Category Archives: Institutions

Seminar CLXI: how to dig up Anglo-Saxon farming

I wrote this offline while WordPress continued not to have visibly done anything that made me prepared to log in, so I feel slightly less bad about the consistent fourteen-month-backlog with my seminar reports than I might do. Slightly. But with that expressed, let’s immediately turn to it in the person of fellow blogger Mark McKerracher, who on 4th February 2013 addressed the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar with the title “Mid-Saxon Agriculture Reconsidered”. I got to this one slightly late but I think I got most of it, and very interesting what I got was, also.

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire, image used under Crown Copyright

I suppose it is worth first making the case that we really do need to know about farming in the Middle ages: it was the source of almost all wealth and the main activity of the vast majority of the population. If we don’t understand it, we don’t understand what is really the first thing about what the people we study did and cared about and how any of the other stuff they did was possible. Nonetheless, there is much here that we don’t understand, and for England this has actually got worse in the last few generations as archæology has improved, because old models, in which after a near-total reversion to pastoralism in the wake of the Roman withdrawal and the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the heavy plough arrived from the Continent in the ninth century and water-mills shortly after and in general set things up for an Agricultural Revolution that would explain England’s subsequent economic punch, have collapsed as we have found, for example, seventh-century heavy ploughs, eighth-century tidal mills, massive levels of seventh- and eighth-century monetisation compared to the later periods of supposed ‘take-off’ and so forth, and failed to find very much sign of fifth-century agricultural land going out of use in any case.1 Almost all the studies trying to deal with this have been economically-focussed, however, and very often on trade and proto-industry, whereas the base of the economy must have been and remained agricultural.2 So it is arguably in farming that change is most important, but also where it is hardest to actually find.

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

This, and the relatively early stages of Mr McKerracher’s doctoral work, meant that what we got here was largely a discussion of ways in which this lack of knowledge might be addressed, but that in itself was illuminating. Technology change, for example, would be a thing you’d hope to be able to see archæologically, but so far we just don’t have enough tools to do a chronology with, not least because the vast bulk of them were probably wood or bone; what then do ones that aren’t tell you about what was normal? Buildings are easier, at least mills are; barns, however, which should be good signs of the kind of productivity that necessitated storage, are basically shaped like houses, so unless they happen to have enough grain in their remains that you can reliably distinguish storage from, say, cookery, there’s still a problem. Grain-drying ovens, which do seem to be a Middle Saxon (i. e. late-seventh to ninth centuries) redevelopment, are still hard to date in use, especially in terms of how long they might go on being used, which obviously matters. Since they can be anything from huts to big stone-built affairs (the two of these known, interestingly, being on the probable border between Mercia and East Anglia which left me thinking that they could have roles in military provisioning3) form does not lead us to function as we might wish. There also arises a problem here that crops up still more with the general phenomenon of wool production which some are now seeing as important much earlier than used to be thought, which is: since any large-scale production of any kind in this period must still have effectively been cottage industry, how can you tell it archæologically from ordinary domestic manufacture? What’s an industrial number of loom-weights? Bear in mind that we can’t date loom-weights with any precision in your answer…

Analysis of cereal remains from the Anglo-Saxon site at Lyminge by Mark McKerracher

Analysis of cereal remains from Lyminge by Mr McKerracher himself and shamelessly hotlinked from his blog

Mr McKerracher’s thoughts as to how to deal with this revolved principally around bones and grains. Neither have been well-studied in all but the most recent digs of Anglo-Saxon settlements, but it still looks like the way forward (or even back, where the remains have actually been preserved). An area that was running sheep primarily for wool would slaughter them only late, whereas one where the wool was a nice side benefit of lamb chops would prefer younger meat: that would be reflected in bone preservation.4 Even if quantities of grain preserved (for which to have happened it usually needs to have been in a fire and charred) are hard to do much with, actually identifying grains can show you shifts in favoured crops from wheat to barley or more importantly to things that are probably fodder crops like rye and oats, suggesting a concentration on horses rather than people, or new growing on land where wheat wasn’t happy, suggesting growing demand, and so on. For these possibilities Mr McKerracher had some sites and information that suggested positive results could be expected, and which allowed him to suggest that his work would show a Middle Saxon farming culture in which we can show that the crops that were being grown were changing, that specialised wool production in the Cotswolds was perhaps the main economic concentration of the period (which might do much to help ground the way that the period becomes a contest for dominance between Wessex and Mercia rather than the kingdoms with an eastern seaboard) and that all of this was only to be found on a few big sites, suggesting that it was innovation from above rather than a general shift beneath the élites. It all needed more testing, he emphasised, but nonetheless this could be some very big things grown from tiny seeds here. I look forward to finally catching up with the blog to find out how things are coming up…

