Category Archives: Institutions

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I've now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it's that successful. So if you haven't already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery...]

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 3 February 2015

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 beginning of February 2015.

Seminar CXXXVII: relics, angst and agency

Now that I’m back into reports from the academic year now expiring, rather than the one before, you could be forgiven for thinking that I spent last autumn ignoring everything that was going on in my new home institution in favour of disappearing to London every week. Not so, gentle reader, for Birmingham boasts a CEntre for the Study of the Middle Ages which, at that point at least, t was running a weekly seminar, and on 21st October 2013 Birmingham’s own Dr Simon Yarrow was speaking to it, with the title “Varieties of Christian Materiality: relics and saints’ cults in Anglo-Norman England”. And since Simon’s work was one of the things people lauded when I got this post, I made sure to be there.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Simon’s paper was exploring one of the tensions inherent to Christianity, that between body and spirit, the material and non-material that is indissoluble from a religion that centres on its God becoming a man. Many a splinter from orthodoxy has tried to separate the two but for those who remain orthodox, the material world presents difficulties when objects are held to be holy in some way or other, something that can obviously extend to the bodies of the faithful and therefore reaches a particular point of extremity when one is faced with saints’ relics, physical items that are supposed to be connected to a non-physical soul now in Heaven. Again, the extreme position here is one of schism, a Calvinist rejection of the spirituality or power of such objects, but when you don’t go so far, what options are there?1

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By way of answer Simon took us through the positions of two twelfth-century writers, Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum and Goscelin of St-Bertin’s Liber confortationis.2 Guibert has some scepticism about relics, all right, and stresses that the object that is most real in its holiness is the Eucharist, compared to which everything else in the physical world is rather one- dimensional and of course, may not be real, whereas with the Eucharist you always know it’s Christ. Goscelin was walking a rather more difficult line, in as much as he was writing spiritual fortification to an anchoress, a woman whom he had known before her enclosure; his approach, that she was herself now a living relic, an object made holy and put beyond life in the world by its ‘burial’, does not remove the clear sense of personal connection he felt to her and indeed missed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a lot of the questions were about agency, a theme that Simon had briefly brought up at the beginning of the paper. A living object obviously still has some agency, even if within four close walls it’s somewhat constrained; she could not have written back, for example. Relics also raise this issue, however, as tokens of a holy presence whose whole point is that it retained power to cause action in the world.

Blocked entry to an anchoress's cell in the north wall of St James's Shere, Surrey

Blocked entry to an anchoress’s cell in the north wall of St James’s Shere, Surrey

As a result, Simon’s position that objects only act as wielded by persons seemed to me to butt against his initial and sharp observation that our sources only let us see the psychological effects of objects on our authors rather than any real action, or, rather, to form a circle with it. Perhaps it’s just that I have seen the clever people at In the Medieval Middle invoke Deleuze and Actor Network Theory by way of giving objects agency too many times not to wonder whether the position Simon took gives us a full picture of the way medieval people experienced the material world (and perhaps he would say that we can’t get one with the sources we have). Also it’s that when the agency of relics comes up I think of Charles West’s excellent paper about mystery relics at ninth-century Dijon that threw people to the floor with an invisible force no-one dared identify, a brilliant case because reported to us not as propaganda but as a request for help from the person trying to deal with it.3 Because this interests me, and because I wanted my new colleagues to know I could think, I may have made more of a nuisance of myself in questions than was entirely fair, since this wasn’t the particular point of the paper, but I still think it’s interesting to think about and Simon’s thoughts made it all the more imperative to join in.


1. Simon cited William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (London 1902) here; it’s online, if you want to look.

2. Guibert’s work is translated in his Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades, transl. Joseph Mcalhany & Jay Rubinstein (London 2011); Goscelin’s can be found as Liber Confortatorius: the Book of Encouragement and Consolation, transl. Monika Utter (Woodbridge 2004, repr. 2012).

