Category Archives: numismatics

Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome

One good paper about travel to Rome deserves another, or something; five days after hearing Lizzie Boyle tell us about Irish clerics whose journies to Rome went awry, on 27th May 2013 I was listening to my old colleague Rory Naismith addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Peter’s Pence and Beyond: the Forum Hoard and Anglo-Roman monetary relations in the Middle Ages”. The hoard in question here is 870 silver pennies and a gold solidus found in digging in the Forum of Rome in 1883. The digger was looking for the house of the Vestal Virgins so went pretty much straight through the later building between Santa Maria Antiqua and San Silvestro in Lacu where the coins turned up, so they have had only the most cursory publication up till now; Rory and colleagues are now changing that and he was in Oxford to tell us more about it.1

I guess about the middle of this picture...

The composition of the hoard first: the solidus is one of Emperor Theophilus (829-842), and among the silver there are five Continental pieces, one of Emperor Berengar I (915-924) from Pavia and the others from Pavia, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Limoges.2 The rest is Anglo-Saxon pennies of all the kings from Athelstan (924-939) to Edmund (939-946) barring six from the mint of Viking York. The whole thing seems to have been in a bag of some kind because also found were two silver hooked-tags that could have been fasteners and seem to bear the garbled name of Pope Marinus II (942-946), and when it came up it was all in a cooking pot.3 A 940s assemblage date thus seems pretty obvious, but Athelstan’s contribution makes up nearly half of the English stuff even though it would have been in circulation the longest, and should, we might think, have been withdrawn by this time.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

London is the mint best represented, and that is where the die-links are most frequent, suggesting that coins from there had circulated less than the others, but a sixth of the coins are from Midlands mints and another sixth from even further afield. Rory thought that this probably represented the circulation available in London or close by around that time, and pointed out that Bishop Theodred of London, who died 942×951, had been to Rome and bequeathed stuff he’d bought in Pavia, among a sum of wealth from which 870 pennies would hardly have been significant.4 Whether that constitutes a smoking gun or not, if this was circulation (and we have very few southern English hoards of this period from which to judge, they’re actually more frequent in Italy!) if this was the coin doing the rounds in 940s London the Anglo-Saxon coinage system was some way off its later level of regulation. I also don’t see how we can rule out that the owner of these coins wasn’t adding stuff or even taking stuff out as he moved, so there are difficulties with interpretation still, but it’s still a good chunk of evidence for money use somewhere!

Inscribed hooked-tags from the Forum Hoard

The hooked-tags from the hoard, inscribed +DOMNO MA and RINO PAPA, a matching pair. Blunt, Okasha and Metcalf, Pl. VIII.

The question that follows, however, is that with any hoard: why did someone bring it where it was found, put it there and then not come back for it? The last one of these can almost never be answered, and here the second one was hard to answer too — opinions varied on whether this was a run-down or busy part of tenth-century Rome and the most that could be agreed was that it would have been hard to be unobserved, while the actual location doesn’t seem to have been part of the precinct of any active churches — but with the first there are two obvious suggestions. The first is that this was a pilgrim’s gift, and the custom-made fastening does make it look like a votive offering; if so, however, it obviously never got given! The second, which has the same problem, connects to the tax of Rory’s title, ‘Peter’s Pence‘, a levy on the English for the support of the papacy which is canonically blamed on either King Offa of Mercia or King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but which is otherwise hard to demonstrate in operation before the time of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). This seems too early, therefore, and in any case it’s nothing like as much as a Peter’s Pence payment would presumably have been: Rory said that it matches about one-third of what Berkshire paid in the time of Domesday Book, in which case where’s the rest?

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

It was the closing points that probably interested me the most, though, sometimes-numismatist as I suppose I am. These were about the use of money in tenth-century Italy. This seems to have been quite restricted. A full quarter of early medieval coins found in Italy have been English ones. The papal coinage is only ephemerally preserved. However, from the 970s onwards the royal coinage of Pavia seems to have had some kind of a renascence; it rises in find frequency to drown out both English and papal issues. This being Western Europe’s most urbanised area, it seems improbable that there wasn’t money of some kind in use in markets; the English stuff however seems to have been what one hoarded (presumably because it was well-known to be better). In that case, should someone have just stolen this bag meant for Pope Marinus from Bishop Theodred or whoever, and then found it full of English coin, stashing it somewhere out of the way where they could take coins from it few by few, and not getting very far with that before some mishap befell them, still seems a perfectly possible outcome. We will never know: but lost precious metal really seems to pique the popular interest, and in cases like this it’s not hard to see why!


1. I suppose it depends what you mean by cursory: there’s D. M. Metcalf, “The Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 62 (London 1992), pp. 62-96, online here.

