Category Archives: Humour

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…

1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

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

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

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

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

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

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

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

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

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

Digital Treasure

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

Physical treasure: notable finds

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

Finds more controversial

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

Links involving me

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

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

And finally…

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

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

On being one of the barbarians

I had high intentions for this post when I made a stub of it many moons ago. I wanted, having read some thought-provoking scholarship and some argument-provoking blog comments, to write something trenchant about how what the people who seek to identify themselves with the migrating peoples of the early Middle Ages are looking for is not always biological race, which is inherently ridiculous to hang on to given the number of intervening generations diluting its supposed ancient purity (itself equally diluted from something else, of course), but a kind of either locational or cultural continuity, or both. And I wanted to contrast that to how fascinated people now get with tracing DNA mutations back, not to a modern or even ancient people of some kind, but beyond it to an origin group that doesn’t relate in any obvious way to where they are now or how they identify. There’s a number of arguments that could spin off this, one for example about how difficult it seems to be getting to confine the status of ‘human’ to homo sapiens as it turns out to share DNA with ever more other hominids, one about how the link between those two fascinations may most obviously be in the way that time renders their visible or functional effects irrelevantly tiny, or even the one about whether migration makes any long-term genetic difference that isn’t just as explicable by distance, but I can’t tell from my stub which of these, if any, I’d intended, so I’ve decided instead to just make a couple of glib observations about supposed barbarian identity and the modern day, one which I owe to teaching and the other of which came to me in a flash of hilarity during the summer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Roma nova, Roma felix

The first of these was started off by a sharp set of observations in something I was reading about how rather too much scholarship for analytical neutrality has been founded in the idea that we, the scholars, represent civilisations in some way continuing the identity of either Romans or barbarians.1 Again, one could get serious about that, but I found it more fun in teaching to question our ability to call ourselves civilised. Witness this well-known piece of Roman writing by Sidonius Apollinaris,2 in a letter to his friend Catullinus:

Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid
me compose a song dedicated to Venus the lover of
Fescennine mirth, placed as I am among long-haired
hordes, having to endure German speech, praising
oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Bur-
gundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair?
Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry?
Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has
spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld
these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call
your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for
you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions dis-
charged upon you at early morn from ten break-
fasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn,
like an old grandfather or a foster-father, by a crowd
of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen
of Alcinous could support them.

Now obviously this deserves the big flashing-green SATIRE warning once deployed by Monty Python, though despite that it’s been made to bear rather a lot of weight about the accommodation of barbarian warriors by Roman aristocrats.3 Taking it briefly at its face value, however, what would Sidonius think of us? The barbarians have won! We may not put butter on our hair (except maybe cocoa butter) but some of us do wear our hair long and, damn, do we cook with onions. In fact some of us even care where the onions come from: Spanish, French, English, all different… Again, not at breakfast maybe (though: hash browns? omelettes? don’t tell me you think an omelette is better without finely-chopped red onion in it) but pretty thoroughly otherwise. And as for garlic, there might have been a hold-out in England at least until the eighties but I’m not sure how many people you could still find considering it typically French now. I mean, there is (or was; its website domain has gone…) a restaurant in London dedicated to the noble alium, which horrifies as many people as it delights but which I’m pretty sure would have about killed Sidonius. Meanwhile, if you look around for the kind of things that Sidonius might have considered haute cuisine, it’s not the Romans who won, really, is it? The barbarians are us! What he would have made of Burger King can only be imagined, except to say that he would probably find a tiny relief that it was only a king…

Anyway. I’ve had fun with that as a teaching point, especially since it then leads into the whole question about how seriously it’s meant to be taken given the set-up, but more difficult, sometimes, is trying to find an analogy for barbarian identity if you want to push people away from an idea of tribalism based on genealogical descent. This is of course tricky given how much weight the barbarians themselves, or at least their leaders, could place on biological descent, even if it was often plainly fictive.4 The common analogy with football teams and their supporters doesn’t quite get you over this hump. But on the other hand, where in this day and age are you going to find a group of people with a distinctive and almost uniform appearance in terms of hair and costume, a quasi-militaristic presentation with elements of existing political iconography in it, and even aims of world conquest, who also claim to be kin to each other even though everyone knows it’s not true?

