Category Archives: Vikings

Seminar CLV: an uncertain number of Vikings in a boat (at Ardnamurchan)

As I work through this backlog of seminar reports I do begin to realise that maybe one reason I seemed to get less done in Oxford than I have done since is because I was at seminars all the time… In particular, on this occasion, on the 21st of January 2013, I was at two in immediate succession, in that way that the coincidence of the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar at Oxford currently makes possible. This post is about the former of them, when Dr Oliver Harris of the University of Leicester came to speak with the title, “Places Past and Present: the Ardnamurchan boat burial”.

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

You may have heard about this site, because it was all over the news when it was fresh; the BBC coverage includes a short video showing our speaker in full animation; that may make it clear how much fun this paper was, but it was by no means lacking in care and thought even so. Basically the story is that they were doing a much wider survey of this peninsula on the western coast of Scotland, interested in remains of all periods (and I mean all – they have found Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and early modern stuff here, all within a few kilometres of each other, though no medieval bar what I’m here describing), and identified a low mound that early modern ploughing had respected. Investigation revealed that this was probably because it was full of stones, and once the turf was cleared off them it began, as Dr Harris put it, to look suspiciously like a boat. If there’d been any doubt, the finding of a broken spear and a shield boss helped reassure them there really was something here, and that something, rivets made clear, had been an actual boat that was dragged up the beach, parked on a local rise in the ground, banked with kerb stones and then filled with stuff. That stuff also included a drinking horn whose fittings survived, an axe, a cauldron or hanging bowl with a hammer and tongs in it, a whetstone, a sickle, food, apparently a bag of spare rivets and under it all, perhaps originally down the side of the boat, a sword. (I do wonder in writing this up if the person in question were being marked as a shipwright, but if so obviously a fairly martial one.)

Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the Ardnamurchan boat burial

One of quite a number of pictures from the same press shoot by Jeff J. Mitchell that one can Google up of Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the burial

What it could not then be said to have included, however, was a body, though soil analysis may change that (or by now, may have, though I can find nothing newer on it). For now, though, the possibility that there was never a person in the boat remains intriguingly open, and a further possibility (suggested in questions by Lesley Abrams and David Petts in accumulation, on the basis that sickles usually occur in female graves) is that there was more than one, accounting for the multiple significations of the goods, though in that case the chemical action of the soil was unusually aggressive for the area just here. Likewise absent was any scientific dating as yet, but the sword, which had copper and silver interweave decorating the pommel, was enough for Colleen Batey to suggest the first half of the tenth century, and I am as happy with that as I ever am with stylistic dating, given that I am not expert enough to contest it and would rather have some figures out of a computer. I would also like some publication beyond the very short note in Medieval Archaeology for 2012 that seems to be all that has so far resulted, but the Historic Environment Record lists a report apparently submitted as part of a post-excavation budget submission, and maybe that’s where things rest. That would be a shame but hopefully eventually remediable.

Aariel view of the coats around Swordie Bay, Ardnamurchan

The coast around the site, which could you but see also houses a Neolithic chambered tomb and a Bronze Age kerbed cairn as well as the ship burial. The name of the place? Swordle Bay…

The main thing that Dr Harris was keen to stress, anyway, was the landscape into which this then-new monument was being inserted, which could fairly be characterised as funerary: the very stones they built the ship-setting with were robbed from a Neolithic cairn nearby! The wider landscape is also obviously maritime: though this is the only boat-burial so far found on the mainland, it’s really only just the mainland and has a lot more to do with the others on the islands to which the sea links it for users of such boats than the zones inland. The longue durée approach of the project here was good for showing depth in time but breadth in space is also pretty clear for its frame of reference; all the goods seem to be Scandinavian in type or manufacture and there’s no reason to suppose the person was at all local. (There were two teeth, so isotopic analysis may just be possible, but without a skull, who’s to say whose teeth were deposited for what reason?) The diggers presumably knew the coast, picked a very well-used bit of it full of monuments to make their own, built it and then sailed away again, a burial very much in keeping with how Vikings interacted with this coastline and others further south when they lived. There’s a lot more it would be nice to know here but this paper gave us a lot more than was on the web, so it’s nice to be able to distribute it a bit further.

