Category Archives: Romans

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

Next in the now-thinning pile of things I went to in Oxford that I still haven’t reported here is when Dr Michael Featherstone gave a paper entitled “The Great Palace of Constantinople: tradition or invention?” to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar there on 1st May 2013. This seems to have been an update of a piece Dr Featherstone published in 2006, but it also seems to have been more dependent on the visuals than is good for my recall: my notes refer blithely to buildings with Greek names I can’t reconstruct and hang arguments off sources I didn’t note down, and so this is a fairly shaky account of what was, nonetheless, an interesting paper.1 Given that, it seems best to start with a visual from somewhere else, to wit Wikimedia Commons:

Reconstruction map of the imperial district of Constantinople

Constantinople imperial district” by Cplakidas – Image:Constantinople center.svg. Translated and added more detail. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two important things about this map, which is ultimately drawn from the works of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and Cyril Mango (or so the Wikimedia Commons page for the original French version says). One is that it is cumulative: you’re looking there at the work of emperors over about six centuries and a great many periods of prosperity or crisis that made architectural display or administrative rehousing seem wise. The second, and perhaps more important thing is that it rests on really very little archæology: large parts of this now lie under the Blue Mosque and not much of the rest has been dug either. So what we are essentially being asked to accept this map from is careful work to reconstruct it from mentions in historical and literary sources, and here most of all Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos’s De Ceremoniis, ‘On the Ceremonies’, part of that unlucky ruler‘s general attempt to uplift the symbolic state of his imperial government by calling on ancient precedent and tradition wherever he could find it.2 Given how much else that was old or disused he seems to have reactivated, how much of what he says about the palace can we take to have been important to anyone else or true before (or even during) his reign?

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul

The so-called Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the biggest single reason why there is relatively little known about the imperial palace complex on top of which it was built, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Featherstone took the information of the De Ceremoniis and tried to unweave from it the various sources of information Constantine VII had to write it with and that we have to check it with. Constantine’s sources must have included the standing fabric of his day, of course, but also seem to have included some rather older texts, whose testimony came from times when perhaps more was standing or had not yet been rebuilt, and which may have reported uses that were centuries outdated or even perhaps no longer possible. A particular example seems to be the hall of the 19 Couches (’19 Accubita’ on the map above), in the sixth century the palace complex’s private banqueting hall (with nine couches a side and one in its apse for the emperor) but later relegated to ceremonial use only as the emperors moved their residences down the hill to the south and left the old ‘upper palace’ as a more occasional resort. By the ninth century the 19 Couches was considered to be outside the palace, because the focal point had moved so thoroughly, leaving the old buildings higher up the hill as more or less disused space, although was was remarked in questions, still with guards on the entrances (as we know from Liudprand, not least).3 Constantine VII however re-roofed it (showing what state things were in), found somewhere an account of what had used to go on in it (here we had a mention of a Philotheos, I think probably Philotheos of Selymbria though this would be a much later source for an early source if so…) and started using it for official promotions, despite the fact that as far as we can tell that was not something the building had previously housed. He also restarted chariot racing, revived a bunch of old costumes and so forth; it’s not at all clear that the Constantinople he created had ever existed before all together, however, and it must have had something of the historical film set about it. None of that makes it seem any wiser to use Constantine VII’s works (dare we say, scripts?) as guides to the ancient past…

Ornamental pier supposedly from the Great Palace of Constantinople

It’s not that there is no remnant of the palace complex now… But even this rather excellent pier, apparently now on fairly uncaring display in Istanbul, doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Image from Wikimedia Commons, though the contributor’s suggested attribution to the second century does leave me worried that it is in fact somewhere else entirely…