Logo of the band the Ramones, based on the United States Great Seal

(Wikipedia, whence I got this, has an extensive free-use justification for borrowing it that I think can be justified here also, but the Wikipedia article as it now stands, linked through, is also good on the iconography here and its source.)

SPOILER: Jonny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee were not actually related

Cover of Ramones' album Rocket to Russia

Cover of Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia, used on Wikipedia with a similar fair use justification, linked through. Here I’m after the militarism and what I think of as the ‘standard’ uniform.

OH YEAH. Though, of course, you’d then need the distinctive material culture to be adopted by people who weren’t, and couldn’t even have been, part of the original movement…

Child named Daisy wearing Ramones t-shirt

You’ve seen this. Not this particular child, probably, but you’ve seen it, and on people who get to choose their own clothes too.

Brilliant. Now, how do we incorporate this into a pedagogical context?

… I think we’re done here.5 I’d like to dedicate this post to the senior academic who told me off for requesting the Ramones at the Leeds dance and to all the people who danced anyway…

1. The scholarly writings that set this partly off were Catherine Hills, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology”, both in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 16-26 and 27-41 respectively and previously Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003).

2. Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmen 12, ed. and transl. W. B. Anderson in Sidonius, Poems and Letters, ed. and transl. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA 1936), 2 vols, I, pp. 212-213; a newer text of the Latin online here.

3. Compare Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, A. D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation (Princeton 1980), and specifically the pp. 3-39 repr. as “The Barbarians in Late Antiquity and how they were Accommodated in the West” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 25-44, with Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: a new history (London 2005), esp. pp. 192-202 where the same Sidonius poem comes out, taken more or less straight, and Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. 417-454, using Sidonius p. 434. It will not be news to anyone who reads this regularly that I find Guy’s use of this and other evidence on this question most persuasive; he also has a more sustained and nuanced reading of the poem in his “Funny Foreigners: laughing with the barbarians in late antiquity” in idem (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 89-113 at pp. 93-96, which I very much recommend. I owe my copy of that book to the kindness of Professor Matthew Innes.

4. Venerable but classic treatments of this theme are Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” and David N. Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists” in Peter Sawyer and Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29 & 72-104 respectively, the latter reprinted in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), IV.

5. Though if the fact that Joey professed here not to care about history bothers you, you might like to be reminded that one of his biggest fans sees the point

Lady Cynethryth at home

OK, that was three heavy posts, time for something lighter. This time without naming the student, since the bits I’m actually quoting are all mine, I had a tutorial some months back in which we were looking at the Mercian Supremacy, when the kings of Mercia were top dogs in England as no doubt you know, and we spoke of King Offa’s queen Cynethryth, who has the unusual distinction of being the only queen consort in English history, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly the only Anglo-Saxon one, to have coinage struck in her name. She also turns up in Offa’s charters, and was generally recognised as a presence in a way few other queens of the period were. Whether that tells us anything about her, however, as opposed to how much she was important to Offa’s claim to the throne, is more of a debate, and getting at her actual rôle in the kingdom is very hard indeed.1 So, one of the pupils tried pitching her as a kind of Lady MacBeth character, the driving force behind the throne. There’s some material to do this with, if one wanted, with Alcuin (him again) telling a half-story in one letter of a throne acquired and held by spilling copious blood, but I’d never before envisaged Cynethryth standing behind Offa goading him on in the way that Shakespeare’s MacBeth, who is really Holinshed’s MacBeth and not really a historical MacBeth, was driven by Gruach.2 And before I could do anything my mind had gone somewhere entirely otherwise with the idea, snippets of home life in the Mercian court which owe more to Barrie Took than the Bard:

Offa                 : Mek room there lass, I want some breakfast before I sit in judgement.
Cynethryth: Well you haven’t seen this letter from Archbishop Jænberht! I ask you! Who does he think he is, dreadful little man! You’ll have to do something about him.
Offa                  moans: Not Jænberht again. What do you want me to do, ‘e’s the Archbishop, I can’t just mek me own now can I?
Cynethyrth Nonsense, of course you can. In any case it won’t do. We shall holiday in Kent this year, Offa.
Offa                 : Can’t we ‘ave just one spring without a war?
Cynethryth: It won’t do.
Offa                  sighs and gets up.
Cynethryth: And where are you off to, exactly?
Offa                 : Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to get me hair done…

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Yes, OK, not very likely, but seriously that hair demands some explanation. The real question, I suppose, is whether this counts as Oxbridge-quality teaching or not, a question to which I don’t intend to solicit answers. Back to seminar reports next, featuring indeed he of n. 2 below, the one who’s still alive that is, and no coins at all for once!