3. See Charles West, “Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 295-311.

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

My relentless progress through my seminar report backlog now finally leaves me looking at the last seminar I went to in Oxford, something of a milestone. The person who had the dubious honour of that slot in my academic life was the estimable Dr Alice Taylor, one of Kings College London’s regiment of Alices and an acquaintance of long standing from the Institute of Historical Research but here presenting to the Medieval History Seminar at All Souls with the title “Lex scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish law compared”. This was a version of a paper she’d given in Oxford the previous year, but I’d missed it then and there was plenty of debate this time round…

Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, fo. 59v

The opening of the text of Leges Scocie, as close as there is to an early medieval Scottish lawcode, in Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, the so-called Berne Manuscript, fo. 59v.

It has so far been Alice’s most widely-recognised achievement to convince people that there even was such a thing as early medieval Scottish law, which she has had to retrieve from contextually-undatable references in much later manuscripts, but when you’ve done that, as she explained, you start to wonder about how the system worked and since, if that was your best evidence, you have no case-law or documentation by which practice might be examined, you have to start comparing. So, after a brief run-through of the different schools of historical thought on how written law relates to what people actually do to maintain social order in their communities, from the minimalist Patrick Wormald thesis that legislators of such law were not after judicial effects so much as the promotion of the legislators’ position above society to the somehow more spiritual one that written law reflects the wider community ideology as it was lived, she adopted a position for debate that written law was in these cases the top of an iceberg of unwritten legal practice, both part of the same corpus of social ideology, but more similar between her areas at the bottom than at the top.1

The three corpora do certainly differ, not least in preservation—Wales has various thirteenth-century redactions of what purports to be a royal lawcode of the tenth century, the Laws of Hywel Dda, Anglo-Saxon England has a large corpus of summative royal lawcodes with additional provisions also largely issued in royal council in what we now recognise as a fairly Carolingian way and in Scotland, as said, there are thirteenth- and fourteenth-century references to laws that in some cases probably go back rather further—but also in the legislative process: Welsh law names a king but its real developers were specialist lawyers, Anglo-Saxon England places the king first and foremost and Scotland is somewhere between the two. Alice argued, however, that all three corpora have references in that imply strongly that the legislators expected the initial action against criminals to come from the communities in which the crimes were committed, and the royal or state process would only creak into operation when that failed. The English laws are full of communal obligations for default of which the king can penalise, at what after the tenth-century is usually a flat fine of 120 shillings; Welsh law has a whole set of pay-scales for abetting crimes, which are charged at the same rate as the crimes themselves but to the state, rather than the victims; and the more shadowy Scottish references still assume posses who might hang a thief if he was caught, in a style quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon laws. All, or so Alice argued, expected the most immediate action to be taken in community, leaving royal justice as a superstrate over a bustle of quite various local enforcement of communal solidarities. For this reason, the main focus of the laws in all three areas is on persons, not communities, who have broken out of their social bonds by reason of their actions.

Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

An illustrated page from the Laws of Hywel Dda in Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

This met with some opposition and refinement in discussion. Paul Brand pointed out that despite the texts’ focus on individual actions, royal enforcement was carried out against whole communities, such as the harrying of Worcestershire in 1041 by King Harthacnut’s orders to pick just one.2 Mark Whittow suggested that the real rôle of law in these cases was to penalise action on behalf of the kindred, i. e. feud, as opposed to action on behalf of the community; and Wendy Davies evinced scepticism that the local community existed in these areas as a group so clearly defined as that it could be expected to act as a body. To the last, Alice (correctly, it seems to me) said that the texts nevertheless envisage such a group with mutual knowledge, though this doesn’t remove Wendy’s objection that it’s hard to show that was really there on the ground. Thomas Charles-Edwards and Tom Lambert both raised the question of change, however, and here there seemed to be more room for modification at least about what the royal law was for: Tom has after all argued something not dissimilar to this but both he and Professor Charles-Edwards emphasised that the lawcodes we have (i. e. the English ones) develop new terms over the course of the tenth century, as the kings try and open up space for themselves in what had previously been community action.

