Category Archives: numismatics

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!

New masters, and other things not yet announced

So, OK, two evenings ago I sent the final proofs of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters off to the publishers along with the index, and that was only the most urgent thing of about twenty I still have to do, but one of those is certainly to deliver the promised news that the last three posts haven’t contained. So, the quick way seems best: when the book comes out, my affiliation in it will be University of Birmingham, because it is they who have kindly taken me on as a Lecturer in Medieval History for the next little while. So that’s the big news: Jarrett finally leaves the Golden Triangle, and not before time. Everyone I’ve had dealings with in the department so far has been really nice and I’m looking forward to it, though just now I’m mainly looking forward to the move being over.

Aerial view of Edgbaston campus, Birmingham University

Aerial view of Edgbaston campus, Birmingham University

I will not conceal that for quite a lot of this year I’ve been fairly sure I was going to have to leave the profession at the end of this month, and indeed I’d started applying for non-academic jobs and had even been interviewed for one when this came up. Many of you who know me will have heard my various spiels about what seems to be happening here, but I will keep them out of this post. I have stub posts written about some of these issues, and given how backlogged I am, whether or not I reach them before I am back on the market is somewhat uncertain. (For that reason, I’m figuring that this post, which is actually current, should probably be left `sticky’ at the top while I fill in backlogged content beneath, so take a look below and see if what follows this post is familiar!)

Instead, I shall use this opportunity to get the other various bits of backlogged news that lurk in the queue up and current too, and those are all about publication. Apart from the, er, five book chapters I have even now in press, somehow, several lesser bits of my work have actually come out where you can see them during the backlogged period, and they are as follows.

Name in the book somewhere II

This was a rather larger 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, 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, 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 a sudden family 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…

Name in Print XI

Then lastly, for now, in April 2013 I achieved a personal first by getting published in Spain, and indeed, in Castilian, though that last came as something of a surprise to me when I got my copy as my text was English when I sent it in… The item in question was again only a review, this time of Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2012), which was a hard thing to review, because I know and respect many of the people in it, not least Julio and Andrew themselves and also Wendy Davies, and yet I didn’t want to just wave it by without reflection. Parts of it are in fact important and very interesting, but… If you want to see how I balanced these imperatives, you can in theory find it in Historia Agraria Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197. I have no digital copy, or I’d upload it somewhere, but maybe I’ll just scan it. And with that, you know as much as I do about my available works, so let’s see what comes out next!

Name in print IX & X

While I wait for information to reach me that will enable the next in our very delayed series of seminar reports, it’s about time I returned to the blog’s primary purpose, that being of course to publicise me and my work. 26th March—yes, I’m as badly behind with the personal stuff as the seminar reports—was a big day for publication-related milestones. I sent off the second submission version of what will now become Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, editors me and the inestimable Allan Scott McKinley; I received notice that Paul Freedman, no less, had reviewed my Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010 in Catholic Historical Review,1 and then when I got to my pigeonhole in college I found this in it!

Cover of volume 1 issue 2 of The Mediæval Journal

This is issue 2 of volume 1 of St Andrews’s new medieval flagship, The Mediaeval Journal, and I’m pleased to say that the first twenty-one pages of it contain my “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III”, a revised and improved version of my 2010 paper from the Leeds International Medieval Congress.2 That allows me to do my usual count of statistics and say: 3 drafts total, of which only 2 for actual publication; Brepols, who publish TMJ, have excellent copy-editors in whose hands I’m pleased now to have Problems and Possibilities, though I still wish the third round of changes they asked for had actually been input but hey; and, all-importantly, time from first submission to publication, 18 months, which is just about a quarter below average, so I’m pleased with it—I think it’s a good article, too, but it was also easy to get through the process of publishing it.