As far as I can discover, so far the only academic publication of the site (a somewhat unfair judgement-by-comparison on the press releases and website, which contain nearly as much information but fewer site photos) is Oliver Harris, Hannah Cobb, Héléna Gray & Phil Richardson, “A Viking at Rest: new discoveries on Ardnamurchan” in Märit Gaimster & Kieran O’Conor with Rory Sherlock (edd.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland – Fieldwork Highlights in 2011″ in Neil Christie (ed.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland 2011″ in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 333-339 of 321-339 of 301-339, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.00000000011.

Viking ransoms in Galicia: you heard it here first (wrong)

Since there was interest here the last time I posted about eleventh-century Viking activity in the Iberian peninsula, this may be of interest to those people. Those with very long memories may recall what was said that last time: I was tracking down a reference in something I was editing and had gone hunting data on Viking attacks on eleventh-century Galicia and Portugal, of which there is quite a lot. I didn’t find very much of it there, but a commentator trading as Cossue gave us an awful lot more references, all gratefully received, and I had meanwhile found one single interesting one which I made part-subject of a separate post, in which a chap called Amarelo Mestaliz had had to beg support from a local noble lady to buy back his daughters after the Vikings captured them, and in which he then later disinherited them for ingratitude, more or less. It’s fun: have a look. Sadly, it is also wrong, at least in detail. How do I now know this? Well, read on.

Cover of the journal Viking and Medieval Scandinavia

That was all in late 2009 and very early 2010. In June 2012 a post appeared at News for Medievalists (as it then was) that made me sit up. It was a notice of the publication, in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia for 2011, of an article by one Helio Pires of the University of Lisbon called “Money for Freedom: Ransom Paying to Vikings in Western Iberia”.1. Obviously this had a bearing on what we’d discussed, but it was this bit that really caught my eye:

`Pires’ article examines the taking of prisoners and collecting of ransoms by Vikings on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula. He was able to uncover two documents, dating from the first half of the 11th century, where people described the payments they made to Vikings to return family members.

`In the first case, Amarelo Mestaliz writes about how in 1015 a band of “Normans” came up the Douro River, where they looted and took captives for nine months. “There they captured three daughters of mine, Amarelo, and [I] was left poor. The Normans started selling all their captives. Those daughters of Amarelo [were] called Serili, Ermesienda, Faquilo, and I did not have anything to give for them to the Normans.”‘

You have to admit, that sounds a little familiar. Perhaps because this was only a few months after someone had lifted quite a lot of the blog content and I’d had to go after them with threats of legal action, I immediately thought the worst. One of the arguments that’s occasionally raised against blogging one’s research is that people will steal it; though this was hardly my first-line research, all the same I did wonder if this had finally happened. My second, more rational, supposition, was that this was probably our commentator Cossue, in which case I felt that we’d surely deserved a reference, since I’d found the document he was using and he hadn’t. And the original title under which I saved this post as a draft was, “I’m pretty sure we’re due some credit here.”

Picture from the 2008 Viking festival at Catoira, Galicia

Of course, now, they celebrate being attacked and ransomed…

Now, in fact, closer inspection reveals that my suspicions were unfounded, and also that I was probably wrong about some details of the document I blogged. Pires’s article is only short, six pages, and it presents two documents in which Vikings ransoming captives in Galicia are described. The first of them is our one, which he takes from exactly the same source I had used, and the latter is one I’d not found in the Portugaliae Monumenta Historica, the nineteenth-century standard edition of most Portuguese medieval texts.2 Neither of these are exactly unknown, both are printed and cited, but they are cited by Hispanists not Vikings scholars so there was probably still a point in getting this little study out in English. Anyway, it certainly doesn’t borrow anything from the blog that I can detect and it adds a little something to what we were able to put together; someone working on this stuff would profit from it and our discussion both.

