. Medieval Monuments as Technologies of Remembrance, II

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

  • So I came in in the opening minutes of Niall Finneran, “Subterranean Memories: rock-cutting Ethiopian churches as commemorative practice”, which meant that although I got to enjoy the pictures, which were fabulous, I didn’t get the paradigm he was setting up that he then spent the part of the paper which I saw contesting. We were talking about churches actually carved from the living rock, hollowed out chunks of cliff or cave, so it was easy to have fabulous pictures. I got to hear about the Axumite culture, which carved its churches so carefully that they look like wood, and had subterranean tombs in their centres just like the pagan shrines they replaced, and the slower process in which the same change-over happened in rural areas, so that Axumite features were still being replicated a millennium later 400-500 miles way. This sounded pretty amazing and then I thought, wait, what about a religion that likes its places of worship with a long hall, let’s call it a nave, crossed by another one with a place for a choir beyond the cross… how far could that spread? But the proof of the continuity of ideas is still worth something, especially when some of these buildings are in such inaccessible places. Who’s the audience? Someone who can replicate it, apparently…
  • Second paper was Meggen Gondek, “Revealing the Pictish Stones: carving ritual, memories, actions and materials”, which was why I’d chosen this one: Dr Gondek’s stuff is always very engaging and deeply thought-out. I was very glad to hear her say that the Picts weren’t one group, as you might expect, and tried to encourage her towards saying that the stones were an élite means of self-identification in questions; she wouldn’t, but did admit that the stones define the region, at the same time saying wisely that their use might not be uniform. The most interesting part of the paper was where she outlined a small group of supposedly Pictish stones which are in fact reused prehistoric standing stones, Pictishly carved, spread over the whole Pictish symbol zone. Whether this was an adoption or an erasure of the previous heritage, given that these things are displaced and arguably disfigured, however, is a lot more tricky to say. If you thought you might say, pairs of these stones in which only one is recarved, like Nether Corskie below, might then still mess up your theory. She instead chose to argue that the process of carving may be the important thing, which we are left trying to read from its results as if they were the thing the act had been focussed on, when in fact it may not have been. You see what I mean when I say her work thinks deeply…
  • The two standing stones at Nether Corskie

    The two standing stones at Nether Corskie, one of which shows Pictish symbols still in the wet

  • Last up was Howard Williams, “Technologies and Transformations in Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, which was exactly the sort of theory-driven paper that might get certain blog acquaintances’ backs up were they not friends of the speaker, but which was focussing on temporary structures, buildings for example that went on top of funeral pyres, built only to be burnt, and in that to be compared to funeral boats or the pyres themselves. Again the focus was on process: we get to see a body, a burial, and the stuff that is buried with the body, and so that’s what we think is important, but we don’t get to see, as it might be, the three or four days that the elaborate room burial is left open to be viewed by visiting relatives; by the time it’s filled in, Williams argued, its purpose might well be over, so intuiting things about belief from its durable contents might be trickier than we’ve so far imagined. The other end of this scale, of course, is the re-use of much older structures, forts, burial mounds, and so on. All this has something to do with memory, but the nature of that memory may be very little like what we think it was; it certainly wouldn’t have to be actually remembered or in any way correct to have a working effect among its holders. The ultimate point of the paper as Professor Williams pitched it was to remember that architecture is built for many more reasons than just settlement, but what I was mainly left with was the urgent need to actually conceptualise the process of burial when dealing with graves. Burial’s always kind of been the archæological focus I don’t have, though, so others may have heard different parts of this rich paper more loudly.

Now this evening was the dance. I actually nearly didn’t go, so tired was I, but I recognised from long experience that giving into that urge is a sure-fire way to feel wretched and friendless so instead I went, drank enough beer to loosen my legs and gave it some. There were enough people who wouldn’t normally dance dancing that I didn’t feel I could really claim it wasn’t my thing, after all. But some mention needs to be made of Kathleen Neal, who if there were prizes being given for enthusiasm ought to have won one, I don’t think she stopped dancing all night and this was no small reason for my also doing such as I did. This is supposed to be a point in the proceedings when you can let your hair down (in my case quite literally) and have fun, after all, it has a cathartic function, and while it’s never going to let me lose it like something where they play the music I actually own would, it’s so much better to join in than to be snotty and aloof. I went back to my room long after I’d meant to leave, reasonably happy with the state of things and much more relaxed than I had been when I got up. Now this entry has been brought to you by Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei and Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, so don’t worry that I’m losing my élitism, but I can put it down for occasions such as this, and just as well really.