First page of Jarrett, `Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III`

Larger version linked through

Cover of Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture

Then, of course, it’s been so long I’ve taken to mention that that meanwhile, still more has emerged from the pipeline, though this is a piece with a rather long history and my first ever piece of published co-writing. It originated in an international project that involved the Fitzwilliam Museum when I was still working there, and whose findings I was invited to take to a conference in Vienna in 2008 that I mentioned here, but so late that I couldn’t get into the conference proceedings, which were of the sort that get published simultaneously with the conference.3 Subsequently I saw a suitable-looking call for papers on the Heroic Age blog, thanks guys, and was lucky enough to have the paper accepted. Somewhere in there we all had to admit that what I was primarily doing here was writing up other people’s research in reasonably accessible English and so the people who’d done the actual work got their names added, they being Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, of a number more who might have been named if they’d chosen, and the result, finally, is a chapter called “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in that above handsome blue-cloth volume, which is entitled Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and was heroically edited by Brent H. Nelson and Melissa Terras, who have been commendably good-humoured about a print process that has, well, taken long enough to make most digital work outdated.4 (Improvements to Google Image Search have certainly taken some of the zing out of ours, and the fact that the website on which all the project’s downloads were uploaded has now gone and its EU domain been camped by an insurance scammer is also something that time has wrought in defiance of what I actually cited, but what this means is of course that now this paper is about the only way you can find this stuff out…) Statistics here are: 5 drafts, I’m no longer sure how, and two sets of revisions, and time from first submission to publication, well, 3 years 8 months, no easy way to get round that. Still, it’s there, making my CV a weirder place, and it’s in the volume with some really exciting stuff, too, which it’s great to be included amongst. So, there we are, my name continues to be in print and there’s more a-coming, and by the time that emerges, maybe I’ll be announcing things on time again! Or, maybe not…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (Woodbridge 2010), reviewed by Paul Freedman in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 98 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 93-94, DOI:10.1353/cat.2012.0074.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediæval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout 2012 for 2011), pp. 1-22, DOI:10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda & Johann Stockinger (eds), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism. Proceedings of the 2nd EVA 2008 Vienna Conference, Vienna, August 25-28, 2008, books@ocg.at 238 (Vienna 2008).

4. Jonathan Jarrett, Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489. No, neither of the books about digitization are online, what would the point in that be, I don’t understand, world-wide what? etc….

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

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

Digital Treasure

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

Physical treasure: notable finds

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

Finds more controversial

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

Links involving me

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

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

And finally…

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


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

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

In the continuing attempt to clear some of my ridiculous blogging backlog before the new academic year starts in the UK, I am sadly going to pass over James Palmer‘s paper at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in London in February this year, not because it wasn’t interesting but because Magistra has already covered it, and this brings me back to Oxford. As we saw with the last of these posts, on a Monday when it seems to be required, it’s possible to attend both the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar here as there’s half an hour’s grace between them, and the 27th of February was such a day, as a remarkably complementary pair of papers were being given across the two. The first was “Between the Carolingian West and the Byzantine East: fortified élite settlements of the 9th and 10th centuries AD in Central Europe”, by Dr Hajnalka Herold and the second was “Dirhams for Slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century” by Dr Marek Jankowiak.

The hilltop over which stretches the site of the Gars Thunau hillfort complex, on what seems to have been a horrible day when whatever satellite Google gets its pictures from flew by