What we wound up with, therefore, was a picture of a kind of ghost palace, a large set of buildings constructed to earlier political agendas which subsequent ones had found expensive, impractical or irrelevant, in which occasionally spectacles might still be staged, where it was safe to do so, but whose use quickly became exceptional. Given the quality of their building, they presumably mostly stayed up, but things like lighting, access and so on must have been problematic. Dr Featherstone suggested that the worst of the damage and deterioration was probably hidden with hangings, but all of this is a kind of make-do-and-mend that doesn’t seem at all appropriate for the image we are conventionally given (not least by Constantine VII) of the glorious and ever-wealthy Byzantine Empire, especially at its absolute heart here in Constantinople. But one of the things this paper emphasised was that it was probably one of the ways in which Constantine VII was unusual that he had his heart in these old buildings; for most emperors before him, their homes down the hill had been where their heart was, and the actual government was quite possibly somewhere else entirely.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

Writing about this now puts me immediately in mind of the above as the best parallel I have for what this might have been like. Sir Christopher Wren built this place in the late seventeenth century and for a while it was the place that trained up the bearers of Britain’s proud naval tradition etc. but when I first met it years ago, on the way to a rather nice restaurant, it was maintained but disused public space utterly devoid of a function. The creation of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site has now woken it up and stuff is going on there by way of events, conservation, visits, tours and so forth. You can find out lots more about that online, but what you can’t find out about on that official website is anything really at all about what the buildings used to do. It’s no longer relevant: they want people to come and see them because they’re still splendid, not because they were once important. But I remember wandering round the site before it was renewed, with everything dull, grey and locked up behind railings, and saying to my then-companion, “My gods, this is where the empire died and was buried, isn’t it?”

Taking the parallel back to the tenth century, did Constantine VII manage this kind of revamp, in the parts of the complex he decided were reactivable, do you suppose? Or was it, for his audiences, somewhat more like standing in a mausoleum of dead achievements he would never equal and which weren’t really anything to do with the problems of the day? Should we put Constantine VII in the same box as I have put King Charles the Simple of the Western Franks, eager to revive the traditions of his ancestors but not realising that times had changed? Or does Constantine’s dogged progress towards sole rule suggest that he knew a trick his colleagues didn’t? If so, the old palace buildings may have been part of it, but even then perhaps, then you saw them, soon you didn’t…


1. Jeffrey Michael Featherstone, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis” in Franz Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von Herrschaft. Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen: Gestalt und Zeremoniell. Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, Byzas 5 (Istanbul 2006), pp. 47-61; see now also Featherstone, “Der Große Palast von Konstantinopel: Tradition oder Erfindung?” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 106 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 19-38, DOI:10.1515/bz-2013-0003, fairly apparently this paper.

2. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall (transl.) Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012), 2 vols.

3. Liudprand visited Constantinople for the first time in the reign of Constantine VII and seems to have been exactly the kind of impressive but impressionable foreign audience the emperor wanted, as we can tell from his account in his Antapodosis. I’ve just given references to all Liudprand’s works, so I won’t do that again, but you might like to look at Constanze M.F. Schummer, “Liudprand of Cremona – a diplomat?” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 197-201.

Seminar CLXXIII: blended Burgundians

Continuing to fight the backlog, let me tell you all about the time I went to hear Erica Buchberger, now well out of Oxford, present a paper to the After Rome seminar there on 25th April 2013, a paper entitled “Romans, Barbarians and Burgundians in Early Burgundian Law”. Erica’s work at that point was, and probably still is, to clarify what it was that the ethnic terms beloved of early medieval sources actually meant, and on this occasion she was working through the two Burgundian lawcodes, the Lex romana Burgundionum and the Liber constitutionum or Lex Burgundionum, to see what they do with the three terms of her title.

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The short answer seems to have been that these texts don’t much help: while the separation of the two texts seems to indicate a category distinction between Romans in Burgundy and Burgundians, the number of circumstances in which one’s sort of law could be chosen, associated with property or even sold with property makes a rapid nonsense of the idea that these were categories of birth. In fact, almost all the invocations of the ideas of ethnicity come up, in either lawcode, where landed property is concerned. I suppose, as I think from my notes did Erica, that this is because in land, claims of inheritance were more important than they were in everyday cases of affray or disagreement, so that one’s ancestry, from people who perhaps felt and expressed their identity as Roman or Burgundian more sharply as the two groups first interacted, would be more relevant. In that case, as Erica certainly did say, the laws are testifying silently to the ongoing collapse of the distinction, and show us many ways in which they could be crossed or avoided. She also argued that the laws were a tool working towards that combination of peoples, and there I’m less clear what the basis of her argument was: perhaps, though, that the two laws should not be seen as alternatives but as complements, applying Roman and ‘barbarian’ solutions respectively to a population who were increasingly able to see themselves as both. There were lots of questions, but almost all about the details of accommodation or case-law, and what I got from that is that Erica knows her stuff, by now not a surprise. It was good to attend this paper, as it represented the hoped-for outcome of many a piece of research: even though research ineluctably initially reveals that the question is too complex to answer simply, at the end one needs to have some answers that do help us understand better. This, now-Dr Buchberger certainly provided!