Viking hacksilver from the Silverdale Hoard

Less than 15 solidi‘s worth, I’d guess, but the look is maybe about right… Viking hacksilver from the Silverdale Hoard

I also profit from it, mind, as it exposes a misunderstanding. I was startled, you see, by the fact that the News for Medievalists post continues: “The document goes on about how Amarelo received help from a woman named Froila Tructesindiz, who loaned him fifteen silver solidos, which Pires believes was the ransom amount. Two years later, Amarelo repaid Froila after selling some of his goods.” I mean, firstly, Froila a woman’s name? Not in any document I’ve seen. But secondly, you’ll remember that in my reading it was not Froila that had paid Amarelo the money. So I went to the actual article, because News for Medievalists are not always the best reflectors of the state of scholarly knowledge. But Pires is here too:

“As for Amarelo Mestaliz, unable to ransom his daughters for himself, he sought the help of a Lady Lupa, with whom he had agreed several years before to sign over his properties in exchange for assistance, should he need it. Lupa, however, refused to give him the required sum, and so Amarelo turned to another woman for help, a Froila Tructesindiz, who gave him fifteen silver solidos (‘XV solidos argenzdeos’), which can safely be assumed to be the amount of the ransom. The girls were released, and two years later Amarelo sold his goods to the latter lady, a transaction recorded in writing along with the history of the Viking incursion which was its origin.”

This is not how I read it, as you may remember. I saw Amarelo as going to Dona Loba and offering to sell her his land and she refusing to take it and getting Froila to advance him the cash, on the understanding that he would pay her (Loba) back when he could. Now, I excuse myself that the text, which is coming to us via a seventeenth-century cartulary copy of a lost original with all the transcription difficulties that likely entailed for the copyist, is difficult. I mean, make sense of it yourself if you can:

…  quanta est mea tiui eu Amarelo illa integra pagata… per annis plures in de illa domna Lupa prolis Aloiti et Guncine pro non uindere nec donare nisi ad illa et illa mici, rouorauit placitum que sic uenere mici aligo uno male in ipsa ereditate aut de alia causa ajutasse me et sacasse me inde sano stantes firmiter de amborum parte in ista actio et in nostra robore per currigula annis.”

Now, OK, here we do seem to have the reference to the pledge made by Loba that she would help Amarelo if, “coming some evil upon me in that inheritance or from any other cause”, as long as he promised to sell it only to her. I hadn’t caught that. All the same, when Loba next appears, it is hard to be sure that it’s as Pires describes:

“… non aueua que dare pro eas a Leodemanes, pro it producto fuit in Argentini ante illa domna Lupa pro uindere ad illa mea ereditate sicut aueua scritura roborata et prendere ibi que misesse ea a Lotmanes pro ipsas meas filias, et illa non quisit, et mos misericordia abuit super me et prosolbiui me per scriptura pro dare illa ubi potuisse, pro tale actio aueruaui com Froila Tructesindiz que li dedise ea per carta et dedi mici que misi pro filias meas, et sacaui eas de captiuitate.”

I will translate this again, as far as I can, without looking at my last attempt:

… I did not have what I should have given for them [the daughters] to the Leodemen, wherefore this was brought up in Argentino before that lady Loba, for [me] to sell to her my inheritance just as I had confirmed in the charter and to acquire there what might be thus sent to the Leodemen for my selfsame daughters, and she did not require this, and she had the custom of mercy upon me and enjoined me by charter to give it where I could, by which reason I agreed with Froila Tructesindiz that I gave it to him by charter and s/he gave to me what I sent for my daughters, and I redeemed them from captivity.