2. These details, except the attribution to Berengar, are from ibid.; Rory mentioned the Theophilus solidus but called the others ‘Frankish'; the Berengar attribution came out in questions.

3. The tags have been published in James Graham-Campbell & Elisabeth Okasha, with Michael Metcalf, “A Pair of Inscribed Anglo-Saxon Hooked Tags from the Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 221-229.

4. His will is edited in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge 1930), no. 1, and translated in eadem (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 106.

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. As of this week, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one


Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.

Name in the Book Somewhere II

[This is a repost of a piece of one of the sticky news posts above, now unstuck and free to assume in its rightful place in the chronological scheme. I repost this bit because I have just got to the point in the backlog where it would originally have occurred and it still seems worth celebrating! There are some light edits to supply larger context.]

In May 2013, there was also a rather large chicken finally come home to roost, to wit Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013). There’s no secret here about the labour I’ve poured into this; it was in fact the thing I subsisted on after finishing the Lay Archives work previously referred to, and it was mostly wrapped up and ready to go in 2006 when I got the full-time job at the Fitzwilliam that would, in the end, keep me going for four and a half years. When explaining to people some of the reasons why the volume still then took seven years to appear, I have taken to starting with, “Well, the two surviving authors…” Death, life-threatening illness and then death, divorce, pregnancy, unannounced changes of contact details, unemployment and over-employment (especially this last) have all played their part in delaying the work of the various parties involved, even to the very last minute—a launch party had to be cancelled because of the aforementioned illness, but unbeknownst to authors or editors the book was already on sale anyway—and I think the most amazing thing is that all parties involved have always been reasonable and pleasant to deal with, whatever the new problem was that had arisen. Anyway, it exists, and this is a great comfort to me, as not only do I actually have my name over two small parts of it (well, one small one and the Bibliography, which I think I contributed about a tenth of) but at some point or other in my role as copy-editor and then series editor I’ve probably changed or moved almost every word in it. It’s not my work, but it has been one of my labours, for sure.

Those curious about such matters will probably also want to know how things stand with the rest of the series, and to that I can say from the inside, with suitable caution, that volume 12, which covers Northern Italy and is by Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, is scheduled to be next and is in its final stages now, and that volume 10, on Scandinavia, by Jørgen Steen Jensen, has been making reliable and steady progress for years and will also soon be finished, we hope, after which it becomes a contest between Britain and the Low Countries to be next. What’s the timescale, you no doubt ask, and fair enough, but you understand that in 2006, there was no way, it was quite frankly impossible to conceive that MEC 6 was seven years away from publication. What could possibly go that far wrong? If I had not lived and worked through those seven years, I would now say: there is no way the next volume can be more than a year away. But I did, so I won’t, because if I do it probably can… [And that paragraph, sadly, I didn't have to edit at all...]

Seminar CLXXVI: buying control of Norway

I feel as if I ought to be catching up on backlog with this posting frequency, and yet I remain in May 2013 with the seminar reports, on the 6th of which month the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was graced by one of my academic friends of longest standing, Dr Elina Screen. Although almost every time I see Elina I badger her for more of her work on Emperor Lothar I, as I know only too well can happen, sometimes numismatics gets in the way of Carolingian studies, and at the time of this seminar Elina had just seen emerge from the presses under her auspices the first of two volumes cataloguing the Anglo-Saxon coins that survive today in Norwegian collections.1 Her paper, “Norway in the Age of Cnut (d. 1035), through the Coinage Evidence”, thus functioned not least as a kind of advertisement for what one can do with such work, once that work shows one what the evidence actually is, and it led to some surprising conclusions.

Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023x1029

Obverse and reverse of Pointed Helmet type silver penny of King Cnut of England, struck at London by the moneyer Godric, 1023×1029

The thing about coinage, you see, and especially Anglo-Saxon coinage in Scandinavia, is that there’s a an awful lot of it. I was fond of telling students that there is more coinage of King Æthelred the Unready in Stockholm than is known in all of England, which I think is true though we can’t be sure as they’ve never managed to count the stuff in Stockholm. Norway isn’t quite so favoured, but nonetheless, Elina’s two volumes catalogue 3,200 actual coins, including some previously unknown types, as well as a myriad of fragments that were surely one of the most grumpily impossible source material any medievalist I know has ever tried to work with. Almost all of this is from hoards, because Norway doesn’t allow metal detecting so the mass of single finds that we have from England or Denmark isn’t available (and it must be said that much of Norway is not exactly detector country). So the question is less what does this all tell us, as the sample is just too large to evaluate in aggregate, but more what are the patterns and oddities? So here some suggestions from the paper.