1. This is kind of a general problem with studying powerful women in the early Middle Ages; they are all unusual. The best place to start is probably with Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: the king’s wife in the early Middle Ages (London 1983), repr. in Women, Power and Politics (Leicester 1998), but if you wanted Cynethryth specifically a different piece by Pauline Stafford would be more useful, her “Political Women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Studies in the Early History of Europe (Leicester 2001), repr. in Continuum studies in medieval history (London 2005), pp. 35-49.

2. Alcuin’s letter, to the Mercian Ealdorman Osbert, is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae no. 122, and translated in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), no. 46 and Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 202. Meanwhile, if you didn’t know either of the facts that the real King Macbethad of Alba had a relatively long and mostly secure time on the throne (1040-1057) and that he might even have been the first King of ‘Scots’ to have ruled from the north coast to the border with England, you should probably get hold of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), where pp. 225-271 will set it all out for you. If you knew the first bit, but the second has you piqued and you want all the detail, then Alex has written it up in “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, though it is also briefly covered in the book, and I’m not sure he’d necessarily choose to present the conclusions in quite the way I just did.

A threat to learning that we rarely consider

Old Scary-Go-Round `Bears Will Eat You' t-shirt artwork

I have some sort of rule about not featuring my students on this blog, as you may have observed. It’s not fair on them to be identifiable in such a fashion, I figure, and looks unprofessional and gossipy. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the exigencies of due credit require a breach of this rule. I cannot, cannot pass up the chance to blog this gem that one of my students the term before last found in the reading, and since I hadn’t seen it myself I think she deserves credit. I have checked with her and she’s cool with that so all due praise to her and on we go. I quote no-one less than Giles Constable:

… there was an active exchange of manuscripts among religious houses in the twelfth century. Peter the Venerable wrote to the Carthusians in 1136/7 asking for a volume of the letters of St Augustine ‘because by accident a bear ate a large part of ours in one of our dependencies’.69

69 Peter the Venerable, Ep. 25, ed. Constable, I, 47; see the notes in II, 112.

This only goes to prove that Carl was right, as so often, to warn us all from Got Medieval: “When you least expect it… expect BEARS!!!” Though how one got a taste for Augustine, I guess that Peter sadly felt it unedifying to explain…

The quote from Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Trevelyan Lectures 1985 (Cambridge 1996), p. 222, cit. Jane Cahill, “Why did the monastic ideal exercise such a potent influence upon both clergy and laity before c. 1200?”, unpublished essay for the course ‘General History II: the formation of medieval Christendom, 1000-1300‘, 1st November 2011; Constable’s reference is to Constable (ed.), The Letters of Peter the Venerable, Harvard Historical Studies 78 (Cambridge 1967), 2 vols.

The rudest tree you ever did see written about

To continue, a lighter note in the knells of Zimmermann critique for once! Just at the close of chapter 6 of his immense Écrire et lire en Catalogne, Michel Zimmermann references as an amusing throwaway a document which I had seen before, but mislaid my reference to, and of which I was delighted to be reminded. The document is an ordinary land-grant, albeit by a count, although it has its own fascinations: among the things granted are ‘waste churches’, for example, which have been made to bear far too much significance in the past1 but which leaves an intriguing tale untold. It may possibly have something to do with the fact that on the boundaries of the property there was a guardia maurisca, if that’s correct a Muslim guard-tower, although we have seen that often when such things are invoked they were actually Carolingian and a tower is a more likely Carolingian than Muslim feature out here.2 But the reason to love the document is that one of the other boundaries is, as the scribe puts it:

On the tip of the higher pine tree, which has a mendacious and malformed name, a name which is however perfectly well-known to everyone, which on account of its deformity we avoid writing… 

