Category Archives: Now working on…

Inventing the Visgothic legal ordeal in Catalonia

The backlog in my posting is awful [he wrote in May], but there is obviously something in the period of delay that matches the rhythms of my scholarship: I keep finding that I stubbed posts to blog which I come to just as the thing they were about again comes up in my study. Perhaps this will be another, as I found in reading Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil that he touches on the issue I blogged about a while ago, that of judges in tenth-century Catalonia fabricating legal precedent for their decisions, and also on a much older post of mine elsewhere about the judicial ordeal, with a case that combines the two things. So obviously it’s necessary to follow those posts up with this one, and presumably by the time this goes up I shall have come up against the idea again! [As it happens, not this time; I have obviously caught up too much! But read on...]

Trial by the ordeal of hot water

The site I grabbed this from gave no source, so neither can I, but though wilfully Classicising it’s still a picture of the ordeal by hot water in ‘olden tyme’ and I can’t find another…

The case is interesting, which is why I blogged it before: it’s the only case of a judicial ordeal recorded in Catalonia before the year 1000, says Salrach, and this is true although the next one is from that year so it’s only just true.1 Never mind. There’s also an excellent clear report of it in Jeffrey Bowman’s book on Catalan justice around the year 1000, which as far as I can see Salrach did not use, which I paraphrase here.2 The events are in 988: one Sentemir was brought to court by the abbey of Sant Cugat del Vallès, who claimed that he had destroyed his brother’s will from which they should have had a large estate; they produced a witness to the will, but Sentemir refused to admit that he ever saw it and finally offered to go to the ordeal to prove his innocence. He chose the ordeal of hot water, in which the litgant plunged his arm full-length into a boiling cauldron and then the extent of his injuries and whether they were healing was assessed by a panel three days later. As Bowman points out, following Stephen White, the thing about ordeals is that the designed outcome almost never occurred as they’re recorded: here, the scribe says that Sentemir had intended to keep himself safe by incantantions and curses, but in fact as soon as his arm got near the cauldron his hand burst into flames, and he confessed. The court condemned him to penal servitude but the bishop let him off, though of course he lost the estate.

Now there’s a range of ways this is interesting: was Sentemir really attempting magic? Was that instead an accusation that one might slander someone with in this period? Either’s interesting. There is also the question of what we are supposed to think actually happened. The last time I blogged this trial, I wondered if Sentemir might have been trying something like coating his arm in pitch or similar to protect it against the boiling, and just caught the cauldron fire, but obviously we’ll never be able to tell from this. But for our immediate purposes the interesting question is why they went to the ordeal at all. It is commonly assumed that this was just something that happened in the early Middle Ages but as I said, this is the first one we have from Catalonia, and Catalonia’s principal source of jurisprudence, the Visigothic Liber Iudicum, Book of Judges, doesn’t mention the ordeal of hot water (or really any others except to outlaw them). So where did the idea come from?

A Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109, from Wikimedia Commons

An actual Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109. By Abadia de Montserrat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, you may remember that in the previous post where I was talking about judges customising their precedents there came up a tenth-century copy of a version of the Liber Iudicum called the Liber Iudicum Popularis, one of two made by one of the judges of the era, a chap called Bonhom about whom I’ve often written, and whose copy is now online in scholarly edition.3 As it turns out, his version of the Liber Iudicum does contain a procedure for the ordeal of hot water, still claiming of course to be the legislation of the Visigothic princes of three hundred years before. And who do you suppose was the judge and scribe at Sentemir’s trial? Who else but Bonhom! So we have another adaptation of the letter of the law to the needs of the day, and one that works out in decidedly suspicious circumstances.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Bonhom just invented the idea in whole cloth, or how on earth would he have convinced Sentemir to do it? As Bowman points out, there’s no sense in the charter that there was dispute about this. That’s perhaps not surprising since Bonhom wrote the document, but this was a man who tells us in his documents when he was sleepy in case it looks odd, so I’d expect more words rather than fewer if there was a problem. Even if it was not usual this was apparently an idea that was known to people. But whence had it come? There’s a famous trial by battle involving Bera I, Count of Barcelona, accused of treason, which the biography of the Emperor Louis the Pious by the anonymous known as ‘Astronomer’ says was done because both parties were Goths, and people have argued that since the Gothic Law has nothing of this, it was really a Frankish idea that got carried into Catalan judicial practice.4 Salrach raises the idea instead that the ordeal was in fact the ‘popular’ practice that Bonhom’s law’s adapted title suggests, excluded from proper practice by the Visigothic kings but locally maintained or innovated and so added in to Bonhom’s text because he knew it was sometimes done. Hey, maybe Sentemir had introduced him to the idea in 988! (Salrach doesn’t suggest that, but as usual, on a blog I can push these things further than I would in print.) That in turn implies that we really ought to look closely at the Liber Iudicum Popularis to find out what had needed changing since the seventh century; it may not all have been invented as needed, even if some of it probably was. This is the kind of thing I read to learn, after all.


1. Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), pp. 37-38.

2. Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: property, proof and dispute around the year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 119-140, and here esp. pp. 122-124; Stephen D. White, “Proposing the Ordeal and Avoiding It: strategy and power in Western French litigation, 1050-1110″ in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, states and process in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 89-123, repr. in White, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005), VII.

3. Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscari Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003), VI.1.3.

4. Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), Astronomus cap. 32; A. Iglesia, El proceso del Conde Bera y el problema de las ordalías (Madrid 1980).

Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it

I have now gone on at great length about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia without really talking about my actual purpose in reading it, so it’s time to do that.1 You may remember a long time back that I had a go at the idea, repeated in textbook after textbook, that agriculture in the Carolingian period ran at yields hardly more than the grain that was sown.2 This is self-evidently ridiculous if you are familiar either with actual growing of crops (which I am only second-hand) or can do basic maths, but it persists, and the reason it persists, like many another medieval cliché, is Georges Duby.3

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

This is not entirely Duby’s fault. He wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s that somehow remain the world standard for any history of the early medieval economy that actually contains agriculture, and he used the best thinking available and sources known at the time.4 He did a pretty good job of synthesis on that, and though one might wish he’d thought about it a bit harder, it’s really not just him who’s failed to do so, and those that have thought about it haven’t really looked hard enough at his evidence.5 That was, in large part, the Carolingian estate survey of the fiscal centre at Annapes preserved in the text known as the Brevium Exempla, and some time ago already now I gave a paper at Kalamazoo in which I showed that Duby had in fact read the text wrong, or rather failed to read all of its data, as had all those he used, even, I’m sorry to say, Philip Grierson, and I considered that dispatched and proceeded to writing it up.6 But Annapes was not Duby’s only source that seemed to support these awfully low yields, and so I needed to see if the same tricks could be performed with the others too, and you will by now have guessed or maybe already know that one of them was the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia.

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

Santa Giulia di Brescia as it now stands, from the air

Duby dealt with the figures from Santa Giulia only in summary fashion. In Rural Economy and Country Life he works Annapes over extensively, coming up with output figures of between 1·5:1 and 2·2:1, and then goes on:

“We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn. One significant fact is that compilers who visited the farms (cours [apparently left in French from Latin 'curtes']) of the abbey of San Giulia of Brescia in 905-906 to compile a polyptych found there reserves of grain in the barns which were barely higher and sometimes lower than the quantity needed for sowing. Thus at Prozano where the fields could take 300 muids of seed corn, the stocks in the estate barn amounted to only 360 muids of which 140 were of millet (mil). At Canella 90 muids were needed for sowing and 51 were in the barns; at Temulina 32 and 37.”

And with that he moved onto Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris and pulled a similar trick there.7 And in the slightly later and much shorter Early Growth of the European Economy he didn’t even give that much detail (or a reference to the primary source), limiting himself to dealing again with Annapes and then adding:

“The Lombard monastery of St Giulia of Bréscia [sic], which consumed some 6,600 measures of grain annually, would have 9,000 sown to cover its needs, which means that the return normally available to the lord was being estimated at 1·7 to 1.”8

The best way to see what is wrong with this is to look closely at how the compilers of Santa Giulia’s polyptych were using their figures, figures that I’ve already argued here they were receiving in a standard format. And doing so shows firstly that Duby, and Luzzatto before him, were again wrong in assuming that these figures mean what they wanted to mean, and in fact that using them to calculate yield is impossible except in one single case where the formula was bent, and in that case it comes out at at least 4·25:1 and probably rather higher. Don’t believe me? Watch this! Continue reading