My notes no longer make it clear to me exactly how the three positions differed here, but the focus of disagreement seems to have been on whether the legislators, in all three cases, were trying to use what the communities over whom they legislated already did, to support it or to change it. I think Alice was arguing for the first two options, but for England the swell of opinion elsewhere around the table seemed much more on the first plus the third. It did seem to me (what my notes do reflect) that the English laws have as a big part of their agenda to regularise and eliminate local variation in custom, and the detailed provisions of the Welsh laws look like that to me also; the Scottish stuff I know much less well, but since we don’t have it as issued (if it was) it’s harder to say. The differences in practice here may not matter very much, but the Oxford scholarship seems even now to be very keen on knowing the minds of rulers, and it does seem as if law should be a way one can do it; to that way of thinking, Alice’s paper was probably more subversive than it initially appeared…


1. Alice here contrasted Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001) with Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia (New Haven 1988). Patrick’s book is certainly where to start for more on any of the lawcodes mentioned in this post. As for Alice, her beacon work so far might be “Leges Scocie and the lawcodes of David I, William the Lion and Alexander II” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 207-288, but this paper itself is out, since last month only, as “Lex Scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Law Compared” in Judith Scheele & Fernanda Pirie (edd.), Legalism: justice and community, Legalism 2 (Oxford 2014), pp. 47-76!

2. So recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for the year 1041. in whatever edition or translation you prefer to use; mine of resort is Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1998).

Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter

We seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gathering of the intermittent organisation known as Historians of Medieval Iberia. The main reason this had occurred was the presence in the UK of a man much cited here, Professor Jeffrey Bowman, visiting Exeter, because of which Professor Simon Barton thereof had wanted to organise a day symposium, and so being called we variously went. Due to the uselessnesses of First Great Western trains, I was only just in time for the first paper, but in time I was, and the running order was as follows, in pairs of papers.

  • Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Lordship and Gender in Medieval Catalonia”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Per multa curricula ex parte destructa: membership of a Church community in Catalonia c. 1000″
  • Robert Portass, “Doing Business: was there a land market in tenth-century Galicia?”
  • Teresa Tinsley, “Hernando de Baeza and the End of Multicultural Iberia”
  • Graham Barrett, “Beyond the Mozarabic Migration: frontier society in early medieval Spain”
  • Simon Barton, “The Image of Aristocracy in Christian Iberia, c. 1000-c. 1300: towards a new history”

Professor Bowman’s paper is now out as an article, but some brief account may be of interest anyway.1 The way it worked was to do what I love doing, standing Catalonia up as a better-evidenced counter-example to a broader theory, in this case that of Georges Duby that female lordship as early as the tenth century was an incredibly rare occurrence seen as a pale imitation of masculinity. To do this involved setting up some kind of definition of lordship, which Professor Barton suggested should at least include fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’. Women with military rôles are not unknown in the Catalan records (wait for a future post here, as I think the phenomenon goes down lower than Professor Bowman had time to look), countesses in the eleventh century at least certainly presided over courts alone, a good few held castles in fief (or by other arrangements2), we have various Arabic testimonies to the countesses of Barcelona being conduits for diplomatic communication and under ‘special projects’, if we mean things like land clearance, Abbess Emma is an obvious example.3

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, a woman who would not give up government till there was no choice, in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

So that case looks pretty much made: in this area, for that definition of lordship (and it does occur to me now that it is a very tenth-century-and-later one because of the inclusion of castles, though one could still say the same of Dhuoda I guess), it’s hard to see anything odd about female participation in lordship here and we should stop thinking it odd. And I suppose I’d agree with that, and not necessarily just here (another future post) but there does still seem to me to be a difference, in the Languedoc at least where the ninth century gives enough to compare with, between the rôles in and frequency with which women appear in charters, especially as far as their titles go, to suggest that even if this situation wasn’t odd, it might still be new. It did, however, last: Professor Bowman was keen to stress in questions that those who have looked for a shift towards a lineage system here have found it hard to locate over any timeframe much shorter than a century.4