I first heard Hajnalka speak at the Kalamazoo of 2010, as is duly recorded here indeed, and this meant that some of what she was presenting was not new to me, as in order to set things up she had to talk us quickly through a number of sites which are not exactly household names in the West. (I sympathise with this: it frightens me how few people have any clear idea where Girona is and no-one but me and by now you has heard of Vic or Urgell but at least, bar the latter perhaps, people can usually spell the names from my area once they’ve heard them.) The sites are scattered across a zone shared between what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the state of publication and excavation is very various but, starting especially from Gars Thunau in Austria, Hajnalka is trying to fit these various, and variously-sized, power centres into wider frameworks, and as you can tell from the title of her talk is willing to look quite widely to find out what the builders thought they were doing and what kind of position they’d achieved that meant they could do it. The zone lay between empires, Frankish, Byzantine and at times Bulgarian, and any of these might be found pushing their influence into it at a given point in the period. The two former especially competed in the mission field, and had done for some time of course, which makes it particularly tantalising that many of these sites contained churches, in fact in the case of Mikulčice, in Moravia, nine churches, and in Zalavár in Hungary, a huge one which seems to have been of a size and complexity to rival pretty much anything in the West of the time, and a number of smaller ones on neighbouring patches of sandy ground. A Salzburg text called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum claims that this was the work of the Archbishops of Salzburg, but it would be nice to know which phases and when, if that’s even true…1 (I note that further south, in Croatia, there is dispute over whether the Aachen-like complex at Zadar was put there in emulation of or in reaction against Carolingian ecclesiastical pressure.2)

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár,  Hungary

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy initially to see what unites these complexes: firstly, they’re all fortified settlements and secondly, where there is good dating evidence, they seem to have all got new ramparts at the close of the ninth century. That’s more or less where the similarities end, however: the technologies of building, the size and focality of the complexes and likely, therefore, their apparent purposes all differ site to site. Furthermore, with only archæology to go on (the few written sources here, Conversio included, don’t help very much at all putting together a big picture) it’s hard to guess at who was in charge of any of these places or how they were supported.3 There are aspects that look familiar from the West: all these sites showed evidence of craft manufacture (though glass and precious metal were confined to the biggest ones), of space for Christian worship and for burial (not obviously non-Christian, if there is in fact any such thing archæologically-speaking) and of social stratification. On the other hand, these sites were not emporia, their trade links as so far testified in the material culture were thin and almost incidental, although quite farflung, there’re almost no coins and so forth. (More digging could change this in almost all cases, however.) The links that we do see, however, run both east and west, and this is clearest in the dress hinted at by the burial evidence: broadly, Hajnalka sketched, we’re looking at a set of sites at which the men dressed Frankish and the women dressed Byzantine, high-status persons in both cases of course and not without exceptions. The rank and file (and indeed the slaves who must have been there) are less distinctive. So the big message that Hajnalka had was that, although it is very easy for Westerners to look at a scenario like this (or that at Zadar, as noted above) and see a reaction to the Carolingian and Ottonian Drang nach Osten, in which local élites funnel luxury goods from the pressuring western empire and use that wealth to build up structures against it, when you’re on, and indeed in, the ground at these places the Franks were very far from being the only players for these people’s attention and imitation.4 But there is much more to be done to work out what the people in question were actually up to, in political or other terms, and we can hopefully look to Hajnalka to do some of it!5

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

The Medieval Archaeology seminar has lately taken to laying on tea and cake afterwards, which is very welcome and made it much more possible to pay attention to Marek Jankowiak after the brief trot to All Soul’s College. My notes indicate that he had an excellent set of visuals to back up his argument, about which sadly I can remember nothing, but those of you who may be setting up to see what must be a related paper at this term’s Institute of Historical Research seminar are in for a treat, at least. Here I can only recreate from my notes alas, and they tell me that what was principally at issue here was the absolutely huge preservation of Islamic silver coinage in Northern Europe. Dr Jankowiak wanted to get us thinking about how they had wound up there and what was moving in exchange. This first entailed a more detailed analysis of the finds than I’ve seen before, noting that particular areas receiving dirhams seem to have blipped in and out of the record at different times (except in Gotland where deposition was pretty continuous), and that the area providing them seems to have shifted from Iran to the Samanid Emirate at Khorasan over the tenth century, with Iraq hardly showing up and Spain not there at all. These were supplemented by imitations of such coins from the Khazar and Bulgar areas, again shifting from one to the other over the tenth century. By a series of rather unlikely calculations, Dr Jankowiak hypothesized that, if 75%-80% of this exchange was being paid for with slaves (a figure whose basis he did not explain) then we might be thinking of an export of 30,000-60,000 human beings over the century, a few hundred every year, but that that would not include exports to the West which, however they were going, were obviously not being paid for in a medium so readily hoarded. Identifying the slaves archæologically, given that they were exported and acculturated, is basically impossible but just because of the numbers involved Dr Jankowiak wound up developing a picture in which entire peoples, small tribes or whatever, were basically hoovered up and fed into this market by their more powerful neighbours, and thus suggested that the reason for the sudden boom in fortification in Central Europe in this era is because those who could be wanted to be on the rich side of this process, not the poor side! He saw in this the origins of settlement nucleation in Poland, especially, and suggested that we should perhaps see the lesser hillforts not so much as fortifications but as slave corrals with garrisons via a chain of which the unfortunate human goods were convoyed eastwards, a system out of whose profits new states might bloodily grow.