Metablog IX: the tenth century at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

The next post was supposed to be the third and final one wrestling with the figures from the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, but I realised while setting up the previous one that it was post no. 899, which means of course that this is post no. 900. A moment’s further reflection will then reveal to you that this means A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has just entered its own tenth century, and I thought that was worth marking.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's The Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

As even this 1920s picture arguably has right, 900 was not a particularly auspicious time in world history, at least in political terms. Several great empires were in decline, with consequent dislocation, chaos and fragmentation, from China across to Western Francia, and the up-and-coming ones like Ottonian Germany, the Samanid emirate (not on Wells’s chart), Fatimid Egypt or the briefly revived Byzantium not yet evident in their trajectory. In Europe, at least, the climate’s slow improvement was probably leading to a slow increase in bottom-up prosperity, but the ways that was working out higher up the social scale where surplus was appropriated might have hidden any real benefit for the producers. I hope that little of this applies to the blog over its next hundred posts, but there will at least be a continuation of the kind of geographical spread that seems to have become typical here as I one way or another wind up working on or teaching almost everywhere in the Middle Ages.

Map of Europe c. 900

Map of Europe c. 900 care of Euratlas.com

I do still try and keep my focus on the tenth century, though, and I have therefore been asked whether I think there is any particular dynamic to the so-called ‘secolo di ferro’ that marks it out as an era to study. It seems to me that there is, and that it is the coincidental but contemporaneous disintegration of two superstates at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, the Carolingian Empire (a unit of sorts even in its divided form post-840) and the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, both continuing in some form but giving up much political space into which a myriad of new states intrude from around their peripheries, like young trees in a forest shooting up when big old trees falling opens holes in the canopy. By 1000 there would be several powerful polities in each of the zones these had dominated, Anglo-Saxon England, the Ottonian Holy Roman Empire, the Fatimid and Andalusi Caliphates, Byzantium enduring, the Turkic sultanates and the Samanid Emirate to name but a few, and the subsequent few centuries could be seen as a contest for supremacy that changed hands a lot in the East and that, in the West, no-one except maybe the papacy really won. When you’re looking at changes of centrality like these, it seems to me that the best place to be watching from is the edges, the old and new frontiers, where the consequences of such events can be seen as changes in political direction. That’s been my conviction for a long time and it continues to power my enquiries, and thus, my writing here. I hope it will also continue to keep you reading, at least until the millennium!

Working for San Salvatore II: specialists and individuals

As I said in the first post about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, one of the things about its information that can’t fail to strike one is the variation within the standard form of record the monastery was using. This is obvious in terms of size, for one thing. The largest estate here, Alfiano, had enough arable land to sow 900 modii of grain in, 100 amphorae‘s worth of vine, meadow for 50 cartloads of hay, wood where 700 pigs could forage, a stud for breeding horses with 35 on hand, 37 head of cattle, 100 pigs, 3 mills, 3 boats and 40 tenants, as well as a staff of 8 magistri “for making walls, house and barrels”, and that’s not counting either its chapel whose properties were listed separately or a dependant estate whose return seems to have turned up late and been tacked on at the end of the survey.1 A place near Brescia called Palleriana had arable for 8 modii, vine good for 8 amphorae, meadow good for 8 cartloads, 2 cows, 2 tenants and 1 vacant lot, and that’s about it, which is to say that it was between one and two orders of magnitude smaller than Alfiano in the terms about which the monastery cared.2

Castello di Cavriana

This is neither of those places, but the castle at the centre of the estate whose returns I used in the dummy form of last post. I never thought of looking for an image! But this is the Castello di Cavriana. By Massimo Telò (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

You might ask what was worth even having about the latter place, then, and that opens up another question of variation, because of the vacant lot. I’m translating sors absentia here, but when they turn these clearly weren’t vacant in the sense we would assume in English, because they rendered produce, and often quite heavily, so I guess that what was going on here was that the the monastery allowed people who lived elsewhere, maybe the estate’s other tenants but not necessarily, to work them in exchange for rendering a cut of the produce to the monastery. That seems to be how they ran their mills and their landing-places, too, and the mountain-top lands they don’t really enumerate: all of these rendered in food and/or money, what suggests that the people who worked them were taking at least as much home themselves, and since the guys turning up at the landing-stages with salt and grain were presumably not all monastic dependants, I don’t really see why the farmers all need to have been either.