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

As for me, little enough needs saying there: in the throes of another project entirely and with no time to come up with two papers so close to each other from it, I’d offered the latest version of the now-legendary Sant Pere de Casserres paper; I ran through where the place is, what the sources are, why there’s a problem with the narrative of its foundation and what the actual story might be that would fit it; Graham Barrett suggested some modifications to my Latin and then the questions were all for Professor Bowman, which is fine as he was building a much bigger thesis. One of my problems with the Casserres paper is working out what larger point it makes; the other, of course, is non-responsive archives, but that’s a bigger problem than just here…

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The second session put two rather less-connected papers together. Rob was out to demonstrate peasant access to the land market in his corner of early medieval Spain, which has often been overlooked because the dominant Spanish historiography interested in peasants has been more interested in how they resisted power than how they cooperated with it.5 This Marxist perspective needs rethinking, argued Rob, not least because many of these peasants did not live in the Marxist ‘peasant mode’, but operated in both vertical and horizontal networks of power and assistance. Even when those networks led to the monastery of Celanova, whence most of Rob’s material, it was not always to peasant disadvantage to cut a deal with the monks, whose rents were limited, and the land that was then sold to them had often come from other peasants previously. The problem here is of course the definition of peasant, but I think I would agree that whatever we call the free smallholders here they could happily do business with each other, and do so with an eye to their own benefit.6

The Alhambra palace in Granada

The Alhambra palace in Granada, now very keen to be widely known as a World Heritage site

Miss Tinsley’s paper came from a completely different place, sixteenth-century Granada, where one Hernando de Baeza, a Christian interpreter for the last lords of the Muslim state there, was writing a history of recent events. This man is almost exactly the author a multicultural twenty-first century reading of events at the end of Muslim rule in Spain wants: his sources included Africans and women, he spoke all the necessary languages and about the only minority group he doesn’t mention is Jews, but the work was only published in the nineteenth century, from two incomplete manuscripts and is consequently confused and disordered in structure, which with its anecdotal style has left it out of most serious historiography. There is now, however, a recently-discovered complete manuscript to work from (which a Mexican archbishop had made in 1550 to help with converting native Americans!) and this offers more details with which the author’s life can be filled out. He seems to have been an ambassador to the papal court for Queen Isabella, briefly papal chamberlain and a protector of Jews, but whom King Ferdinand however booted out of his offices and whose parents had been burnt by the Inquisition! He seems to have written his history in Rome, a disenchanted man. He may therefore have been attempting something like a dream past of late medieval inclusion, before intolerance and persecution wrecked everything for him and his family. Again, just what we might wish but correspondingly slippery to deal with! This all sounded tremendous fun and I hope Miss Tinsley can make the man’s name better-known, although it transpired in questions that she is dealing with a recalcitrant editor of the manuscript who is being very careful what details he lets her have. That sounded dreadfully familiar, alas…

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

Then came Graham Barrett, who was speaking on those curious populations in the frontier Christian polities of tenth-century Spain whose personal names were Arabic, about whom I’ve spoken myself once or twice, including at an earlier Historians of Medieval Iberia gathering, pre-blog. As that suggests, I had given up trying to get my work on this published before Graham had arrived in England to start his Ph. D., but also in the room was Professor Richard Hitchcock, who was fairly sparing about the absence of his more successful work from the presentation…7 I found it hard to rate this paper neutrally, anyway, it was much too close to my own fruitless sidetracks of yore. Graham’s take on things is always original, however, and he knows the documents far better than me, so there were new thoughts available. In particular he raised the possibility that lots of the relevant documents might be forged, although why one would then put Arabic names into them (and the same names over quite an area, I’d note) is hard to explain.8 He also correctly pointed out that migration of southerners was not necessary to explain these names and that they themselves were not evidence of ethnicity or even cultural affiliation,9 but that they might usefully be mapped against other markers of that, if any could be agreed. There’s definitely a project here, but I suspect that in fact neither of us will be the ones who do it as we both have easier things to attempt…