1. It seems unfair to target older books for what their authors couldn’t have known; there’s a reasonable round-up of the literature on the take-off of the tenth century (which is to say, more or less a take-off in the preservation of our sources on economic matters) in Christopher Dyer, “Les problèmes de la croissance agricole du haut moyen âge en Angleterre” in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 117-130. I’m sure there must be one in English as well, but remember I don’t actually work on this stuff, that’s the one I’ve read. The most aggressive statement of a case for a revolutionary change is indubitably Richard Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989).

2. Especially Hodges, Anglo-Saxon Achievement, or his “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, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 163-175.

3. Here I’m obviously influenced by Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008).

4. Two good early examples of how this kind of work can underpin historical conclusions are Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys: an Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82, and Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

Seminar CLX: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, III

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

Returning to a thread after our short diversion to Lotharingia, the next paper I went to in my massive backlog of such reports was the third of John Blair’s Ford Lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, this one entitled: “Why was Burton Built on Trent? Landscape Organisation and Economy in the Mercian Age?” and occurring on 1st February 2013. Here John was propounding a really quite simple theory that has big implications. Starting by setting out the assumption that other kingdoms would have imitated the practices that had made Mercia successful during the period when it more or less dominated Anglo-Saxon England, he reminded us of his last week’s proposition that at this time the functions of central places were decentralised across wider zones and then asked, more or less, what then is to be read from the place-name ‘Burton’, burh-tun, more or less ‘fortress settlement’? What do these places in fact have to do with fortresses and what would that mean?

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air. Note the cropmark near the pylon! Probably modern, but if not, could it be the ‘Wall’? No, OK. For more such conjectures, read on!

The scale of John’s project made him uniquely able to try and answer this; as he put it, by now he had “gone for pretty much every Burton there is”. And there are a lot! And John’s contention was that they mostly, perhaps almost all given the incomplete state of our knowledge, stand upland from and within sight of an Anglo-Saxon burh, and should be seen as supporting settlements, watch-places or similar. The best example, because actually documented, is Bourton-on-the-Water (unrelatedly, the town I have been to with the highest concentration of teashops—there is a part of the High Street where you can stand and see seven, knowing that two more lie just round a corner—and a really quite good motor museum, but I digress), which King Offa gave to his thegn Dudda in 779, and which is is explicitly said to be “portio ruriculi illius attinens urbi qui nominatur Sulmones burg”, ‘the rural portion belonging to the town named Salmonsbury’, but John had many others, as well as regional variations (Boltons, in Northumbria, relating to Bothals, Kingstons in Wessex, Newtons relating to Roman sites that could be described as “ealde geworce”, ‘old earthworks’).1 The biggest of all, subject of his title, is actually only one of five on the Trent, but relates most probably to Tutbury, an old Iron Age fort facing the Peak District and close to the Mercian royal centre of Repton and Breedon. Littleborough, anciently a Roman site (and in Anglo-Saxon times known as Tiowulfesceaster, ‘Theowulf’s [Roman] fort’) boasts two Burtons and two Strettons (Straet-tun, ‘settlement of the [Roman] road’), spread out on either side of it, and Burcot in Oxfordshire seems to link Badbury and Lechlade, being equidistant between them.