Anyway, at Palleriano the vacant lot rendered 7 modia of grain, 6 denarii and, most importantly, 80 pounds of oil a year from its olive-groves. That was presumably what made a pied-à-terre at Palleriano worth maintaining; the ordinary renders from the place were presumably not worth nothing but the monastery’s real interest there was probably letting people make oil in the bits of the estate they didn’t actually have the manpower to work. At Alfiano, by contrast, though nowhere else in the polyptych was breeding horses (and indeed only one other place even had any), there were apparently no olive-trees. The monastery had both estates organised in roughly the same way, with a staffed reserve run by workers living on hand-outs and a system of allotments held by people of various statuses on markedly varying terms—a bipartite organisation, in other words—but the actual use they got from these estates was very different.

Obviously some of this variation must have been purely geographical. Alfiano, which maybe covered most of the area inside the road route marked above, could run boats because it was on the Fiume d’Oglio, but apparently it was not good land for olive trees. Lots of other estates in the survey also have these specificities: very few places grew chestnuts, for example, only a very few rendered rushlights and the most obviously constrained resource is iron, which a few estates had and rendered lots of and most did not, obviously rather less by choice than by necessity: if there’s no iron ore in your chosen lump of Italy, you can’t really get it out.3 Some of the variation probably was by choice, though. There are massive variations in the balance of crops in store, for example, with rye sometimes being the bulk of it, sometimes millet or sometimes corn (frumentario), and that was presumably as much down to somebody’s choices about what to grow and what to take from store as it was what would grow, though certainly some of these crops do better in some kinds of soil than others. Goats are much rarer than sheep, though, and that must be by choice because there’s basically nowhere you can’t put a goat (except in as much as you might want to keep whatever you were growing there).

A rural homstead in Alfiano Natta, near Brescia

A house that was at time of writing for rent in the Alfiano region. Apart from the second stories and (obviously) the swimming pool, this doesn’t look too far off what might have been on site at least 800 years before, maybe more…

This kind of thing gets us out of the constraints of a formula and into things that actual people did, sometimes that no-one else did, and even into how they might have felt about that. A big estate now called Forse Pian Communo in the Val Carmonica, for example, was the only place in the polyptych that rendered a lamb, and it rendered just one, yearly, among 75 pigs and 86 other sheep, quite a lot of wine and silver, 60 pounds of iron, 14 bunches of onions (the only mention of the noble alium), 60 rush-lights and 30 cartloads of timber. They also rendered one shepherd’s crook. Presumably this stuff did not all come in at the same time, but even if it didn’t, that lamb must have stood out, and I bet it was delivered with the crook, and there must have been an occasion when it was done that made quite the little local ceremony, almost certainly at Easter, and something that made this community special among the men of Santa Giulia.4

The other scale of variation, though, is between persons. If you look back at the form I reverse-engineered out of the polyptych, you’ll see that the monastery recognised five main different sorts of tenants they could have, in their words manentes or mansarii (I think these are equivalents), servi or serviles (not so sure about those), libellarii, homines commendati (who were sometimes specified as free or having voluntarily commended themselves), liberi and aldiones, as well as some unusual categories specific to mountainside properties. Of these the aldiones had the lightest load, since their duty was pretty much solely to carry messages, but among the others a hierarchy is harder to determine. Obviously there was a difference between slave and free that was worth specifying, even here, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it in terms of their renders: at a place called Cardena, for example, 7 slaves, who all lived on 1 allotment, owed every fourth modius of grain they grew and half the wine they made and an annual render of 2 sheep, 4 hens, 20 eggs and 12 denarii, and they did 4 days’ work each a week, which is pretty rough especially when you have all this other stuff to render and only two days a week on which you’re allowed to try and make it up (because remember what happens to those who work on the Lord’s Day…). The free men there, 6 on 2 allotments, weren’t so much better off: they rendered the same fractions of produce, 7 sheep, 14 hens and 70 eggs, and although between them they did only 204 days work a year, that is 34 each, so more or less one every week and a half, that’s still the kind of labour duty we’d expect free men to be, well, free of. Nice work if you can avoid it, you might think, but the 4 commended men also on the estate who between them rendered nothing and did 44 days’ work every two years, so, 11 each yearly, would probably have sneered even so. On the other hand, not very far away, at a place called Porzano, the estate included 3 slaves living on 3 lots who rendered 3 amphorae of wine, 2 pigs and 2 sheep a year, and had no labour duties, whereas there were also 14 free men who did one day’s work a week and 13 manentes, on a lot each, who together rendered 60 modia of grain, 5 amphorae of wine, 2 pigs, 4 sheep, 26 hens, 130 eggs and 20 denarii each, 9 of whom (and apparently only 9 of whom) also had to do one day’s work a year, given the which, one might choose to be the slave but for the loss of legal personhood, etc.5