I have to admit that the second time, I come out with Pires’s version, but it’s desperately ambiguous, because word order is more important than inflection in this text and that makes the agents quite unclear. Who actually gives Amarelo the money for the ransom, Loba or Froila? If the former, why is Froila involved? If the latter, what’s Froila’s connection to all this? It might all make sense, and be as Pires suggests, if what’s going on here is that Loba said that in the circumstances Amarelo could sell his land wherever he wanted, and he then did so to Froila and Froila paid him the ransom. That would in turn then make a bit more sense of the subsequent part of the document, where Amarelo disposes of his property to whomever lent him the money—the actual recipient of the property is not named formally, we just have this garbled story—to pay him (or her) back and also in exchange for a pension. Before this happens an assembly goes through his documents, and, “do uobis illa pro dimisione qui mici feci illa domna Lupa”, ‘I give it to you by the demittance that that lady Loba made to me’, could indeed be that he is seeking to establish his freedom from the original pledge, so that he can in fact dispose of the land to Loba. But I can’t help feeling that it would fit equally well if Froila was Lopa’s heir and had now inherited her claim, and a new deal had been cut to get Amarelo his pension. Not very likely, and Pires almost certainly has it right, but it really isn’t easy to tell.

None of this takes away the basic interests of the document, of course, which is that Viking raiding parties here hung about for months while ransoms were negotiated and they apparently conversed enough with the locals while doing that their own name for themselves passed into local language, but I could wish I’d got it right even so. Still: never mind. Here is more work on this interesting subject, but I think there is still something for Jpg or Cossue to write on it if they like. Remember to credit the blog, folks…

1. H. Pires, “Money for Freedom: Ransom Paying to Vikings in Western Iberia” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 7 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 125-130.

2. That source was, in case you don’t want to click through, Rui Pinto de Azevedo (ed.), “A expediçâo de Almançor a Santiago de Compostela em 997, e a de piratas normandos à Galiza em 1015–16″ in Revista Portuguesa de História Vol. 14 (Coimbra 1973), pp. 73–93.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeds 2012 Report 4 and Final

This last post on the International Medieval Congress of 2012 is a bit more ‘last post’ than usual, because it also involves saying goodbye to the place where all the previous instances of ‘Leeds’ had taken place, the Bodington Campus of the University of Leeds. There were plenty of drawbacks to this place, and even to its more modern partner across the playing fields, Weetwood Hall; the number of sessions in these buildings I’ve been sat on the floor for because there wasn’t room for them anywhere larger, the trek across the fields that got significantly less pleasant in the rain, the vulnerability of socialisation to the weather generally, indeed… and I won’t miss the food even a bit. On the other hand, one accepts that an event of that size is constrained by that, and on the upside, as I’ve often observed, with good weather, you could within ten minutes more or less reliably locate anyone you wanted to see as they would either be at the pub or sprawled on the same lawn as most of the rest of European medieval studies, and that was immensely valuable. It will be very interesting to see how the new version goes. Meanwhile, rather than eulogising Bodington any further, I’ll merely point out that [c] of The Pen, the Brush and the Needle already did a post about it, so if you miss it you can direct yourself thither.

Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, viewed across some ponies, 2012

Bodington Hall exemplifying its somewhat troublesome fit among the local landscape, and also more or less defying any pretence of actually being, you know, in Leeds

Change was already afoot in 2012, though, and I don’t just mean the myriad of goodbye events, though I think it something of an indictment of the IMC spirit of fun that it had taken them this long to put on jousting. (I missed most of the actual jousting and only saw the riders repeatedly knocking over a quintain which they’d not been allowed enough flat ground to set up stably.) No, I mean the creeping extension of the conference length. It used to be that the last day of the conference finished at lunch, but thus year just gone it crept out into one afternoon session and now this year there will be two, so it’ll finish at six. I imagine that those last sessions will be very poorly attended due to everyone with much distance to travel having disappeared, and in that respect, though I am not exactly happy about being first on the morning after the dance again (twice at Kalamazoo and three times in a row at Leeds now) I can certainly see how things could be worse. Anyway, last year I doggedly went to to sessions till the end, here are some of the details. I will be brief-ish, because apart from anything else I have yet to pack for this year’s Leeds and head off to it, but you’ll see how I wanted this done first…