  • Despite their number, the English coins are a poor second to Islamic dirhams even this far west, and German coins are very close behind the English ones; the English ones have the great advantage, however, that their manufacture can be dated to within about five to ten years because the English coinage was called in and renewed so frequently.
  • Some of the coins found are pierced, as if to be worn as jewellery, but it’s not that many, only 46 in total, and most of those early, so we seem to see Norway getting used to coinage here (it didn’t start striking its own till the reign of Harald Hardrada).
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area of Norway closest to England, Rogaland, shows 64% of the English coin finds, but it also shows 59% of all early medieval coin finds, so it is obviously different.
  • Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002x1014

    The quantity less known… Obverse and reverse of a silver penny of King Henry II of Germany struck at Deventer in the modern Netherlands, 1002×1014

  • Among the finds in general, the Pointed Helmet type of Cnut (as in the first image above) shows an unusual proportion of die-links. That is, the dies used to strike the coins (hand-cut, and therefore identifiable) recur more frequently in this coinage than in the others, 47% of the finds being ‘linked’ by at least one die to other finds, and specifically 61% of the coins of this type struck at London, which led Elina to suggest that at least one part of this sample was a big batch of coins fresh from the London mint, hardly circulated before they went into the ground.
  • Coins do seem often to have been used as foundational deposits when putting up churches, and there was some discussion in questions of the possibility that this was because, being marked with a cross, they were considered Christian objects, but Elina reckoned that little else in the way that they were treated suggests this and thought that this behaviour was probably more to do with the fact that they were an available form of wealth that could easily be sacrificed.2

While the hints and suggestions about conversion to Christianity that Elina pulled out of this evidence (since that was ongoing in Norway at this period and ought, one feels, to be visible somehow) were thus a bit ephemeral, the concentration of hoards in Rogaland led to an unexpected yet surprisingly sustainable conclusion. We know, you see, from a variety of written sources, that Cnut’s efforts to gain control in Norway involved money, which after taking over England was something he had an awful lot of.3 Elina’s handout has the following bits from the Occasional Verses of the skald Sighvat, for example, apparently relating to the threat Cnut presented to King Olaf Haraldsson (1015-28):4

“The king’s enemies are walking about with open purses
Men offer the heavy metal for the priceless head of the king.
Everyone knows that he who takes gold for the head of his good lord
Has his place in the midst of black Hell.
He deserves such punishment.”

Obverse and reverse of Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029x1036, probably struck by Eadred at London

I should probably point out that as far as we know Cnut didn’t strike in gold! This is the obverse and reverse of a silver Short Cross penny of King Cnut, 1029×1036, if I’m reading it right struck by Eadred at London

“The king of England calls out a levy, but we have got a little army and smaller ships.
I do not see our king afraid.
It will be an ugly business if the men of the land let the king be short of men.
Money makes men break their faith.”

An ugly business it was, in the end, as in 1028 Cnut took a fleet to Norway and drove Olaf out, and when Olaf returned in 1030 to retake the kingdom he was killed fighting his own people.5 But how was that achieved? Well, probably with bribery of recalcitrant aristocrats in Rogaland. Not everyone in Norway was keen on the rise of kingship there.6 This could be exploited by Cnut, and we seem to see him do so; he spent more time in Rogaland than anywhere else in the country, of those recipients of bribes the sources let us identify all but one were based here, and the period of such activity matches that of the issue of the Pointed Helmet type, 1023-1029, so it does seem quite likely that the reason we have so much of that issue apparently uncirculated here is because Cnut arrived with sacks of it, some fresh from London, and handed it out. I thought this was pretty clever history, and it is nice to be able to work from such large samples down to a specific action. Not quite a smoking gun, but rather more than 30 pieces of silver


1. Elina Screen, Norwegian Collections, part I: Anglo-Saxon coins to 1016, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 65 (Oxford 2013) and Norwegian Collections, part II: Anglo-Saxon and later British coins 1016-1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 66 (Oxford forthcoming). As for this paper, I believe it’s under revision for publication as Elina was giving a new version of it at Leeds just gone

2. For this kind of aspect Elina relied explicitly on the work of Svein Gullbek, to wit his Pengevesents fremvekst og fall i Norge i middelalderen (København 2009), which I not only haven’t read but, I confess, couldn’t read if I tried.

3. The classic piece on this is D. M. Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018″ in Kenneth Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, since which time it’s become clear that, yes, we can.

4. Taken from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), nos 18.16 & 18.19, my line-breaks (sorry, Sighvat).

5. Elina’s reference here was Timothy Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: conquest and the consolidation of power in Northern Europe in the early eleventh century (Leiden 2009), which I haven’t seen.

6. I imagine the Bolton must cover this, but what I know of that does is Sverre Bagge, “Early State Formation in Scandinavia” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der Frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 145-154.

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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