A decaying villa in Porzano, near Brescia

This probably isn’t the oldest building standing in Porzano, given the brick, but it might be the oldest and tattiest still to be on sale for more than a hundred thousand Euros…

So it seems clear that the labour services and renders involved here, although based on some kind of standard (as the almost-universal rate of five eggs per chicken suggests), could be varied a great deal, and I suppose that this might have had something to do with the way these people became the monastery’s men, who had owned their renders before and what agreements were made when they changed hands. In some cases one wonders what the individual circumstances could be. At a place called Forse Sernìga, for example, among all the other stuff there was one tenant who rendered annually 3 modii of grain, half his wine, 1 sheep, 30 denarii, 1 modium of turnips, 1 sester of fava beans and 400 shingles. His are the only mentions of turnips and shingles and almost the only one of fava beans, and I can only imagine that when he came to the estate centre looking for patronage they asked him, “what can you do that’s fantastic?,” or some less Zappatical equivalent and he said, “I make shingles and I grow turnips, best in the valley or any valley hereabouts,” and they said, “Fine, OK, well go on with that that then,” and agreed his renders on that basis and he thus became the man whose shingles roofed the monastery’s properties in the locality.6

On the other hand, at the chapel of Forse Centòva, which the monastery held jointly with a vassal of Bishop Buatho called Aragis and which was one of the more splendidly equipped of which they knew, the workforce was 4 prebendarii and a single tenant, who as well as a third of his grain, half his wine, 4 hens, 20 eggs and 6 denarii also had to do three days’ work a week on the estate.7 He must, ineluctably, have known the other workers well, because he would have spent a good chunk of his time in the fields or vineyards with them, but there were three days a week when he could stay home and work on his own stuff. Did he resent his lack of security compared to his fellows in the field, or did they envy him his semi-independence and chance actually to turn a surplus? They must have had some means of getting on, and perhaps it was a cheerful one, but they would have been confronted by the difference in their positions every time they packed up to go home (especially as the estate had four casas and 1 caminata so it may be that he had the warm house…). There’s so many people in this text about whom we can only say one thing but that thing still shows them up as individuals. I feel as if I would understand this better if the polyptych used names. It doesn’t, so we don’t know what these people called each other, but their interactions are still hard for me not to try and imagine…


1. Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Giorgio Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94 at pp. 81-83, with the chapel following on p. 83 and the last estate at p. 93, a chapel at Cellatina held in the benefice of Kebahart but belonging to Alfiano.

2. Ibid. p. 60.

3. Both rushlights and iron rendered from Forse Pian Communo in Valcarmonica, in fact, just as an example, ibid. p. 72.

4. See n. 3 above.

5. Pasquali, “S. Giulia di Brescia”, pp. 60-61 & pp. 62-63 respectively.

6. Ibid. pp. 67-68.

7. Ibid. p. 88.

Working for San Salvatore I: making a polyptych

I seem to have taken the chance of the latter part of the Birmingham job to indulge in reading large amounts of primary material. First there was the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, about which you’ve by now heard quite enough, for the paper about documents that predate their archives that I may some day finish, and then as I first wrote this, in May 2014, there had just been the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, which I was reading for the submission version of the paper about Carolingian crop-yields which I gave at Kalamazoo in 2011.1 The point I wanted to make with the former of these kind of disintegrated as I got into the material; it’s not clear that all the material that the monks of Beaulieu were assembling was actually theirs and far less of it is non-ecclesiastical than I had thought. There’s an interesting story to be told there (I should say, another one, as Jane Martindale already told one) but it’s not the one I wanted.2