View of hilltops from Burcot, Oxfordshire

View from Burcot towards I-know-not-what hilltop, but maybe one of the right ones. Now we are dealing in sites that are below the burhs, not above them, but then this is a -cot, not a -tun

By this stage, while the number of examples was hard to dismiss, the idea of a system was getting harder to hold on to. John had found many many different ways to relate Burtons to burhs, but I began to wonder whether the choice of which one they related to was always clear, especially since some of the burhs in question were so much older than others, Roman or even Iron Age sites to which names of equally unclear date were being related. One, Black Burton near Bampton, has at least been dug, and produced exactly what John wopuld have wished, Middle Saxon buildings and Ipswich Ware pottery pinning its activity reasonably to the late eighth and early ninth centuries and I expect he will have more, but as ever the work of Mary Chester-Kadwell leaves me bothered about making these links by pure geographic association.2 What if there were just enough burhs in the landscape that when you put a new settlement down there was one nearby it could be defined by? Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. But particular concentrations of Burton-names are still suggestive: John saw a line of them in the Peak District more or less delimiting it, a different pattern of burhweord multiple estates down the Welsh border and a row along the edge of the semi-independent enclave of Hastings with which Offa had trouble.3 (One such site, Bishopstone, relating to the burh at Lewes, has also been dug and showed an eighth-century hall with an associated church over-writing an old minster that Offa seems to have repossessed.) Even if not all of this matches up as neatly as John was arguing it does, quite a lot of it could still be some kind of deliberate organisation.

View of hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire

An obvious-looking candidate, the hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, now topped by a modern ‘Topograph’ but who knows what lies beneath, inside those rampart-like ridges? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways this ought not to be a surprise: we do after all accept that the Mercian kings could enforce, to a reasonable degree, obligations of military construction on their subjects, and even if John were not right about centres being decentralised in this period, a fortress network still needs links and watchposts, something which I very much observe in the similar roll-out of a network in Catalonia.4 Something like this system should have existed, and it may be that John has in fact demonstrated it. There is a space for factual realism here that lies somewhere between my wish for a clearer pattern and a readiness to accommodate all possible variations; after all, the landscape itself is very various, and incorporating legacy elements like Roman and Iron Age fortresses would obviously make sense, both in terms of investment cost and the likely defensibility of their locations. Nonetheless, I suspect I will not be the only one who will want the publication of this theory before them before they can shrug off their modern discomfort over accepting a system so authentically ready to be unsystematic, at which point such a publication may indeed do us a power of good in terms of helping us think in Anglo-Saxon terms, not our own…

1. The 779 grant is printed in W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885-1899), 3 vols, no. 230, and indexed in the Electronic Sawyer here as Sawyer 114. Anything else in this post which is not linked or footnoted to a source is coming out of my notes, and will therefore presumably be found in John’s publication of these lectures.

2. M. Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

3. The defeat of the Hæstingas by Offa in 771 is recorded only in Simeon of Durham’s Historia Regum, trans. Joseph Stevenson in his The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Church Historians of England III.2 (London 1855), online here.

4. It remains a pleasure to invoke Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but we should also add Stephen Bassett, “Divide and Rule? The Military Infrastructure of Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mercia” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 53-85, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2007.00198.x.

Seminar CLIX: lords in the middle

One of the many notable things about being in the thick of the Oxford academic environment for that while that I was was the very large number of very good doctoral students hanging about, often from outside the UK, all gnawingly nervous about their prospects on the job market and very often being supervised by Chris Wickham; had we not already established that Chris has some modern-day equivalent of ravens informing him of the world’s doings I would wonder how he kept track of them all. I cannot remember now if Nicholas Schroeder was one of Chris’s, but he was certainly one of the brighter sparks doing the Oxford seminar circuit while I was there.1 I saw him present twice, and the first of these occasions was on 28th January 2013, when he spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “The Forgotten Lords: the feudal revolution and monastic lordship in Lotharingia, c. 900 to c. 1250″.

Map of tenth-century Lotharingia

Map from M. Schroeder’s handout for the paper, pencil customisations in the original; apologies for photo quality, I’m away from home as I write this

Invoking the feudal revolution at all of course means stepping into a dense historiographical forest over the social changes of the tenth and eleventh centuries in Europe, in which as M. Schroeder observed, the debate has died without being solved. In his home country of Belgium, however, the local version was very much carried into orthodoxy by the work of Léopold Genicot, who saw the great estates of the earlier period being broken into new territorial lordships by means of lords subjecting peasants to what had previously been public jurisdiction, and solidarities developing within the communities subject to those lords.2 To this were then added various new voices, Florian Mazel arguing for a new style of ecclesiastical lordship developing in the period of papal reform in which rule via advocates and lay abbots ceases to be acceptable and a more old-fashioned and direct form of lordship had to be adopted instead, Paul Fouracre arguing that even in the eleventh century ties of lordship were more personal than territorial, the familia being the most important group to which anyone belonged, and Charles West most recently arguing that what was going on was the ultimate success of the Carolingian effort to create a locally-responsible lordship based on relationships that was, however, intended to be different from ownership but in fact never really became so before the state that required this ceased to be. Charles also argues that this worked out very differently on the two sides of the Meuse, Champagne becoming a big territory and Upper Lotharingia never ceasing to be a land of monastic lordships within a greater lord’s less intensive territory.3