1. Would you like an example? Here’s a good example because of the extra complications about how people might not have wanted the plaintiffs to reach the emperor. One occasion in 839 sees Louis the Pious make a restitution to a trio of fellows whom the Abbot of Notre Dame de la Grasse brought all the way north and east to Frankfurt, modulo my concerns about the truth of such information, where they told the emperor a sorry tale of oppression by evil men, at what comes over as very great length. The thing that makes this especially interesting is that the three men, whose names were Gaudiocus, Jacob and Vivacius, were Jews, and moreover Jewish farmers or at least, rural landholders. Presumably they were also clients of the abbey of la Grasse or they wouldn’t have got that kind of representation, so although Louis or Louis’s scribe find some good Biblical cites for not being les nice to non-Christians than to Christians, there’s really no obvious way in which these men aren’t part of the usual network of patronage and landholding in their area. People are conscious there’s an ethnic, or at least a religious, difference, but with the right intermediary they get their hearing and the verdict is just what you’d expect, albeit with a lingering impression that Louis might have given them anything just to get the lead guy to shut up: his speech is reported for some time

I guess this is in E. Magnou-Nortier & A. M. Magnou (edd), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse Tome I 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), but I know it from the rather older Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. II (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

I should not always write off journalists’ history. Only sometimes.

I am establishing a bit of a pedigree here for complaining about journalists writing about history without knowing what they’re on about, so it behoves me to recognise when the opposite happens and something genuinely good appears in the paper. After all, one thread of the discussion down a bit about how pseudo-scholarship gets disseminated is incriminating the media working from out-of-date half-remembered university courses (and probably Wikipedia entries written by people doing the same), and I think they do have a power to inform over and above that which we have and which we need to try and inform in turn, or where that’s not possible, embarrass.

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

But this is a good one. A few weeks ago, the Guardian, a British left-leaning newspaper that likes to include small booklets on unnewsable themes like 20th-century poets, cycle maintenance, geographical statistics and so on, did a pair on Kings and Queens of Britain. I only saw the first one, but it was lots of fun. The guilty party is one Helen Castor, whose pedigree has “medievalist” stamped all over it and so it’s not surprising to find that I probably walk past her every few weeks, for she is an academic writing for the papers (and this is good) and has been in Cambridge nearly as long as I have and rather more successfully. Anyway, she should take a bow as not only was this booklet chock-full of memorable factoids and soundbites, but they were all but one at least sustainable while still being interesting. She covered from Athelstan, justifying that choice in good historical terms, to Richard III, but she also explained Athelstan with a box on Alfred the Great, and that included the story of the cakes. The mistake, and as I say the only one I noticed, was that she ascribed the story to Asser not William of Malmesbury, which obviously affects how people who can compare years will read it. So that’s an annoyance but it was possible for her to make that mistake because she mentioned Asser, with his approximate dates, and explained who he was and so on. Now, when do you suppose was the last time anyone read about Asser in a newspaper? So on the whole I am full of praise for this endeavour, which shows not only that it can be done, but that it can be done concisely and accurately without losing punch, interest or, importantly, humour. I’m not so sure about Martin Rowson, the cartoonist’s depiction, of the Anglo-Norman kings, who were surely not piggy and fat as he has them. But that’s a small price to pay for the effect of pulling people in with the drawings. It shows Horrible Histories a clean pair of heels, anyway.

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

But then, something else rises to the top. This seems to have caught the blogular imagination but it made me choke on my ever-ready supply of bile (black bile, of course). Some jokers have built themselves a ‘Pictish throne’, I’m sorry, I quote, “a throne built to a design used by the ancient Picts“. Unfortunately these jokers are the National Museum of Scotland. I’m not sure whether it’s the fault of the reporting that it implies that we have a ‘design’ for such a thing as used by the ‘ancient Picts’, or if they got that from the museum’s press release, of which, to judge from the accompanying illustration, reproduced below, there seems to have been one. Now, I mean, look. Once you’re out of the headline the BBC report does clarify:

The seat was created by master furniture maker Adrian McCurdy who drew inspiration from stone carvings.

And the actual NMoS press page is a lot more circumspect, so I might blame the journalists overall. But the key word there is inspiration, because we’re talking about a very few carvings. I can’t immediately find out which stones have such a depiction on it but firstly, and most obviously, from a stone carving you can only guess what material the original object was in: it might have been stone! Secondly, but not much less important, we only have guesses as to what the Pictish stones actually depict in their mise-en-scènes; whatever source Mr McCurdy used may have been depicting, for example, an Old Testament king of Israel, for all we know, or a contemporary king depicted as one, and so on. So there’s really no foundation for this beyond “we made something a bit like what’s on the stone”. I wonder whose spin it is that makes it more here.