The standard editions of the Burgundian laws are the MGH ones, Friedrich Blühme (ed.), “Leges Burgundionum” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum quingentesimum Legum III (Hannover 1863), online here, pp. 497-630, or Ludwig Rudolf de Salis (ed.), Leges Burgundionum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Leges Nationum Germanicarum II.1 (Hannover 1892), online here, and there’s a translation of the Lex Burgundionum in Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; additional enactments (Philadelphia 1972). The Lex Romana Burgundionum isn’t published in translation yet, but I know that a masters student at Kings College London has done a translation, so, who knows… ?

A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…


1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.

Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy

Returning now to my seminar backlog, I find myself reliving my last term in employment at Oxford, and fittingly in many ways, it more or less opened with a paper by Dr Mark Whittow, Byzantinist and generalist both and a man whom I think can cope with being described as a ‘good egg’ and who had on 22nd April 2013 taken convenor’s privilege at the Medieval History Seminar to present a paper called “Worlds in Motion: Byzantium’s Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire, 550-630″.

Mark’s essential question was whether the Byzantine state of his period had anything that could be described as a foreign policy towards the area north and east of its great enemy, Persia, and he knew his audience well enough to know that this would mean setting out in some detail what actually happened in the area and, for example, why we were talking about Türks with a diaresis. Specifically, in fact, we were talking about the Gök Türks, a supposedly-ethnic group who emerged as a political quantity in the mid-sixth century in what is now Mongolia as subjects of the Avars (something we know largely from Chinese sources) but in 552 blew up and occupied the Eastern steppes, in 556 destroying the rule of the Hepthalites or White Huns in cooperation with Persia and beginning to move in on trade along the incipient Silk Roads in Sogdia. The Persian link didn’t serve them well, however, and in 568 their western ruler made an approach to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, leading to a joint attack on Persia in 573 that however went very badly, so that the Türks then gave up on Byzantium and in fact nicked the Crimea off it. (I have to admit, I had not known till this point that Byzantium had ever held the Crimea. I have a lot to learn.)

Sixth-to-eighth-century petroglyphs supposedly showing Gök Türks

This is the best Wikimedia Commons can do me for pictures of Gök Türks, pictures in stone from Mongolia dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries, which is at least about right for our purposes. All the same, I don’t feel this illustrates much…

This was the beginning of the end for a Türk empire that had for a while stretched from Mongolia to Iran. In 581 Persia and China managed to put together simultaneous campaigns that broke up the Türks’ eastern Qaghanate, leaving only the western one. It was however to this that a desperate Emperor Heraclius, he of beards but not badgers as I think we have shown, turned in 624 when no other expedient against the lately-triumphant Persia seemed available. the Türks had already raided Persia in 618, and no other help was to be had, so in 626 Heraclius began attacking Persia from the east, rather than the west, and next year the Türks joined in. (This we have from Nikephoros.) Exactly what contribution this made to the emperor’s following victory and the Persian collapse of 628 is probably still to be worked out but the Türks descended into civil war the next year and that is about the last we see of the Gök Türks as an autonomous polity.