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy

The current state of the old abbey of Stavelot-Malmédy, whence most of the information in the paper here discussed, from Wikimedia Commons

Having laid all this out for us in good critical fashion, M. Schroeder then began the task of setting it against his work on the monastery, documents and territory of Stavelot-Malmédy.4 This hit immediately against two complications: the first was trying to get perspective on a society that is larger than just the Church when the Church’s documents are almost your only source, and the other was that the Church, as Mazel’s paradigm just discussed implies, had different pressures on the way it managed its property from those operating on laymen. I am not convinced that the ideologies are that different, in fact, but in the eleventh century especially the Church was under pressure from within itself and without to adhere more closely than before or later to the ideology its members urged upon society more widely. Nonetheless, M. Schroeder pointed out that one can find all manner of models of lordship in the Stavelot evidence, more than any of the templates outlined above accommodate: there’s already territorial lordship in the tenth century (he said), with both jurisdiction and personal ties (in labour and service obligations); attendance at courts of the monastery’s familia could be demanded from people both inside and outside its territoria, people could live inside the territoria who were ‘strangers’ because they were not members of the familia, and Stavelot’s one attempt to create a castle lordship seems to have failed and got reorganised into villages. What M. Schroeder did not see, however, was the monastery’s subordinates and advocates becoming threats to its own authority, and neither did he see much collapse of the various forms of lordship into each other until the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.

The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

The castle lordship may not have worked out but the castle itself is still quite impressive! The château-fort de Logne as it now stands

In questions two things came out: one, raised by Mark Whittow, was what archæology might add to this, which of course really hits against the problem that that archæology is arrayed across several countries and turns out to be M. Schroeder’s post-doctoral project, and the other, raised by me, was that some way to distinguish between the different rows and columns of what he called a matrix of lordship might be to consider who had set them up. I think that might work for Catalonia to an extent, in as much as counts and monasteries do seem to aim for different things there, but I don’t think I got the question out right as what M. Schroeder answered with was that the important thing might be when lordship and village organisation combined. That may well be true but I still want to know if what I had meant to ask would have been useful… Anyway, that aside, this was a very careful sifting of evidence through a variety of frameworks that left me with some hope that there are in fact ways to advance the tired old feudal transformation debate to the point where we might actually reach new ways to express and explain the developmental similarities it currently struggles to unite.

1. Although there are other publications by now, the one of M. Schroeder’s that got mentioned in the introduction was Jean-Pierre Devroey & Nicholas Schroeder, “Beyond royal estates and monasteries: landownership in the early medieval Ardennes” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 39-69, DOI:10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00334.x.

2. At the time I noted down a reference to ‘Genicot 1968′ but the venerable professor turns out to have been quite busy that year and I don’t know which publication was meant: the most obviously relevant seems to be his “Nobles, sainteurs et alleutiers dans le Namurois du XIe siècle” in Album J. Balon (Namur 1968), pp. 117-123, but that seems pretty short to be a classic and irreplaceable formulation!

3. Referring to F. Mazelle, Féodalités 888-1180 (Paris 2010); P. Fouracre, “Marmoutier and its Serfs in the Eleventh Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 15 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 29-50 and idem, “Marmoutier: familia versus family. The Relations between Monastery and Serfs in Eleventh-Century North-West France” in Andrew Reynolds, Wendy Davies & Guy Halsall (edd.), People and Space in the Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 255-274; Charles West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation between Marne and Moselle, c. 800-c. 1100 (Cambridge 2013).

4. The charters of the abbey are edited in Joseph Halkin & Charles Gustave Roland (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Stavelot-Malmédy (Bruxelles 1909-1930), 2 vols, which is apart from anything else one of the most handsome books I think I ever handled in the course of medieval studies.

Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.

1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

Seminar CLVII: finding friends in tenth-century England

Even my implicit schedule is getting off-kilter here, sorry. This week has been busy with job applications and seminars, on which latter subject on 23rd January 2013 I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research to hear Els Schröder, then of the University of York, present a paper entitled, “Searching for Friendship in Anglo-Saxon Sources: multilingual insights into tenth-century elite culture”, and I thought you’d maybe like to hear about it.

The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the <em>Liber Feudorum Maior</em> of the Counts of Barcelona

An illustration, not of Anglo-Saxons but of the problem: were these two men… "friends"? The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona

Dr Schröder completed her thesis in 2012, and was here doing that trickiest of things, trying to compress a 90,000 word thesis into a 9,000 word paper and still be comprehensible and interesting, which she certainly managed.1 There was still something of a chapter-by-chapter structure visible, so that we got methodology and literature first. That revealed that, unusually for the early Middle Ages, the sources here are unusually secular. For some reason we have no tenth-century letter collections, for example, so the usual focus on lettered ecclesiastics isn’t available. The relatively few charters also don’t use such language or work in such terms. There thus isn’t enough material to approach without models, and one needs several: the sources call ties of dependency as well as interdependency friendship, and such language is especially strong at court where the stakes are much higher and the social distances greater than we would find in wider society.2 Dr Schröder therefore called for more discourses to be brought into play.

One source of material is the Anglo-Saxon royal lawcodes, but here friendship turns up mainly as something the kings can make perform official functions: a `friend’ will stand surety for someone, will do the king’s bidding if they wish to retain his `friendship’, it’s quite formal and of course may not have actually worked. Such relationships where we can see them in operation are explicable in terms of negotiation as much as attachment, and may have been quite evanescent. (I myself think that such relationships, if detectable over time, must indicate a kind of attachment too, even if only an ability to get along for the parties’ mutual good, but I admit that even that model fails to register short-lived and unsuccessful friendships, which might be very useful to be able to cultivate for just long enough… Here, well out of my usual period, Richard the Lionheart’s persistent ability to bounce back from disaster by relying on even his enemies’ goodwill often strikes me like this.3)

Cover of Linda Tollerton's Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England

The only decent image I can quickly find of an Anglo-Saxon will is on this, the cover of a work by another York doctoral alumnus and published by the same people as my book … so I guess I’ll link!

Wills look slightly better for the enquiry, as 15 out of 67 use this kind of language. Here again we see these relationships under strain, especially as what is being envisaged here is kind of the last call upon them, be that dependents appealing upwards or lords and husbands trying to call on loyalties in life to protect their wife and children after their death. The problem still exists that informal relationships are here being turned into obligations, just as in the laws.

Thus one winds up forced onto the writings of people like Ælfric and literature like Beowulf, as usual dragged to whatever century one needs for the argument—the field will probably collapse if we ever do agree a date for that poem… But here we get words like ‘leof’ (love) much more, even if Ælfric does tend to gloss it in Latin as ‘venerabilis’, venerable, or ‘honorabilis’, honourable, rather than, you know, ‘amatus’. Again, to an extent, we see these terms because people place obligations on them, to support the person expressing the tie either in preaching or in battle; the language is evoked to formalise a relationship into expectations of action. This also clouds the occurrences in hagiography: St Dunstan wound up looking after the treasury of King Eadred because he was the king’s ‘specialis amicus’, which thus winds up looking more like an office than a relationship, and is of course the same sort of arrangement as we see in the wills: you will do this, because you are my friend… Even advice and counsel can be viewed through this frame and once one sees the frame it’s hard to unsee it.

I presume that there must have been people in Anglo-Saxon England who got on with each other as friends in our sense of the term, but what this paper seemed to show is that our sources are largely using such terminology as cladding for something else when they write about it. Bernard Gowers made the excellent point that we only have such writing because the parties in a relationship are not, or are not going to be, in regular touch; we wouldn’t have anything from people who saw each other ever day and hung out together precisely because they could communicate face-to-face. Alice Taylor re-emphasised that these sources don’t see friendship as a relationship of equals, as we tend to do, and wondered what other terms could be searched for that might correspond more closely to our frameworks, but Dr Schröder thought that both level and hierarchical relationships could be found, and it seemed to me that we were seeing the terms in use when someone wanted to use the relationship, thus converting it into a power relation in which someone can deny a demand only at the cost of continuing the relationship. There are also issues about family, who don’t get treated separately by the language of friendship, and of gifts creating or cementing such relationships…4 the enquiry is not over. It was, all the same quite clear that there had been a thesis’s worth of work in getting this far, and it will be worth hearing about Dr Schröder’s next steps!