1525. Construction and Continuity of Episcopal Identities in the Alpine and Rhineland Regions, c. 400-800

  • Christine Davison, “The Authority of Bishops and the Cults of the Saints in Late Antique Trier”
    Certainly it’s safe to say that I knew a lot more about late antique Trier and its bishops at the end of this paper than at the beginning but one of the things I now knew was how little we know, if you see what I mean. There was some brave hypothesising to fill the gaps.
  • Chantal Bielmann, “Bishops and the Cults of Saints in Alpine Switzerland: the cases of St Peter (Geneva) and St Lucius (Chur), c. 300-800″
    I will confess that it was the the prospect of two papers together on Chur that had lured me to this sessions; Chur is one of those areas I nearly could have worked on, ever since Matthew Innes pointed me at the Carolingian-period episcopal estate survey we have from there and I came back all excited about bishops taking tax in iron and so on.1 Also, it has my kind of scenery. With all that said, however, I never did really work on it, so I take the chance to learn from those who have when I get it. That said, this paper taught me more about Geneva than Chur, and the obvious common factor appeared to be the bishops’ care to control access to and veneration the saints in their cathedrals, which Ms Bielmann used the architectural history lucidly to explicate.
  • Helena Carr, “A Briton Abroad? St Lucius of Chur and the Moulding of a Diocesan Patron”
    This was certainly the most fascinating of the papers for me, though, because it had such an excellent premise. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People we are told that a King Lucius of the Britons sent to Rome for missionaries in A. D. 156, which is a fiction Bede acquired from the Roman Liber Pontificalis. This Lucius was nonetheless later culted as the patron saint of Chur, which for those of you less oddly-educated than me is in the south of the Alps, just south of Liechtenstein. You may at this point, if you so choose, allow yourself a large-scale, “Huh?” Basically, after that it probably didn’t matter what Dr Carr said to explain this state of affairs, the existence of it was interesting enough, but she had been looking: the cult at Chur seems to start in the eighth century, when it replaced one of Andrew, and to be focused on a local saint from the Prättigau relocated into the city. And what was the Latin name of that area? Bretanga, a mere lenitive slip away from Britannia… By the late eighth century the nearby monastery of St Gallen (whose monks knew their Bede) had this worked up into a full-scale Vita of a king who gave up rule to become a missionary. Dr Carr wondered if this ex-royal saint might be being focused on to rival the reputation of the erstwhile Burgundian king Sigismund at nearby centres, but another factor might have been the pilgrim traffic across the Alps, which included as we know an increasing number of Anglo-Saxons; did it also include Britons, or would the English have thought this part of their heritage by now, as Bede obviously sort of did?2
  • Sadly there wasn’t much time to debate any of this, but I certainly now felt it had been worth getting up on time, even if coffee did also seem a great desideratum. (And Bodington’s supposed coffee is another thing I shan’t miss, actually.)

1609. Apocalypticism and Prognostication in the Early and High Medieval West, II: Around the Year 1000

It was probably ineluctable that I go to this, except inasmuch as I obviously chose to, but you know what I mean. Year 1000, Gerbert of Aurillac and our esteemed commentator Levi Roach, how was I to do otherwise?