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air, rebuilt 989 after destruction by fire of unknown previous date

At that point, of course, these two papers came directly into conflict. For example, in Dr Jankowiak’s Southern Poland, apparently, many of the forts (and there are many there, but of course only a few have been dug well enough to provide dating evidence) show destruction layers. Is this because Poland was developing a central power that had to suppress these places? In that case, one might equally expect the Polish forts to be refuges, something that Dr Jankowiak ruled out due to the very small number of finds there that suggests to him only temporary occupation. But, many of these sites were dug (when they have been) a long time ago and it’s debatable what would have been found in such excavations and whether occupation, rather than just ‘artefacts’, would have been recognised. Anyway, the point of refuges surely is that they’re only temporarily occupied. And so on. These are issues I’ve brought out myself, but plenty of other people also had objections, about the neglected contribution of the fur trade (better seen in animal bone evidence further east than here, according to Dr Jankowiak), about the effects on prices of this influx of money that likely make a constant figure for the tenth-century slave economy problematic and (of course) about the hypothetical mathematics, it wasn’t even me for once. I did, however, ask about the hoards in Scandinavia, to wit: why on earth is there deposition on such a scale here without retrieval? Because if you have a hoard, one thing you can say for sure is that the owner didn’t come back for it. Was Scandinavia then even less stable than Central Europe’s slave-grounds? Dr Jankowiak thought that the hoards might be sort of treasure banks that were accessed on a small scale only, an increasingly fashionable idea, but if so, what the finds evidence seems to be showing us is an Eastern Scandinavian economy that brought in a great deal of coin but seems then to have considerable difficulty doing anything with it, which must make it worth rethinking whether this was in fact about getting rich. So there was a lot of debate. All the same, there is this much that cannot be gainsaid here: we know there was a slave trade, some of this money that we have found must have been paid for slaves, the changes in its deposition probably do reflect a variation in the availability of goods that Islamic merchants would pay for and so there’s a certain horrible plausibility about some of the mechanisms Dr Jankowiak laid out here, even if not whether the forts are part of those mechanisms or not. With that much accepted, if I can bring George Bernard Shaw back in again, we may just be haggling over how much was involved…


1. This intriguing but allusive text was edited by Herwig Wolfram as Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum: das Weissbuch der Salzburger Kirche über die erfolgreiche Mission in Karantanien und Pannonien (Wien 1979) and he seems to have spent a long time since then trying to figure it out, resulting in idem, Salzburg, Bayern, Österreich: die Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum und die Quellen ihrer Zeit, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 31 (Wien 1995). This is not my area and I’m not going to pretend to have read either of these (I’ve seen quotes from the former), but they exist should you want to.

2. Here I know what I know from Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

3. One possibility, which I understand from Hajnalka may indeed be feasible at some of these sites, could be the kind of analysis of animal bone that Leslie Alcock was able to get done at the very early medieval Welsh site of Dinas Powys, and which showed that the cattle they were getting there were all young animals, not the spread of ages or mostly mature beasts that you’d get from a natural herd, thus showing that the occupiers of the site were probably receiving tribute: see his Dinas Powys: An Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82.