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Lastly our host, Simon Barton, asked whether the approximate synthesis to which historians of North-Western Europe seem now to have come about the medieval aristocracy applies in the Midi.10 Most study of the Spanish nobility has been of families, rather than of a class, but Simon argued that a class identity can be seen in formation after about 1050, with a hierarchy of aristocratic rank, heraldry and literature all developing to emphasise it. He suggested that these markers were developing not so much as spontaneous expression of ideals but as tests that helped mark people off from their imitators, which exposes the ideals in play to us in negative. This was a good wrap-up to a good day that refreshed a realisation for us that even if it’s thinly spread and uncertain of duration, nonetheless there is still a medieval Iberian scholarship in the UK and we’re all active parts of it; it’s never a bad time to be reassured that one has colleagues!


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200″ in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 83-85.

3. Idem, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

4. Cited here was Theodore Evergates, “Nobles and Knights in Twelfth-Century France” in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, status and porcess in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 11-35; Georges Duby, “Women and Power”, ibid. pp. 69-85, provided the basic counter-type here.

5. Classically, Reyna Pastor de Tognery, Movimientos, resistencias y luchas campesinas en Castilla y León: siglos X-XIV (Madrid 1980).

6. R. Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanaca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here, contains some aspects of this paper.

7. R. Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), building on his “Arabic proper names in the Becerro de Celanova” in David Hook & Barrie Taylor (edd.), Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: Historical and Literary Essays Presented to L. P. Harvey, Kings College London Medieval Studies 3 (London 1990), pp. 111-126; references to my presentations can be found on my webpages here.

8. One example would be the apparent court notable Abolfetha ibn December (good name huh?), who certainly does appear in the forged Santos García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), doc. no. 22, but also in the less dubious José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monasterio de Sahagún (siglos IX y X) (León 1976), doc. no. 19 and Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952) (León 1987), doc. no. 68; at that rate, it begins to look as if the reason for putting his name in a forgery would be because it was known to belong to the period being aimed at, which is to say that at least up to three separate forgers thought he was a real historical person.

9. As also argued in Victoria Aguilar, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes 15 (1994), pp. 351-363 esp. at p. 363 and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI), ibid. pp. 465-72 with English abstract p. 472; they collect the Leonese evidence in Aguilar & Rodríguez, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media Vol. 6 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

10. E. g. (cited) David Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (London 1992) or Constance Brittain Bouchard, “Those of my blood”: Constructing noble families in medieval Francia (Philadelphia 2001), to which cf. S. Barton, The aristocracy in twelfth century León and Castile (Cambridge 1997).

Cross-Rhine digital facsimile charter cooperation

This is another link post, but I didn’t bundle it in with the previous one because it has a significance that’s worth spending a bit more time on. In July of last year I was passing through the website of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, as one does when looking for actual publication details of their volumes to put behind abbreviations (part of an argument I’m in over something I’m editing just now, sorry) and I saw there this notice that the MGH had now put online all of the 9-volume facsimile edition Diplomata Karolinorum by Ferdinand Lot and Philippe Lauer.1 And lo, it’s true and if you go look you can see them all. It’s a really good job, too; the original images are of course uncoloured, so they look a bit dull reduced to the size of a blog’s main column (witness below) but they have set them up zoomable and so on and seriously, one is a long way down the rabbit hole before these images pixelate, well below the point where you’re basically looking at the parchment texture. These were really good photographs and they’re being rendered near-perfectly.

Facsimile of 753 judgement in favour of the abbey of St-Denis

The first charter on the site, a 753 judgement in favour of the abbey of St-Denis