  • George David House, “Uncovering the Gregorian Eschatological Rhetoric in Gerbert of Aurillac’s Letter 57″
    Mr House was here trying to argue that the thinking of Gerbert of Aurillac, eventual Pope Sylvester II having been fired upwards from every job he’d previously had but known to me mainly because of his Catalan training, was more influenced by Gregory the Great than by St Augustine. It could not be said that I have a dog in this fight but nonetheless I did think that the language on which Mr House placed emphasis could just as well be read as reaction to a general crisis rather than any particular belief-set about the end of the world. I suppose the question is what came to Gerbert’s mind when he contemplated general crisis, but I think that getting into Gerbert’s head, especially in his letters which are often written for an audience other than the recipient, is going to be a tough job.
  • Joanna Thornborough, “The Whore of the Apocalypse and Kaiserkritik around the Year 1000″
    The Biblical figure of Jezebel was widely used as a figure for criticising queens in the Middle Ages, as is well studied,3 but she also has an appearance as the Whore of Babylon in Revelations, or at least it was clear to the age’s commentators that the two were the same. Ms Thornborough took us through three texts that make great play of this theme, and suggested that they all one way or another link back to a greater policing of powerful women’s roles at the Ottonian court, using Apocalyptic imagery already in play as part of the wider monastic reform movement.
  • Levi Roach, “New Approaches to an Old Problem: Otto III and the End of Time”
    Apart from being a paper whose title clearly should have been the other way round for maximum drama—I mean, come on, isn’t Otto III and the End of Time a film waiting to be made?—this was Levi’s usual high standard of erudition, looking through Emperor Otto III’s charters for some way to choose between the maximalist and minimalist views of how preoccupied his court were with the thought of the impending Apocalypse. There seems no way to deny the idea was around: Otto was crowned in a robe ornamented with depictions of the Apocalypse in the year 999, after all, moved his court to Rome and allegedly planned to retire to Jerusalem in the year 1000! I have to note that this is supported much less obviously from the charters than the records of Otto’s reign by others, though. The question then becomes whether Otto himself thought the world was about to end, or whether he was just playing on other people’s fears that it might do so, and perhaps more interestingly as Levi asked, if he did believe it was about to end, did he think he could do anything about that? I suspect we will never know but it is a worthwhile reminder that the stakes of power were arguably somewhat higher in a world brought up to believe that their own actions were part of a much large framework of events, in which someone in a position like an emperor’s might be playing a vital rôle but one for which the script was less than clear…

1723. The Viking Winter-Camp at Torksey, Lincolnshire, II

Last but not least, back to the archæology. You may not know that in recent years quite a lot of work has been done on the camp where a Viking force seems to have wintered in 871-872, a site that has become apparent only because of the incredible amount of metalwork that detectorists have pulled out of it, but I was well aware because a decent collection of those finds now resides in the Fitzwilliam Museum and more arrived when I was still there. So I went to find out more…

  • Dawn Hadley, “Burial Practices in Viking-Age Torksey”
    This paper reported on four cemeteries, all of which as far as my notes reveal turned out to be later than the Viking occupation, even though one of them sounded suspiciously like a battle-grave, or at least a catastrophe one. That one, however, was being dated from pottery alone, so there’s at least room to check there. Nonetheless, actual pre-Viking Torksey stands largely unrevealed apart from a few kilns so far, not least because so far everywhere they’ve put a spade they’ve hit a tenth- or eleventh-century cemetery!
  • Hannah Brown, “Surveying the Landscape of the Viking Winter-Camp”
    Here, on the other hand, the geophysics gave quite a lot of scope to imagine underlying structures and settlement, and also fairly clear evidence of a sectional ditch around the camp with holes outside, presumably not part of the fortification but perhaps clay pits? That in itself reveals the problems with this method: you can see there’s something there but putting a date on it will take excavation, which weirdly—and there was probably a reason for this explained but I haven’t recorded it—has not yet been done at the actual camp.
  • Søren Sindbæk, “Ring-Fenced Vikings: Scandinavian army camps and defensive tactics from Torksey to Trelleborg”
    In the absence of actual evidence, one approach then becomes to look elsewhere and see what we might expect, and Dr Sindbæk did this in fine style, taking us through Aggersborg and Trelleborg and emphasising that the very short lifespans of both indicate that they were a response to some kind of crisis, rather than part of a sustained fortification programme like the Anglo-Saxon one of which Torksey eventually became part. Torksey would have likely been even more ephemeral, though, lacking the organised and impressive buildings of the two Danish sites, so exactly what might have been there is still something of a mystery.

And thus it ends, folks, and it’s time for me to pack and head off to this year’s (though I’m scheduling this post to appear rather after I’ve done that, I should say). This year’s conference is, please note, a week earlier than last year’s, so I haven’t quite fallen a year behind. Let’s see if I get to this year’s one sooner!