4. For a round-up of the post-Carolingian view of this general area see Matthew Innes, “Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216.

5. And indeed since this paper took place she has done, in the form of “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003. I’m not quite clear if this is actually out yet: the journal’s website says the current issue is Vol. 57 (2013) but only gives indices for up to Vol. 55 (2011). In either case I must thank Hajnalka for sending me a preprint version ahead of publication.

Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England?

I think I’ve decided to run with this theme for the moment, though some things may get shifted around for greater elegance. I’ll advertise any major changes, though. Thankyou all for comments. Now, back to the backlog! It probably won’t surprise you, now that you know that the Winton Institute for Monetary History were being medieval in their seminar series last year, that I was back there before long, on this occasion because Michael Metcalf was speaking, and he is a man whose work I’d read quite a bit of as an undergraduate and heard much of during my time at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but never actually met. He could best be described as Mark Blackburn‘s opposite number in Oxford, but started rather earlier and has perhaps said some more, um, adventurous things, so I was interested to see what would transpire.1 His paper, presented on the 16th November 2011, was entitled, “Thrymsas and sceattas and the balance of payments”.

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

A sceatta (pronounced 'she-att-er'), to wit, a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection. This is the reverse; it's really about a centimetre across.

It used, as Professor Metcalf began by saying, to be thought that the monetary economy began in the High Middle Ages, but ever since metal-detecting got big this has got steadily harder and harder to maintain. The take-off point keeps getting earlier and earlier as more coin is discovered. Especially prevalent have been finds of the earliest coinages of early medieval England and its neighbours, the coins usually known as sceattas (though Mark preferred ‘early pennies’) and their rarer gold predecessors, thrymsas. These have multiplied to such an extent that everyone is now agreed that the old classification of them makes no more sense but very few people have dared to risk putting a foundation down in the ongoing flow of evidence to start a new one, so the coins remain somewhat poorly understood.2 Once it was clear that the high medieval proponents were wrong, anyway, the next paradigm came from none other than Richard Hodges, who in the early 1980s suggested that these coins were in use only by élites and that the average peasant never saw them.3 This was defensible at the time of writing but is an especially hard-hit casualty of the increase in evidence; there’s just too much now, too widely-spread, for any sensible reconstruction of how much there once was to fit such an idea. So, it’s necessary to rethink what coinage in early Anglo-Saxon England was actually doing.

Reverse of Anglo-Saxon gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002

A thrymsa, or shilling, in this instance of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002, the reverse again, and even tinier than the previous

This paper had a go, then, at doing this by analysing the distribution of finds of these coinages. We are especially able to get at these now because of electronic resources like the venerable Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam and the rather newer NUMIS in the Netherlands. Playing with these quickly reveals the one-sidedness of finds of the (probably) earliest sceattas, of which many were made in both the Netherlands and England but English ones of which are only found in the latter, whereas the Low Countries ones get everywhere.4 This suggests to Professor Metcalf a balance of payments, and he suggested therefore that wool was a key export even this early, since the coins are in fact found most thickly in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire Wolds, wool-producing areas of note. That also suggests that the goods were shipped direct with no trade on the way! So, that might be élite, if that’s how you see English wool production even as early as the seventh century,5 though it might also not, but the distribution of finds of locally-minted gold coins of the seventh century is basically uniform, so it seems quite unlikely that the good stuff was being concentrated by any such interest. The élite hypothesis does, therefore, seem to have to go.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

Replica of a (much later) Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

A lot of the paper rested on estimates of the sizes of coinage, an area in which Professor Metcalf has become famous.6 For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent, from Archaeology in Europe (linked through) not one used by Professor Metcalf, whose maps' detail was rather finer, but I somehow find scrounging other people's handouts onto the web without their okay a step too far