Did you get that? The scribe is refusing to tell us what the boundary tree is called because it has a rude name. And that’s why Zimmermann mentions it, and for once tells us where the document can be found.3 But ladies and gentlemen, the story does not end there. That name that could not be uttered, the place where the scribe wouldn’t go? We’re going there. (Here are some preparatory instructions.) Because, not every scribe shared this fine sense of language, you see, and the property is also referred to in a later papal confirmation by Pope John XV, from which we can supply the name.4 Now I know I said there had to be more swearing on this blog but I want to be sure you’re ready for this so I’ve run it through ROT13 in consideration of your tender minds and gentle souls. Those who feel strong enough to decode it should run the following string through this web-page. Ready?


Oh, and I also put the Latin in this footnote, oops.5 Now, this is actually more interesting than it might appear, on inspection. I can’t myself see anything up with this word—and okay, if I’m going to discuss it I suppose I have to name it, Cafralio. But if I bend my brain suitably, I can imagine that a scribe who was looking back at an unfamiliar script with closed letters `a’ might somehow read “coprolio” and there I start to see the problem, although it is a problem in Greek.6 So it’s interesting, because whereas the script change in this area and time was generally from Visigothic bookscript (what the palæographers of the area call escritura condal), which has an almost-triangular letter `a’, to Caroline minuscule which has a rounder one, here we appear to have a scribe who didn’t recognise what must be Caroline script. But that itself is a problem for me, because this ought to being done from notes, and I can’t imagine that people made notes in Caroline, it’s a book hand. The notes should be cursive, and any cursive I know of in this area would have had open letters `a’, I think, not that there’s much to go on.7 And there is also the fact that while John XV’s scribes were happy with the name, an earlier and much more contemporary papal Bull from Benedict VI does not feature it.8

Sample of text in escritura condal

Sample of text in escritura condal, reading "& ipsas meas equas ·IIIIor·", from Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 9, I, no. 50, photograph by me

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal, reading "In hac vero audiencia", from Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins C 20; note that the scribe used both forms, differing at the beginning of `audiencia' from the end

So, OK, one option is that there was an earlier document, perhaps written by a Frankish scribe or from one of those flash guys near Barcelona, and Sant Pere de Rodes’s scribe couldn’t read it but thought he could. That seems awkward to me because Caroline is supposed to be legible, that’s the point, and there would be lots of other letters to compare these with in the document which ought to prevent the mistake. Okay, maybe it wasn’t very good Caroline. But the other option is that the first scribe is right about what the name is—and he does say that it’s well-known to everyone—and while they didn’t dare put it in the text they used for Pope Benedict (which was probably this same charter9), they decided later on that they really needed the boundaries of this property (which was much contested) in a papal Bull and so bowdlerised it to Cafralio for the text they took to Rome for John XV. That sounds pretty silly, but it does seem to me less improbable… Or, is there a Latin reading that would make more sense that I’m just too innocent to see?

1. Albert Benet i Clarà, “La incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942″ in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 568-574, uses any indication of a destroyed or abandoned church to map the progress of the Magyar raid into Catalonia and Spain in 942; I’m not sure that’s what they spent all their time doing, myself… See my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 115-119, which also contains my worst academic pun committed to print. SO FAR.

2. I’m sure there is literature on this but it won’t come to mind; the one I’m thinking of is the supposed Torre dels Moros astride the Casserres peninsula, discussed most thoroughly in Antoni Pladevall i Font, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny a Catalunya (Manlleu 2004), pp. 51-55.

3. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (siècles IX-XIII), Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, I p. 423 citing Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972 & 1989), ap. CXVI, which must by now be reprinted in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I’m not in a position to look that up just now: “In sumitatem de ipso pino altiore qui habet inhonestum atque incompositum nomen, cujus tamen nomen omnibus notissimum est, quem nos propter deformitatem scribere devitamus.”

4. That being de Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXL, which certainly must be better edited in Harald Zimmermann [no relation I believe] (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046(Wien 1984), but again I don’t right now have the access to check.

5. “Cafralio”. <looks around nervously>

6. That doesn’t actually prohibit it, however. On this Zimmermann is quite good, as far as I’m any judge: see Écrire et lire, I pp. 297-312. He sees the use of Greek words here mainly as stylistic showing-off by borrowing from word-lists and glossaries, but that would do for this case.