Supposedly Pictish throne replica on display at the National Museum of Scotland

"And I suppose now you're queen, is that it?"

(Also, for more on a similar theme see this from Karen Larsdatter at Medieval Material Culture, if you like.)

The unexamined project is not worth… er… projecting? Or, Help, I got some Foucault on me



Despite my initial reservations, the Historical Archaeology I’m currently reading is making me think a lot and mostly in a good way. It is very theory-driven, which might be expected to get my goat, especially since some of the language is not that obvious (I am glad to find I have fellow feeling here)—and I’ve already run across ‘imbricated’ once—but I suspect that I am learning my way through this particular semantic jungle, and also it’s just that bit easier with archæology, because the initial remove of content from creation is not so pronounced as with the study of texts. The empirical existence of a thing from the past in question seems to make an empirical starting position more automatic, which suits me.

That said, a great deal of the writing here is about archæology’s effects in the present.1 While one suspects that in part this is a subject trying to impress on a funding-giving audience its own contemporary importance, it must be said that making this case seems to be a darn sight easier in the USA, where indigenous burial sites, the self-acclaimed descendants of whose occupants are still around, make it a very very live concern. (Contrast the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the very British furore over the location of the body of a prehistoric child near Avebury Ring recently, in which the various bodies of modern druidism tried to achieve something similar. Those thousand extra years of antiquity, to say nothing of the problems inherent in druidism trying to claim continuity, just make it so much harder for people in the UK to care, it seems.) The theory that gets invoked for this sort of thing is transferable to any study of the past with no real trouble. It’s mainly about being self-aware, and aware that one’s work is constructed within and affects the society of which one is part. If, for example, one finds a huge Neolithic temple site on Orkney (oh look! how convenient for this example…) it is probably understandable that the modern Western observer may liken it to a cathedral, but there is in that not just an assumption that big-investment Christianity is still normative, but also an impression conveyed to the reader that monolithic high-investment and hierarchical religious practice is also what we should be looking for in the Neolithic period, what is a bit more dubious.

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

And so on. The authors of the article I’m mainly thinking of here argue that since one cannot avoid being political anyway, it is best to do so consciously and to advance a political purpose in one’s work, in their case by exposing contradictions in our social construction that have become accepted, naturalised and part of our social structures. So, for an example from the past which we can now easily reject, the white male Victorian view that the European human being represented a higher standard of development than, for example, the African. It’s harder to spot ourselves doing this now, though, even though I was already trying. With that in mind, rather than try and give an account of the scholarship here (it would be easier for you to read it, really, and I will go so far as to say it is worth doing), I thought I’d try and apply it to my own ideas deliberately, and see what reflection could do.

So, one of my many future projects (seriously: I have had to cut down my plans for a couple of job applications lately because having more than you can fit on a page just looks unrealistic, and indeed probably is), and the one that I hope to start on properly some time next year, is a book-length study of Borrell II of Barcelona and his times, which I think were not just hugely interesting but partly shaped by him in a way that his contemporary fellow counts didn’t grab in the same fashion. What can I say about the current political impact of the decision to do that?