Thesouth portal of St-Pierre de Beaulieu

One last picture of Beaulieu before we leave it for a few months… By Sjwells53 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Santa Giulia di Brescia polyptych has been far kinder, in as much as it serves my purpose perfectly: those scholars who have posited low crop yields using its figures have done so by what I can only call unthinking assumption that the figures are what they needed, and this is easily disproven.3 In fact, not only can one not show that the monastery’s estates were yielding less than was sown, as has been argued (nonsensically), in one or two cases it is clear that the yields must have been much higher, so it all works very well for me. But there is so much else one could do with this document, and in the paper I can’t, I have no space and it would be irrelevant and to do anything separate with it I would have to work through a mass of Italian historiography, Italian being a language with which I struggle, and probably then find out all this stuff was well-established anyway. But this is where a blog helps: I have to tell someone, so I shall tell you.

A corner of the cloister and the solar of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Santa Giulia has not made it through the ages quite as unchanged as Beaulieu

Let’s start at the beginning by explaining the word polyptych, perhaps not in the average person’s everyday vocabulary. This is a word scholars of the early Middle Ages use for one of the various large-scale estate surveys carried out by fiscal or ecclesiastical agents: these seem to start in the Carolingian Empire, though the techniques presumably weren’t new then, and they carry on being made well into the Middle Ages: Domesday Book could be argued to be the ultimate one and there’s a twelfth-century one from Catalonia I need to read some day, and so on.4 At the later end this category blurs into inventory, survey, census and so on, and it’s something of a term of art. It’s also not the word the texts use, which is almost always breve, though brief these texts are not. Anyway, Santa Giulia’s is quite late, probably dating to 906, and it’s out of area, being from North Italy, which would once have counted as Carolingian heartland but by this time not so much.

Polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832

This is not from the Brescia manuscript, which is not online as far as I can see, but from the 9th-century polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832, online at Gallica; this is fo. 8v.

We don’t have all of this text. The original manuscript survives, and it must be a fascinating thing though it’s quite hard to check since the shelfmark given by the best scholarly edition, which dates to 1979, seems now to have been reorganised out of existence and the Archivio di Stato di Milano, although they have been digitising their stuff since 2000, don’t actually, you know, have any of it online yet. The edition is good, however, and furthermore that has been competently digitised, so you can play along here. But the original would be more fun: as it survives it is apparently twelve big pieces of parchment sewn together top-to-bottom into a roll. One of these pieces is a later short bit acting as a replacement for the end of its predecessor, whose final lines apparently became almost-illegible, but otherwise we have the work of three scribes, two of whom write large chunks and could have been working independently, but the third of whom drops in for a few lines here and there not just within entries but within words of the second scribe’s work, so that they must have firstly been working together and secondly working with source texts. That was always likely, but it at least eliminates the possibility that the information was being written up ‘live'; you can’t really change scribes in the middle of a word if someone is standing there dictating it to you, you’d think.

The cloister of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Back to Santa Giulia’s rather post-medieval cloister

The information that they were receiving and recording was done to a pretty tight template. Interestingly, it’s less tight in some areas than others. The text opens in the middle of an entry, and most of the first few have become illegible, but once they’re not they’re in the Brescia area: after a while the scope moves out to properties nearer Bergamo, Modena, Cremona and Piacenza, and Modena especially is not in style. This seems partly to be because the second scribe thought some details were just too tedious, but in other cases it seems to be because the information hadn’t come in as expected: there are gaps left on the manuscript as if more were expected. Sometimes these gaps are very large, twenty-odd centimetres of unused parchment, suggesting that perhaps entire settlements hadn’t yet reported in when they started writing up and in fact never did, while at the end, after they’d got down to the properties that aren’t even land but just some people in Ivrea who sent them honey once a year, or similar,5 what seem to be extra estates from Brescia and Bergamo were added which had apparently been missed out earlier and whose returns therefore presumably came in late.