1. Seriously, folks, tax in iron. The peasants got to keep most of what they’d mined, though, which in turn means they must have been selling it, because you can’t eat iron can you? It’s all quite important. Details in E. Meyer-Marthaler & F. Perret (edd.), “Das Urbar des Reichsgutes in Churrätien (9. Jht)” in eidem (edd.), Bündner Urkundenbuch. I. Band: 390-1199 (Chur 1965), pp. 373-393.

2. As far as I can see this hasn’t yet made it to publication, but those whose institutions have paid their blood-tax to ProQuest could examine Dr Carr’s thesis, “Sanctity and religious culture amongst the Alpine passes: a study of aspects of patrocinia, liturgy and scriptoria in Early Medieval Churraetia, 400-850 AD” (Ph. D. thesis, University of York, 2006),, where doubtless more such nuggets reside.

3. See Janet L. Nelson, “Queens as Jezebels: Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian history” in D. Baker (ed.), Medieval Women: essays dedicated and presented to Rosalind M. T. Hill, Studies in Church History Subsidia 1 (Oxford 1978), pp. 31-78, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Mediaeval Europe (London 1986), pp. 1-48 & in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 219-253.

Leeds 2012 Report 3

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

Reims Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 385, fo. 1

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

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

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

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

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

1105. Christian Burial: rites and realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

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

Digital Treasure

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

Physical treasure: notable finds

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

Finds more controversial

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

Links involving me

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

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

And finally…

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

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

What’s in an ethnonym? Theories on the word `Viking’

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

I write this as Michaelmas Term approaches in Oxford and I have to organise, among other things, a lecture on Vikings in the British Isles. The last two years, I have done this, and I’m only not this time because I have too many others to cover; I may not be a Vikings expert but it’s one of those things where I think I know a bit. One of the things I used to know was what the word `Viking’ actually meant, but somehow each year I’ve taught this subject in Oxford I’ve come across another theory. When I hit the third one this spring I decided, enough: the blog has readers who know Vikings a lot better than I do, let’s put it to the blog. So, here are three theories. Have I missed some, or are there more? And which do you favour?

  1. The etymology is an Old Norse word ‘vikingr‘, derived from a verbal phrase: one ‘went a-viking’, ‘fara i viking‘. It’s thus a professional term rather than an ethnic one and if a Viking was at home farming presumably he stopped being a Viking. This is the one I thought I knew and for it I can quote Lars Lönnroth, “The Vikings in History and Legend”, in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 225-249 at pp. 229-230, though he says nothing about the grammar, which I may well have wrong. Still, it’s odd to find that explanation there because…
  2. … theory 2 is in the same book, in the words of the editor, who derives ‘Viking’ from the area around the Olsofjord called Viken, and suggests that this is why only the English used the word `Viking’, as opposed to Northman, Lithsman, etc., because only they were meeting raiders from Viken.1 Now one might ask how that knowledge was getting across—derby colours on the weapons?—but we also know that Vikings often hung around and could somehow usually deal with locals even in places without Germanic languages, so it’s not impossible, and when someone like Peter Sawyer says something about Vikings I certainly don’t have the expertise to say if he’s wrong.
  3. And then theory three came up, which is from an Anglo-Saxon archæologist and thus might be less likely to be right, but I can’t rid myself of the feeling it makes sense: Timothy Tatton-Brown suggested in 1988 that `Viking’ could be a derivative of the same Indo-European root as gave the Anglo-Saxons wic and the Romans vicus and to the former, at least, meant a coastal trading place. By this reckoning it would be `wic-ing‘, inhabitant of the seaport.2 This obviously comes very fast out of the traders-not-raiders of that great and unnecessary debate, but to me, no linguist, it has etymological plausibility.

Am I wrong? Who’s right? I invite you to weigh in!

1. P. Sawyer, “The Age of the Vikings and Before” in idem (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 1-18 at p. 8.

2. Timothy Tatton-Brown, “The Anglo-Saxon Towns of Kent” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 213-232 at p. 217.

The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA's osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic's own site really don't make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.

He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology’” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe

1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.

Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated 'execution'], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.

1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

On reading more Richard Hodges

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. He says, p. viii:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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