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

  1. Well, any project that focuses on Catalonia probably has to start with that choice and the current politics of nationalism there. When I first went to Catalonia I found this local pride quite charming, but I’ve since had it pointed out to me how it looks from other, less wealthy and self-developing, parts of Spain. I’m going to be looking at a period when what is now Catalonia was many counties under four or five different counts, who did not act in cooperation; when the counties included numerous uncontrolled independents; and when claims to new parts of those territories and more besides were being developed. I’m also dealing with the count who is legendarily supposed to have led Catalonia into independence even though he only ruled half of it, and that quite shakily as I’ll argue. I am therefore weakening a case for Catalan nationality in the tenth century, and there is no way that that doesn’t at least connect to current campaigns for greater recognition as a nation. On the other hand, even using the word ‘Catalonia’ implies a vision of unity which I don’t profess and so has to be dealt with very carefully whenever it seems to be necessary.
  2. Connected to that, it is my habit to normalise names to modern Catalan, except the place-names in the parts of the territories that are now in France, which I give in French. The pragmatic reason for this is that I want people to be able to find these places on an atlas or a tourist guide so the current usage is important. But it legitimises French possession of those areas and it’s anachronistic. The latter bothers me more of course but I realise that it bothers others less than the politics. Remember at times like this that Perpignan’s rugby team is called Catalans Dragons. In French. Sort those loyalties out if you dare.
  3. Not the least important: his female relatives are going to get featured, along with his other relatives, but what am I doing to scholarship by focussing on a male power figure?
  4. Similarly, what about the peasants? Surely the story of the majority oppressed is more important than the nobility? At least, it’s easy to imagine contemporary perspectives of society that feel that way, and politically I have more sympathy with them than with the sort of worldview that thinks noble ancestry important… and yet, here I am.
  5. Borrell was only one of several counts, as I’ve said, and I’ve also said that his rôle in bringing the area to independence is exaggerated because of this fact (among other things). But I’m still writing about him and not the others, except where he opposed them. I argue that this is because he does more interesting things, to us—reforming the judicial body and the coinage, representing himself to Córdoba as ruler of his area, losing wars rather than being heroic, and making political statements about the basis of his rule—but even though I think these probably represent an insecurity in power rather than a grand enlightened agenda, there’s still questions not just about whether his contemporaries would have seen him, the traditional monarchist patron Gauzfred of Empúries or the dynastic absolutist Miró Bonfill of Besalú as the strongest ruler, but as to the teleology of focussing on things that appear more modern than ‘feudal’ about his rule.
  6. One thing that I couldn’t have articulated without reading this article, however, is what I think Borrell was doing with these elaborate constructions of his power in his somewhat variable hold on it: by looking for opportunities to intervene, and creating systems of justice and exchange that he controlled (and the Church could also come in here, given that he fought over appointments in it), he was creating spaces of governing action that he could claim were his alone but which everybody used. I have never read any Foucault, so without someone else telling me I was never going to use the word ‘governmentality’ for this practice but all the same I seem to have picked the idea up from somewhere, and now I have a reasoned way to express it. Of course a lot of the people I read have read Foucault, which will be where I have assembled this from, but I suspect I must go back to the source if I’m already doing it second-hand.2 And of course if I’m subscribing to that theory, then I am taking a position with respect to the legitimacy of the public intervention in the private and, by pinning it to one power-hungry and status-anxious noble, saying something about the acquisitiveness of the current public power, no? and that was probably mostly unconscious till now.

Of course I’m not a Catalan, and I’m not publishing it in Catalonia, or at least I’ve no plans to do so (though if I do I know where to go). So it’s very hard, even given all the above, for me to have an overt political purpose other than using Borrell as a platform for my own views about how I think society was changing in Western Europe in the run up to the year 1000, which respond quite strongly to a fairly modern idea I have of political actors having genuine agency in their societies. That has an obvious political import, a message of empowerment; but I suspect that really I’m trying to emphasise an individual’s agency in his environment to me, not to a political audience. These two purposes need not be distinct, of course. And if I’m seriously calling the book Agent of Change (if the eventual publishers will even let me) I have to consider that I am certainly making a public statement of that order, even though it was originally really a shrouded Blue Öyster Cult reference.

Cover art of Agents of Fortune, by Blue Öyster Cult, from Wikimedia Commons

So I’m a bit confused, really. I think these agendas are important, but apart from the nationalism question which I’d like to think I can step outside of, I have trouble locating them in my plans. Do you suppose that it’d be OK to just write the thing and let someone else work out what my political purpose was?

Stones and symbols

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

I also want to mention that Patricia Galloway’s article that I mentioned before, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within”, is still really important, not least because it finds ways to apply the same schemata of interpretation to both objects and texts while giving suitable accent to their differences. It also, however, as I said, uses the Pictish symbol stones as an example, and neatly summarises Charles Thomas’s work on them from the 1960s which read the symbols inscribed on them not as art but as a code referring to peoples and members of peoples. When I hit the phrase, “It is especially interesting as an example here because in it Thomas literally translated artifacts into texts” I was immediately reminded of Jeffrey Cohen’s current work on stones as, well, long-term historical actors? And I thought I should tell him about this and also about a book called And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, which is Thomas’s similar work on Welsh and Irish inscribed stones and the ogam script.3 If Prof. Cohen or someone close by doesn’t comment here I shall make my way over there and stick my oar in.

The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

1. Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone and Matthew D. Cochran, “Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 84-104.

2. Ibid. pp. 92-96, citing esp. Michel Foucault, “Politics and the Study of Discourse: Questions of Method. Governmentality” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality (Chicago 1991), pp. 53-104.

3. Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Hall & Silliman, Historical Archaeology, pp. 42-64, citing esp. Charles Thomas, “The Interpretation of the Pictish Symbol Stones” in Archaeological Journal Vol. 120 (London 1963), pp. 31-97; Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? (Chicago 1994).