7. The local palæography is covered in M. Josepa Arnall i Juan & Josep M. Pons i Guri, L’escriptura a les terres gironines (Girona 1993), but there just isn’t really any preserved cursive from this era as far as I know, except the odd chancery-like signature.

8. De Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXVII, again presumably better edited in Zimmermann, Papsturkunden, if only I could reach it.

9. That’s how papal documents of this era tended to be done, with a model you brought with you and got copied up in advance: see Hans-Henning Körtum, Zur Päpstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995).

Christmas charter madlib!

This last week has seen me substantially occupied with two things, other than the Internet: buying presents, and reading charters. But of course charters are themselves a form of gifting! So, this year, why stop at a boring little gift-tag? Let them know you mean this to be a binding and legal transfer of property with the following handy formula!*

In the name of ________1. I _________2 [along with my ________3 ____________4]** am|are donors to you, ____________________5. For it is certain and manifest that it pleased our spirits and pleases us to give to you, and so we give _________________________6, with all its _______________7, and all these things are in the county of ___________8, in the ________9 of __________10, at the place which they call __________11; and this ___________12 with all its ___________13 is bounded on the eastern side by ___________________14, on the southern side by ___________________15, on the western side by ___________________16, and on the part around indeed by ___________________17. Whatever lies within these four boundaries as described above thus we give to you in all integrity with its ways in and ways out, and it is manifest. For if we the abovesaid donors or any person at all should come against this same donation so as to disrupt it, let us or let him find perpetual _____________18 and a _________19 with ___________20, and let this donation remain as before firm and stable and for all time.
This donation done on the _________________21, in the _________22 year of ______________________23.
Signed ______________24, who have made this donation and asked for it to be confirmed. Signed __________________25. Signed ______________26. Signed _______________27.
_____________28 the ___________29 who wrote this same donation and subscribed the day and year as above.

1. Your preferred entity, e. g. God, Capitalism, Bob, Flying Spaghetti Monster
2. Your name and title if any
3. Person’s connection to you, e. g. wife, child, cellmate
4. Person’s name
5. Recipient’s name and title
6. Description of object. And hey, the people who wrote this formula only really had one thing in mind, so this year why don’t you give the gift that keeps on giving, AGRICULTURAL LAND! It’ll make the rest of this make much more sense if you do.
7. Subsidiary components, e. g., water-mills, batteries, remote control, winepresses
8. Name of relevant county or local division
9. Type of jurisidictional settlement
10. Name of jurisdictional settlement
11. Name of homestead, house, etc.
12. Object being given
13. See 7.
14. Whatever is nearest to the object’s eastern side, probably wrapping paper
15. E. g. more wrapping paper – you can just say “similarly” if so
16. E. g. cardboard backing mount, neighbouring vineyard
17. E. g. instruction leaflet, mountain
18. A form of affliction
19. A fate
20. Person famous for suffering 19; traditionally “Judas, betrayer of the Lord”, but I don’t know, that seems more of an Easter thing to me? My suggestion: a “costume” with “a Mickey Mouse impersonator”!
21. Date in Roman calendar
22. Year in office of 23
23. Your current local ruler
24. Your signature
25. Signature of first witness: choose carefully! Or don’t!
26. Signature of second witness
27. Signature of third witness
28. Name of scribe
29. Title or office of scribe, e. g. ‘smartarse’. Have a good break, all, and I’ll be back with photos of things medieval before the end of the year.

* I did try for a few minutes to set this up à la classic Madlibs with interlinear glosses (because Madlibs ARE MEDIEVAL), but soon realised I have no idea whether you’ll be reading at the same screen width as I’m writing, so I hope this is acceptable.

** Insert and repeat if and as necessary.

Oh, did I not mention, you’ll need three witnesses who can be summoned to law in the event of any future dispute at this point.