So, you know, what, why and how? The answers are yet to come, but the questions are getting louder and louder. Some answers that did get suggested in questions were, the obvious one perhaps, a consumer class in the peasantry (John Blair), monasteries (also John Blair, you will be shocked to learn) both as consumers and as industrial drivers of the economy, salt and meat being bought in bulk (the latter of which was also John’s suggestion, in fact) and, back from the dead, the élite (Anthony Hotson, though here obviously channelling Chris Wickham, sadly absent), in as much as by promoting commerce and appropriating surplus that people are thus made to produce they are causing production and a market economy… And any of these might be the right answer, or indeed all of them, but none of this is coming from texts, or Henri Pirenne would likely have had the answer eighty years ago. This is one of those instances where the answer really does lie in the soil.


1. Most famously, perhaps unfairly, in one of his earliest papers, “How Large Was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, where he used an estimate of 30,000 coins produced by each hypothetical die to produce a maximum figure that somehow immediately became orthodoxy…

2. The basic classification goes back to Stuart Rigold, if I understand rightly—and I really may not!—in his “The principal series of English sceattas” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 47 (London 1977), pp. 21-30, but this rapidly got liberally beaten about, not least in David Hill and Michael Metcalf (edd.), Sceattas in England and on the continent: The Seventh Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 128 (Oxford 1984) and subsequently in D. M. Metcalf, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford 1993), 3 vols. Lately Tony Abramson has proposed a new classification in his Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide (London 2006), but the profession doesn’t seem to be happy with this and I believe we can expect more work on this soon, fostered not least by Tony’s readiness to get people together and talking about these coins as witnessed in the volume he’s edited, Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 1: Two Decades of Discovery (Woodbridge 2008), which came out of Leeds sessions (a lesson to me in prompt publication).

3. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn 1989).

4. Presumably this is all available in W. Op den Velde & D. M. Metcalf, The Monetary Economy of the Netherlands, c. 690-c. 715 and the Trade with England: A study of the Sceattas of Series D, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 90 (Utrecht 2003) and eidem, The monetary economy of the Netherlands, c. 690 – c. 760 and the trade with England: a study of the “Porcupine” Sceattas of series E, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 96 (Utrecht 2010 for 2009), but I confess I only just now found out about those so I can’t say for sure.

5. My ill-disguised Grierson fandom obliges me to mention Philip Grierson, “The Relations Between England and Flanders Before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th Series Vol. 23 (London 1941), pp. 71-112, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 61-92, though even he didn’t try to push the wool link back this many centuries, not then having the last seventy years’ finds to work from.

6. Not just his “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency” above, to which one might like to compare Philip Grierson’s reply, “The Volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 20 (London 1967), pp. 153-160, repr. in Grierson, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), XXXVIII, but more recently Metcalf, “Some Speculations on the Volume of the German Coinage in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Thomas Fischer & Peter Ilisch (edd.), Lagom. Festschrift für Peter Berghaus zum 60. Geburtstag am 20. November 1979 (Münster 1981), pp. 185-193, another one I know of rather than know, and Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018″ in K. Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, which I have actually read, although a very long time ago…

7. Since these methods involve at crucial points making up figures, I don’t myself put much trust in them and in this I’m guided not least by Ted Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, Presidential Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335–351, but also by the careful compromise suggested by Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973–1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and history in the North Sea world, c. AD 500–1200. Essays in honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523. There’s a computer simulation test of the various statistical estimators in use published by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which gives some reason for credence in such methods, but ultimately I’m with Ted on this: even if it might just be right, it’s inherent to the method that you can’t know that… That doesn’t invalidate Professor Metcalf’s relative conclusions, however!