So we certainly don’t have a full inventory of Santa Giulia di Brescia’s property here (not least because it would still have been San Salvatore di Brescia in 906 I think) and the most obvious thing that’s missing is the monastery itself, which was at least mentioned somewhere in the text, as the scribes refer back to it as ‘the aforesaid monastery’, but in what we have is not mentioned at all.6 This suggests that what is now the first parchment probably wasn’t originally, and of course that means we don’t know how much is lost, especially as the twelfth parchment also breaks off in medias res. That unknown quantity is also the basis for the date of 906, which is not given in the text that we now have but which is recorded on the dorse of the roll, and which may therefore have once been in the missing part of the text. People have debated the palæography a lot and argued that this is anything from the original to a late-eleventh-century copy. Some of the land involved was only granted to the monastery by King Carloman in 879 so it’s younger than that, but the consensus seems to be that it could be 906, so it may as well be.7

Precept of King Carloman for Saint-Sauveur d'Atuyer, 883

Again, not the right manuscript, but the look is right and so is the dedication, this Carloman confirming the rights of Saint-Sauveur d’Atuyer in 883, from the inestimable Diplomata Karolinorum

Now, there are a whole range of things that interest me about this text, some of which will be their own posts, but let’s stick here with how they made it. As I say, the information is recorded to a template. Each estate is broken down by assets with the assets listed in the same order. Some estates didn’t have, for example, a spelt crop, but when there was a spelt crop it’s always tucked between the rye crop and the barley crop—not the only example, this—so there must somewhere have been a guide that said what order things should be listed in. There’s two ways that could happen, obviously: either the information came in more or less unsorted and the scribes arranged it according to a list in the office or else the template was actually used in the collection of the information. I think it must have been the latter, because there is as I say variation in the order around Modena. The scribes could obviously have fixed that if they were already reorganising data to a model. That they did not suggests that the model was used at record point, not at redaction point.

In other words, the monastery would have sent people out with a form to be filled in. For some reason this makes me terribly gleeful. It’s not that I have any great love for bureaucrats. It may be that I do love making lists of stuff, and it therefore reaches me inside to have good evidence of tenth-century people also making lists of stuff that were meant always to be in the same order and so on. But mainly I love it because this means it is possible to reverse-engineer the form they used, or at least something that would produce the same results. So by way of both showing you the kind of data we have and quite how bad my obsessive compulsion can get, you will find my version of that form, with one estate’s data entered into it, below the cut. For those of you slightly less keen on fine-grained (aha ha grain, sorry) agricultural demography, a seminar report will be along shortly… Continue reading

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.


1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

The second king of Spain

Earlier this year, in the quest to finish an article, I was working my way through the Castilian translation of one of the major Arabic sources for the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, the Tarsī‘ al-ajbār of al-‘Udrī.1 This eleventh-century writer took a historical-geographical approach, and, as we have the text at least, proceeded town-by-town and for each gave an account of its natural features and situation then its ruling families.2 Since the same four or five clans dominated all the cities of the Sharq al-Andalus, the Upper March, or Zaragoza and points north and east, call it as you like, this gets very confusing after a while as people who need ancestry given to three removes to distinguish one Muhammad ibn Lubb from the next occur in city after city, but Fernando de la Granja provided some hand-drawn fold-out family trees and it’s manageable. I was here mainly for the wālī family of Barcelona, but they come in a long way behind the main source of independence, treachery and mayhem on the March, the lordly family we know as the Banū Qāsī.

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910

A map of the Banū Qāsī domains and the wider political situation c.  910. As we’ll see, I think this is a deal too generous to Asturias, but that swathe probably did all recognise the same king. Nevertheless… read on! By Crates [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now the Banū Qāsī, supposedly ‘sons of Cassius’, have come in for a lot of attention just lately and I haven’t been able to read very much of it, so I risk being out-of-date, but nonetheless, on the extremely rare occasions I have been able to teach that which I actually work on (maybe five times in my life), I have tried to use one particular teaching point about them.3 This is that it is said in the Chronicle of Alfonso III of the family’s greatest patriarch, Mūsā ibn Mūsā ibn Fortūn ibn Qāsī, that he called himself “the third king of Spain”, tertius rex in Spania, meaning he was number three in importance in the contemporary political firmament.4 The Chronicle has lots to say about Mūsā, who was a rough contemporary with its Asturian royal heroes. At the point when Mūsā is supposed to have said this, he was ruler of Zaragoza and the entire Upper March, had rebelled against the Emir of Córdoba six times and defeated him nearly as many (though also been forced to submit four times) and had also laid waste to several Christian armies, and he certainly did control a lot of cities. Nonetheless, this claim has always seemed to me to leave something important unsaid, which is, who did he think was the second king of Spain?