1. Her thesis was “Friendship and Favour in Late Anglo-Saxon Élite Culture: a study of documentary and narrative Sources, c. 900-1016″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of York, 2012), online here.

2. The two works whose models my notes suggest were drawn on, and ultimately found wanting, were Gerd Althoff, Amicitiae und Pacta: Bündnis, Einigung, Politik und Gebetsgedenken im beginnenden 10. Jahrhundert, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXVII (Hannover 1992), transl. as Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 2004), and Stephen C. Jaeger, Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility (Philadelphia 1999).

3. My pet episode of this is when Richard lifted Saladin’s siege of Joppa in 1194. He charged ashore in full armour, bust into the city and commandeered the three horses left there, but when the Earl of Leicester was dismounted in a press of fighting, Richard weighed in and put the guy on one of his spare horses, at which point Saladin’s brother Saphadin sends a man into the battle with two more mounts for Richard, saying to the king that he looks as if he’s running short! The two accounts of this differ on whether Saladin himself had sent the horses or not, and the matter is complicated by the fact that Richard had knighted Saphadin’s son earlier in the campaign. It could also be intended as a barb or a display of the disparity of resources, of course, but if so it’s still a joke between people who shared a frame of reference. Not in any way the same cultural circumstances of course, but Richard did go on to lift the siege, so those cultural circumstances got him out of his mess and he’d helped to create them… Source texts in Helen J. Nicholson (transl.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: a translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Crusade Texts in Translation 3 (Aldershot 1997), VI.14-24, the knighting of Saphadin (Sayf al-Din)’s son at V.12; variant testimony noted p. 364 n. 67.

4. ‘Friends by blood’, as Marc Bloch put it. This subject is one of those many where it doesn’t seem like a few pages of Bloch’s Feudal Society (transl L. A Manyon (London 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 123-125 for ‘amis charnels’ and 231-238 for dependency expressed as friendship) ought to be able to say everything there is to be said on a subject and yet it’s really really hard to surpass them…

Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-’Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!

1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

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.

Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

Turning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013 were covered at Magistra et Mater long ago already, and so was the second, and thus I find myself leaping forward to 18th January 2013 and back to Professor John Blair, who on that afternoon gave the first of his lectures as Ford Lecturer for 2013.1

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The Ford Lectures are an annual series of public lectures in history that have been running in Oxford since 1896. They are given by a historian elected by a board that administers the relevant bequest, and they are what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’. They are attended by a whole range of people, by no means all historians, and they consequently have to be pitched for an intelligent but non-expert audience. Probably as a result of this some fairly important books have resulted from them that hold their value even today.2 Given this audience and opportunity, Professor Blair opted to showcase his latest work, the early outcomes of the project that had left yours truly holding the fort for him while he was on leave, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and the first lecture was called “Defining Anglo-Saxon Landscapes”.

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

One recent high-profile excavation, the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The starting position here was basically that the massive availability of new archæological data accumulated since digging became a normal part of building and development work permits a new survey of what we know about settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, but very little has been done to take this chance, not least because of the sheer volume of material.3 But John evidently likes a challenge and has read really quite a lot of it, and talked to a great many people in various places. Not all these people had talked to each other, of course, so sometimes there was work from places very near to each other which no-one but John had seen all of; even where this wasn’t the case, the construction of a national framework offered new meanings for it all at a higher level. In the lectures John focused most notably on Mercia, but the book will apparently offer more (and he has already covered some of the gaps by publishing his recent Chadwick lecture).4

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Even what we had involved considerable diversity, however, of settlement and of evidence and investigation: coins, sunken-featured buildings, post-built houses, portable artefacts and grave-goods have all been found and indeed been sought differently over the years and from place to place. John also laid considerable stress on what we cannot see, of which the most obvious thing is wooden artefacts, tools and possessions and indeed in some cases buildings; he used examples from modern Karelia, here among many other places, to make the point that, “fugitive things can be very elaborate”. Not just wood, of course: my notes also mention tapestries and tents as examples of things that we know could be very splendid in the Middle Ages but which almost never survive archæologically. On top of this, but consequently hard to detect, are genuine regional differences in Anglo-Saxon-period practice, which might be matters of fashion or identity but might also in any given case also or instead be environmental as much as anything, and lying around the landscape are things that are very evident but impossible to date, like earthworks, which lately have been getting more and more likely to be Anglo-Saxon in date in at least some cases but usually only might be.