8. See Helena Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.

Lady Cynethryth at home

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Seminar CVII: money has been power for quite a while

Another social habit of mine with seminars is that when friends from the past have come to where I am now, I try and turn up, and thus it was that I made my first trip thus far to the Seminar of the Winton Institute for Monetary History in the Ashmolean Museum. Their theme for the term was ‘Money and value in medieval England, 7th to 14th centuries’ and thus they’d got my erstwhile Fitzwilliam colleague, Rory Naismith, to come over and talk about `Mints, Moneyers and Authority in Anglo-Saxon England’. He started with a story from Genoa in 1299, when a Venetian warship managed to storm the harbour, and what they did with this sudden and short-lived naval advantage was to land a small workshop team, set up a forge and knock out a few dozen coins of Venice on the foreshore, thus briefly turning Genoa into a Venetian mint before being chased out. The point here is that even if it may seem to be less so now, the ability to strike coin has been an attribute of power for a long time. When the chronicler Procopius got all in a froth about Western `barbarian’ kings striking gold coin with their own names on, rather than the emperor’s, that wasn’t because he was weird or because the kings were stupid; like the Venetians, they were sending messages in metal.1

Silver early penny of Hamwic, unknown date, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny of Hamwic, unknown date, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, probably of London, c. 685, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1580-2007

Silver early penny, probably of London, c. 685, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1580-2007

This makes it somewhat weird to move the picture to England and find that the first coinages there, with some notable but very rare exceptions, are so anonymous and abstracted in their types that we don’t even know how many mints there were, let alone where they were (and as the Venetian example shows, a mint doesn’t need a fixed location in any major way). If the rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms circa 620 to 750 were controlling the coinage, it’s very hard to see. I mean, I don’t know what that symbolism above is, but it’s pretty clearly not `a Roman Emperor’.2 Instead, it seems likely to Rory (and I buy this myself, much to the annoyance of some scholars of later England for whom the idea is anathema) that the moneyers, whoever they may have been, were running the coinage themselves in cooperation.3 Since some of the mints do appear to have been the shoreline trading ports the scholarship calls wics (think Ipswich, Norwich, Greenwich, Sandwich, and most importantly the Anglo-Saxon settlement across the River Itchen from Southampton, predictably called Hamwic, which we can be surer than all the others was a royal foundation and operation because, weirdly, of the food evidence4) the kings were presumably taking some kind of cut, but that’s not the same thing. That seems to have changed around 750, when King Eadberht of Northumbria, in collaboration with his brother Archbishop Egbert of York (of whom we have heard) started minting silver pennies with their names on, and after that it caught on, Beonna King of the East Angles and then King Offa of Mercia, who also brought the coinage in line with that of Charlemagne, and this presumably changed the power balance involved in the making of money. Because it’s a claim of power, we find Anglo-Saxon kings doing the same thing as the Venetians did later, minting in towns they’d taken even if they weren’t going to be able to keep them. Thus Egbert King of Wessex had a very short-lived issue of coin from London in 825 and of course, when his grandson Alfred the Great managed to reoccupy the place after the Vikings had detached it from its by-then-native Mercia, he did the same and kept it going even though he was, nonetheless, handing the city back to Mercia in some sense.5 Never mind towns: there are kings we only know of because they struck coin…6 But that is still, then, somewhat new.

(Royal brother on the left, episcopal one on right, identifiable by his gear. Take two crosses out on perambulation? I just preach and go! but then Bede complained…)
Obverse of silver early penny of York mint in the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht  of York, 737x58, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2008, De Wit Collection

Obverse of silver early penny of York mint in the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht of York, 737x58, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2008, De Wit Collection

Reverse of silver early penny of York mint in the names of King Eadberht of Northumbria and Archbishop Egberht of York, 738x57, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1998-2007