In Marca Hispanica XI: climbing castles

The top of the Castell de Gurb viewed from inside the ruins of its tower

The top of the Castell de Gurb viewed from inside the ruins of its tower

Of old crumbly castles it is hard to find the trace
(Dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear oh dear no)
Without decent web help you could never find the place
(Dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear oh dear no)

The Turó de Gurb viewed from the side of the C25 highway that separates it from the modern community

The Turó de Gurb viewed from the side of the C25 highway that separates it from the modern community, early-day mist still coating it

Climbing castles can be somewhat challenging ripping fun
Last time I tried I couldn’t reach this one!
Climbing castles in Ca-ta-lun-ya
Inca-stella-mento català!

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop, just up from the building dead centre of the picture

You all know how beastly their lords are
Inca-stella-mento català!
They watch, they loom
They drop people in cells

Remains of a cistern (not actually a cell, sorry) dug into the hilltop of the Castell de Gurb

Remains of a cistern (not actually a cell, sorry) dug into the hilltop of the Castell de Gurb

The best thing you can do is pay and say, “well well”1. So!
Climbing castles in Ca-ta-lun-ya
Inca-stella-mento català!

Flag, cross and triangulation point on the site of the Castell de Gurb

Flag, cross and triangulation point on the site of the Castell de Gurb

(Some historical and topographical details below the cut, along with more pictures of course. With apologies to those “Mephistophelian engines of pleasure”, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.)
Continue reading

In delight at reading Andy Orchard for the first time

(Written offline on the bus to Heathrow, 04/04/11 13:29.)

Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, upper margin

The Old Irish text of the poem on the Vikings in the St Gall Priscian quoted below

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I was friends with a lot of people in the Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic (plus ça change) and this means that some of them were taught by Andy Orchard, now Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College and Professor of English and Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. I never was, being a historian, and because his interests are more linguistic I have somehow managed to miss out on reading any of his stuff until now. I have been robbing myself. Observe this:

The Sankt Gallen manuscript of Priscian also contains some of the earliest surviving vernacular Irish verse to have survived in a contemporary (or near-contemporary) witness. One such famed marginal poem was evidently composed with the Viking threat in mind:

Bitter is the wind tonight
It ruffles the deep sea’s grizzled locks
I do not fear a crossing of the clear waves
By a band of greedy warriors from Scandinavia

But if, as has been suggested, these lines were written in the manuscript not in Ireland itself but by one of the Irish peregrini on the Continent, they nonetheless reflect the extent to which these peregrini may have carried their learning and literature with them, as likely in their memories as on the written page. In another well-known marginal poem, again preserved in a Continental manuscript, an Irish scholar celebrates his cat, who, significantly, carries a Welsh name (Pangur): Wales would have been on a commonly used route to the Continent for many Irishmen. Bizarrely enough, at least three other marginal Irish jottings in later manuscripts mention cats that have gone astray, so offering an endearing sidelight on the home life of at least some Irish scribes. The Sankt Gallen manuscript also contains a rueful comment on Priscian’s assertion that ‘Virgil was a mighty poet’ (Magnus poeta Virgilius fuit); someone has added in Irish, ‘and he isn’t easy, either’. Elsewhere in the margins of the same manuscript the word latheirt is written twice, once in ogham; since the word in question elsewhere seems to gloss the Latin word crapula (‘drunkenness’, ‘hangover’), one wonders in what state the scribe must have been who wrote the original Irish.1

You see? Note not only the significance he gets out of the name of the cat, meaningful trivia there, but also that he uses the relative pronoun ‘who’ for it, not ‘which’. Elsewhere he suggests that the weird Hiberno-Latin text called the Hisperica famina would, if one wanted to know what sort of text it was, have its title best translated as ‘Latinacious speakifications’, which I am amazed is not a blog already.2 Back in Cambridge I was told that Professor Orchard’s supervisions were often held in the pub, something I don’t think we can do now even in Oxbridge; be that as it may, however, I think it is fairly clear that learning from him must be great fun.

1. Andy Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular languages: the creation of a bilingual textual culture” in Thomas Charles-Edwards (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 191-219 at pp. 204-205. The St Gall MS is online now, of course, linked through the image, but if you try sourcing the actual poem within the manuscript via websearch it’s so rarely fully referenced that you have to wonder whether everyone isn’t just quoting the MGH text. By means of this exciting site that has done a digital edition of all the glosses in the text, I can tell you that it is Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, but I’d have taken a long time to find it otherwise.

2. Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular”, p. 202.