A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

Last signs of an identity crisis? A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

The purely environmental factors can be differentiated from more cultural ones because the latter change, however. For much of this period, for example, the South Coast was apparently not as important an area in trading and settlement terms as the North Sea coast, despite the former’s greater proximity to the Continent.5 Trade is one thing, however, and settlement is another and harder to get at; it doesn’t seem to reliably coincide with coin finds or cemetery evidence, for example, so that a complex model of culture and materiality is needed. John hypothesized that for the earliest part of the period, where furnished burial seems to be the main cultural expression we can recover archæologically, Anglo-Saxon society was going through a crisis of identity that makes the very phrase `Anglo-Saxon society’ problematic, but that once it was through that things like buildings, coins and ceramics became a a more likely sphere for material investment. Filling out that suggestion had to wait a week for the next lecture, however, and so I shall leave it to another post having hopefully whetted your appetites for more!

1. The ones I’m not covering, just for completeness, are: Edward James, “Visualising the Merovingians in Nineteenth-Century France”, paper presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 12th December 2012; Éienne Rénaud, “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”, ibid., 9th January 2013; and Rob Houghton, “The Vocabulary of Groups in Eleventh-Century Mantua”, ibid. 16th January 2013.

2. I suppose the ones that matter most to what I do are J. Armitage Robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1922 (Oxford 1923); Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1929 (Oxford 1932, repr. 1961); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1943 (Oxford 1946, repr. 1998); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1970 (Oxford 1971); Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980, Education and Society and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 16 (Leiden 2004); and Peter Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2013), but there are lots of others covering other periods.

3. An Oxford determination to address this is already evident in Helena Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2012).

4. John Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013).

5. John here made considerable play of distribution maps emphasising the relative wealth of an area he described as “the Wash catchment area”, a sort of Greater Great Ouse reaching down to the Chilterns, but in terms of the coastal areas the importance of the North Sea compared to the Channel is a conclusion one could also find in Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982) and Chris Loveluck, “Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence” in François Bougard, Hans-Werner Goetz & Régine le Jan (edd.), Théorie et pratiques des élites au Haut Moyen Âge : Conception, perception et réalisation sociale. Theorie und Praxis frühmittelalterlicher Eliten: Konzepte, Wahrnehmung und soziale Umsetzung, Haut Moyen Âge 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 21-68.

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014.

Seminar CLII: Thames Valley oddity over several centuries

Oxford Archaeology, frequently in the news for some new exciting dig or other, are not actually anything to do with the University of Oxford, but while I was at the latter it was repeatedly evident that both parties saw the advantage in talking to each other anyway, and this was again manifest on 26th November 2012 when OA’s Senior Project Manager, Paul Booth, came to speak to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title, “‘Roman’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Settlements and Burials at Horcott, Gloucestershire – Continuities and Discontinuities on the Thames Valley Gravels”.

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott

Horcott is an exciting site for two reasons, the first being that although it’s been fairly extensively dug it wasn’t a major place, so it gets us unusually close to the level of the everyday population, maybe not as exciting as yet another princely burial but in some ways a lot more use. The other reason it’s exciting is that it has a substantial Iron Age phase, clear signs of Roman-period occupation and then also Anglo-Saxon features, which raises the ever-intriguing possibility of continuity between the Roman and post-Roman uses of the site. It is also a vexing site for two reasons, however. The first, a looming factor over everything I say that follows and some of what I’ve already said, is that the site has long been quarried for gravel and lots of the surrounding archaeology has therefore gone. With many a site (I suppose Flixborough is the one with hottest debate around it, and Sutton Hoo perhaps the most obvious uncontested example) there is the possibility that if one just dug a bit further in one direction one would get details that seriously change how the site should be interpreted; if that was the case here, we’ll never know, as any potential palaces, princes, churches, etc. have long been dispersed as roadstone and so on.