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā in Tudela

Tudela are still very proud of their ‘Rey del Ebro’, as you can see. By Arenillas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

One has to admit straight away that no text other than the Chronicle of Alfonso III contains this line, and for its author, writing in the capital of the growing kingdom of Asturias, the answer was obvious: while the Emir of Córdoba probably still, despite a kingdom full of aristocrats like Mūsā, ranked as number one in his mind, King Alfonso’s Asturias was surely number two, and indeed the whole point of having Mūsā say this was presumably to show the audience that important and famous outsiders had recognised this long since. It makes that point so well that I suspect that it was just made up for this purpose. But if Mūsā had said such a thing, is that what he would have meant? Certainly, in his world, Córdoba, when it could get itself together, was the only single power he needed to fear: he fought emiral troops eleven times at least, losing on most of those occasions (though never so badly as to lose his position in at least one of the Marcher cities). Asturias, on the other hand, he met in battle only twice, and on each occasion they were teamed up with the Basques of Navarra, at Albelda both times. On the former of these occasions Mūsā defeated the Christians, on the latter, they him. He also fought local forces at Álava once, which was probably not yet Castile so counts as Asturias (this being my quarrel with the map).

Muslim warriors painted by al-Wāsitī in a thirteenth-century text of the Makam of al-Harīrī

For want of any closely contemporary media, here is a thirteeenth-century picture of some Muslim warriors, set to go with a tenth-century text telling a story set in the seventh century! Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, his measure of the political scene has also to be measured in his alliances. Here again the Emirate was foremost: Mūsā fought as part of emiral armies on at least four occasions, against the Catalans twice and Vikings once, the fourth being the Álava campaign. When he fought against the Emir, however, his allies were not Asturias but the Basques, into whose royal family his mother had been married. They came to his aid three times, though he also fought them four times, and the families remained closely intertwined, Basque princes fighting on both sides in the second battle at Albelda. It really doesn’t seem to me that Mūsā looked north-west that often. His ‘second king in Spain’ would probably really have been himself, but number three on the podium probably wouldn’t have been Ordoño I’s Asturias, who were just where his Basque sometime allies found extra troops when they needed to make a point. Standing competitively by his side in that ranking would have been the King of Pamplona, I reckon.

It’s too easy to forget that Navarra and the Basque families who ruled it were for a long time really big local political deals, because in the end the kingdom got swallowed into its neighbours and didn’t lead the great drive towards unification led by Castile that has been the grand narrative of so much ‘Spanish’ history. I have a chapter now in press that points out that in 1031, when the Caliphate of al-Andalus definitively ended, it would have been impossible to foresee a Castilian domination of the whole peninsula. That was not just because the exact state of the Muslim zone was still in flux, but also because the leading Christian monarch at that point was King Sancho Garcés the Great of Navarra, and he was lord of the Counts of Barcelona and Castile and would soon get his nephew in as King of León. It wouldn’t last, but not everything does. Mūsā’s famous, and probably spurious, quote still helps remind us that the way things finish up need not be the way they looked long before.


1. Fernando de la Granja (trans.), “La Marca Superior en la obra de al-cUdrí” in Estudios de edad media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-546.

2. I say, “as we have it,” because the text as given by de la Granja periodically makes it clear that it is in the voice of another writer reporting what al-Udrī had written, rather than the work itself, so there’s no reason to suppose that what we have is all of what al-Udrī wrote, rather than a selection by someone else.

3. Until quite recently there was only really one thing, Alberto Cañada Juste, “Los Banu Qasi (714-924)” in Príncipe de Viana Vol. 41 (Pamplona 1980), pp. 5-96, with some useful remarks added in Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 217-222, but now there is also Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La Dawla de los Banu Qasi: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus (Madrid 2010), which has caused quite a stir, largely in places where you can follow it up yourself if you like. I haven’t yet read this as I would need some days in London to achieve it… Only two libraries there seem so far to have acquired it in England, ironically both in the same building.

4. Referencing the Chronicle of Alfonso III can get one into trouble: there are four more or less contemporary critical editions, all done more or less without knowledge of each other, and the Castilians don’t like it if you use the French version. I find that more neutral in commentary and better aware of German work on the manuscripts, however, so recommend Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), and whichever edition you use you will find the text sub Era 888 or s. a. 850. There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), but I don’t like this as it blends two different recensions of the text in a fairly selective way. Most of what follows comes from Cañada, however.