Reverse of the same coin

As the country was disputed between the rulers of Wessex and those of more Viking persuasions for the next century or so, you can imagine that where mints were put in this period got very political. King Edgar had maybe eighty mints in his domains: the entire Roman Empire sometimes ran with twelve, so this is not what you’d call necessary.7 It’s only during the reign of Athelstan (924-937) that every coin finally carried the name of its mint as well as the face of the king, but it may also only have been in that period that it became primarily commercial at an ordinary, rather than a trader’s convenience and tax tool; Athelstan’s laws have quite a lot of stuff about markets, regulation of trade and indeed coinage, as if these matters needed new attention.8 Nonetheless, since the volume of coinage in circulation in Athelstan’s reign appears to have shrunk (though I could not tell you how shaky the ways of guessing this are9) the economic aim probably still wasn’t the primary one. This is especially likely to be true because so many of the system of fortresses against the Vikings known as burhs appear to have run as mints, even though this early almost none of them were functional towns and some were never big enough to have a hope of becoming such.10 Rory here argued that the dominant interest in the coinage was therefore still the moneyers; coin was being struck at the kind of places where the kind of business that men of power and influence who were moneyers did was done. The institution of money production in early England, therefore, says Dr Naismith, is the moneyer and not the mint.

Reverse of silver penny of King Alfred showing the London mint's monogrammatic signature, Fitzwilliam museum CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection

Reverse of silver penny of King Alfred showing the London mint's monogrammatic signature, Fitzwilliam museum CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection

This gave rise to a certain amount of discussion about supply and demand in questions, as you might imagine. Obviously a king could mint where he chose but if there was no demand for the coin and the functions of coinage, it wouldn’t circulate, so the point would be lost. On the other hand it seems pretty clear, especially from the burghal argument, that that wasn’t always the primary driver. So we may all have to do some rethinking, and Rory’s rapidly burgeoning publication trail is going to be a vital tool to do that thinking with!11


1. Procopius, History of the Wars, transl. in H. B. Dewing, Procopius (Cambridge 1914-1954), cc. 7.33.5-6, in vol. IV, pp. 438-439, cit. R. Naismith, Money and Power in Anglo-Saxon England: the Southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 80 (2012), p. 39 n. 142, and just as well too because none of the books I immediately have to hand about the kingdoms where it happened choose to mention it!

2. An attempt to explain the symboloism exists in the form of Anna Gannon, The iconography of early Anglo-Saxon coinage: sixth to eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

3. Naismith, Money and Power, pp. 128-155.

4. On wics generally, see Richard Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2000); on the food supply at Hamwic, which was basically too uniformly dull to have been sourced at market, so must have been orchestrated from outside, see Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

5. Tony Dyson, “King Alfred and the Restoration of London” in London Journal Vol. 15 (London 1990), pp. 99-110; Mark Blackburn, “The London Mint in the Reign of Alfred” in idem & David Dumville (edd.), Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 9 (Woodbridge 1998), pp. 105-123.

6. Most obviously one Harthacnut of maybe-York, only very recently discovered—this is the perils of working on coinage somewhere where metal detecting is legal, there’s always more you didn’t know about about to be discovered—but also King Eardwulf of Northumbria, on whom see Elisabeth Pirie, “Earduulf: a Significant Addition to the Coinage of Northumbria” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 65 (London 1995), pp. 20-31.

7. This point from Rory’s paper, and I did think it slightly special pleading, since the Empire’s everyday coinage also came from a shedload of provincial mints striking bronze, at least in the East; but it would be a fair comment for the entire Western Empire, which usually only ran I think nine or ten, and that’s counting in the one in Croatia.

8. On laws and coinage generally see now Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

9. There is, as you might guess, disagreement on this, not just in the field but even in the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam where I met about three-quarters of the people I’ve cited here, and since I’ve cited almost all my other old colleagues already let’s add two more, Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973-1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. A. D. 500-1250: essays in honour of Marion Archibald, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523, versus Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, The President’s Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-351. Martin will notice if I don’t also mention his new book, Mints and Money in Medieval England (Cambridge 2012), where he revisits such questions pp. 295-304.

10. David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

11. Not least because as well as his Money and Power already mentioned he has also lately published The Coinage of Southern England 796-865 (London 2011), 2 vols, essentially the illustrated corpus from his thesis. It’s going to be where study of the pre-Alfredian coinage starts from now on…