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during the Horcott dig

The second vexation though is that when you have a site where continuity might exist you really have to think about what would prove that. Simply showing structures with finds evidence from different periods isn’t enough: abandoned ruins can be fixed up by newcomers. Even old field boundaries may remain to be reused: here, there are Iron Age divisions still detectable in the gravels but other features of that era have been over-written by subsequent buildings. There is also the possibility that in fact there was continuity, but because the slowly-reidentifying population was shifting its building location every few generations and because social and religious practice was changing, you can’t tell it’s a continuity in the archæology because when they come back into view their material culture profile is changed. All these difficulties were rehearsed by Dr Booth before he let us at the actual evidence, so we were warned.

Foundations of a Roman farmhouse at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Foundations of the Roman farmhouse

So, in brief, what they have is an Iron Age landscape showing quite a lot of buildings (or at least a lot of postholes, much confused by later building), enclosures and trackways, and then what may be best summarised as a small Roman farm, centred around a solidy-built but small house (three rooms along a corridor). This began in one of the Iron Age enclosures in the mid-second century and seems to have been out of use by the end of the fourth century, but from about the middle of the third century a cemetery had started to develop across the stream from the farm and that went on after the farm buildings were out of use. The Anglo-Saxon settlement is scattered over much of the site, distinguished not least by overwriting earlier things but also by building type (dug-out, ‘sunken-featured’ buildings with four timber ‘halls’ of uncertain but unimpressive size) and material goods, pottery, bone and craft debris that speak of late fifth- and early sixth-century dates. None of this, you see, establishes continuity: the site is obviously still an attractive location but nothing is really staying in use. Except, as it turns out, the cemetery.

Excavation of an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Excavation of a sunken-featured building, paused for photo-op

The cemetery is the interesting bit. There were 59 late-Roman burials, more men than women, mostly older people and no children, largely oriented north-south and buried with knives and no other goods (which is all normal for the period).1 A full quarter of these burials were somehow ‘deviant’, however: ten of the men were buried face-down and on the edges of the enclosure (because it is enclosed), but four older women were buried, decapitated, in the very centre, and there were three other decapitations as well. The radio-carbon dates of this group came out between 350 CE and 560 CE and the whole group was disposed close to a division ditch. Then there was a later group, radio-carbon dates between 640 and 780, buried east-west in a different part of the enclosure, comprised of three adult females and otherwise entirely children (I didn’t write down the numbers, annoyingly, sorry). Of these children two were buried prone.

'Deviant' burial from the late Roman cemetery at Horcott, Gloucestershire

‘Deviant’ burial from the late Roman cemetery

Initially it’s hard to see this as continuity: the burial populations are quite different and they’re buried in pretty different ways, but the intriguing thing is that firstly they are in the same enclosure, even if separated, and secondly both groups are unusual for their eras, the former because of the number of deviant burials, suggesting some marginal group here gathered for burial, and the latter because of the absence of men. Although nearby Fairford might, it was generally agreed in questions, have been where the Anglo-Saxon men were buried, that still leaves the population here as being selected for some reason or other, and put to rest in a place where a previous selective population had been buried. What remained here and what was known about it that marked the site out for this kind of use after probably a century of disuse? Since the whole area (as John Blair pointed out in questions) was only really seeing Anglo-Saxon material culture from the beginning of the seventh century, it’s maybe not surprising that settlement of that era looks that way and settlement before doesn’t really show up, as Romano-British settlement is characteristically difficult to find archæologically, but while nothing else links the phases of this site together in an obvious way, this common marginality of burial population suggests that despite that we might be missing something that was durable here in a way that we would struggle to get from material remains alone.2

Saxon pottery from settlement excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Saxon pottery from the settlement site

1. Although I haven’t read it myself, I believe the go-to on Late Roman burial is R. Philpott, Burial Practices in Roman Britain: a survey of grave treatment and furnishing A. D. 43-410, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 219 (Oxford 1991).

2. The question of the invisible Britons is taken up and debated from a wide range of perspectives in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007). There doesn’t seem as yet to be any publication of Horcott so it will clearly be something for interested persons to look forward to!