So that gives you about 300 images of royal charters right the way through from Pippin the Short to Louis V, passing via Charlemagne’s sister and most other points between with a final diversion into the kingdoms of Provence and Burgundy, it’s already quite a corpus, and not just originals either but fakes and things attempting honestly to represent the appearance of originals, so they’re actually quite a good resource for the kind of basic diplomatic that is telling authentic from inauthentic. But of course there were once a lot more, still are many more royal charters than here presented and, with the famous exception of those of Emperor Louis the Pious (now nearly done) these are all edited.2 But, equally famously among those who know, they were not all edited in the same projects. The problem here arises from the fact that the Carolingian Empire covered the territory of many modern states, most obviously France and Germany. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica‘s intention of editing everything written between 500 to 1500 in countries where Germanic languages were spoken covered France as far as they were concerned, but the French, and specifically the École des Chartes in Paris, were equally keen to make sure these monuments of their country were edited in-house in the new Chartes et diplômes relatifs à l’histoire de France. Somehow an agreement was reached that the Monumenta, which had started first, would get to do the kings and emperors who had covered the whole Empire (so, Pippin III, Carloman I, Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Fat) and those of basically German focus, while the French would do the kings of the West Franks from Charles the Bald onwards and also Provence and, what might have been more contentious, Burgundy, and the Monumenta would not bother with those.3 (If the Italian diplomatists were involved in this at all, it didn’t work out, with the result that the eventual Codice Diplomatico Longobardo, itself also now going online, duplicates a lot of the editing work done in the other series for the documents ‘their’ kings issued for and in Italy.)

Portrait of Engelbert Mühlbacher

One of the men who made it work, Engelbert Mühlbacher, editor of the first volume of the MGH‘s Diplomata Karolinorum. “Engelbert Mühlbacher“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. There’s some kinds of scholarship where one just feels more validated with a huge beard, alas.

There was thus, even in the run-up to the Great War, what now seems a surprising amount of Franco-German cooperation on these projects: on the German side Engelbert Mühlbacher got the MGH edition of charters of Pippin III, Carloman and Charlemagne out with plenty of use of French archives to do so, and substantial if abortive work was done on the edition of Louis the Pious’s documents too, while on the French side the result was the Lot & Lauer facsimile volumes. (Note their sharing, or appropriation, of the Monumenta‘s series title.) But that cooperation ended fairly abruptly in 1914 and even since 1945, as I have somewhat unkindly pointed out, it has been hard to see.4 That these French volumes now go online courtesy of the MGH is thus a small big thing, and should be celebrated as something that hopefully heralds further such collaborations. After all, though the Chartes et diplômes volumes are thoroughly good editions, as one would expect from the École des Chartes, they are nonetheless not online, not everywhere has the print volumes and there are some projects which need one to compare both sides of the Rhine; indeed, there are some projects that can only be done by so comparing.5 Some parts of the Recueil have already been sucked into the ever-growing collective that is Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi, and those documents that we have as originals now form part of Telma, but even so the old editions work well as units, not least because of their indices, and it would be so nice to have them online… One can but hope, but it’s projects like this, quietly and successfully done, that give one some reason to.


1. F. Lot & P.Lauer, with Georges Tessier (edd.), Diplomata Karolinorum. Recueil de reproductions en fac-similé des actes originaux des souverains carolingiens conservés dans les archives et bibliothèques de France (Paris 1936-1949), 9 vols.

2. I draw most of the information here from my memory of Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424. If the details are wrong, that will be my fault; this post was almost entirely written in airports or on aeroplanes and I didn’t have access to my notes.

3. On the Monumenta and its initially-imperial intentions see David Knowles, “Great Historical Enterprises III: the Monumenta Germaniae Historica” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 10 (London 1960), pp. 129-150, repr. as “The Monumenta Germaniae Historica” in idem, Great Historical Enterprises. Problems in Monastic History (London 1963), pp. 63-97.

4. E. g. J. Jarrett, review of Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Wien 2011) in The Medieval Review 12.06.21 (Bloomington 2012), online here (Härtel, I should say, being an impressive exception to the rule), or Jarrett, “Introduction: problems and possibilities of early medieval charters” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 1-18, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101674, at pp. 2-4.

5. One excellent demonstration of these possibilities is Shigeto Kikuchi, “Representations of Monarchical ‘Highness’ in Carolingian Royal Charters”, ibid. pp. 187-208, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101683, where Charles the Bald’s diplomatic strategies only really show up once you can see what Lothar and Louis the German were doing with their documents. Have I mentioned yet that you can buy this volume here? Just so you know…