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius's victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius’s victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but found on Wikimedia Commons

Can all this be counted as a policy, then, asked Mark? Well, in some senses no: it’s not a policy for Eurasia in the way that China had a policy for the steppes, a continuous attempt to consider them as part of their total strategic picture. What it could be seen as is a continuation of attempts to use groups from this area as an outside threat to the Persians, a diplomatic outflanking manœuvre, like the Huns and before them the Sarmatians, the Hephthalites, the Avars, a continuation which meant, even if contact was sporadic and very much to current purposes, maintaining some kind of awareness of who was out there, what languages one needed to deal with them, and what interests they had. This presumably all became a lot more relevant when Persia was strong or active, and that information might not be something emperors carried round in their heads at all times, but the further part of the strategic map was, Mark argued, never quite empty in this period, because one never knew when it would become advisable to use it.

This all raised a goodly number of questions. I asked the obvious and perhaps unfair one about what made up Türk ethnicity, unfair because it’s a question we don’t really have the means to answer. There was also some interest in what role control of the Silk Roads played in the Türk position, which seems to have been something the Türks themselves emphasised but about which again we can say little. There were also questions about how all this looked from other perspectives, not least that of the Türks: what did they want from Byzantium, did they have policies of their own that we can guess at? To this Mark’s answer was that their priorities seemed to be to hold onto access to the Silk Roads and keep the Avars at bay or beyond, though it does seem to me that in that case their involvement with Heraclius was an own goal, as it seems likely to have made the Avars stronger, but perhaps Persia was become too much of a threat, or too rich, to ignore. I wonder about the possibility of a régime in crisis turning to outside victories to bolster its status in what was, if so, obviously an insufficient ploy. But for the most part I was happy to sit back and learn from this paper, which was immensely informative about an area of which I know far less than I should.


I couldn’t attempt to footnote this paper given the state of my knowledge, but two major references which might be good places to start were Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford 1999) and James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010).

Name in Print XI

Cover of volume 59 of Historia Agraria (2013)

This is stuff you’ve already seen, cobbled down from one of the sticky posts above now that its due place in sequence has been reached. But perhaps you wanted to see it again! 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, it’s in Historia Agraria Vol. 59 (Valencia 2013), pp. 193-197. I have no digital copy, or I’d upload it somewhere, but maybe you can find it. And now, back to the new old content…

Seminar CLXIX: Spanish palaces in Winchester

The next seminar in my backlog of reports, horrifyingly lengthening not shortening despite the regular updates, was another visit of Anglo-Saxon England to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, in the form of George Molyneaux from Oxford with a paper called “The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century” on 13th March 2013. I went along, by way of showing the flag, but I’m not going to cover it here, for one thing because Magistra et Mater did already, and for another because it was quite acknowledgedly more or less the same paper I had earlier seen George give in Oxford and which I already blogged here. George did suggest I cover it anyway, with such phrases as “remarkably little development in the speaker’s thought” and so on but what can I say, I’m too far behind, and anyway if I miss that one out I now get to talk about me, always a hard temptation to resist.

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester

The oldest part of the King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, looking rather newer on the inside as I discovered

I have been quite looking forward to writing about this one, because it marked the first time I’d got up in public to talk about my work for quite a while. Reaching it thus marks some kind of exit from the slough in which I’d temporarily found myself at Oxford and my starting to gather myself for whatever was coming next, and apparently I did this by accepting the kind invitation of Dr Kate Weikert to host me at the Winchester Seminar on Comparative Medieval Cultures the very next day, on 14th March 2013. The word ‘comparative’ carries more strength here than usually it might, because the set-up with that seminar series was (is, perhaps) that there would be two papers in each evening, chosen to complement each other and provoke, well, comparison. So I stepped up first with “Brokedown palaces or Torres dels Moros? Finding the fisc in late-Carolingian Catalonia” and then local hero Dr Phil Marter followed on with “Archaeological Investigations at the Medieval Palacio de Ambel, Aragón”, and this actually worked really well, it was one of the more fun seminars I’ve been part of.

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

An aerial view of Sant Esteve and Santa Maria de Palautordera, Girona

I’ve been trying to work out what to do with my paper ever since, because it was something of an attack piece and I already have too much of a reputation as a negative scholar. All the same, you know, dear reader, that sometimes I feel scholarly outrage rather keenly and this paper was one of those. It was about places in Catalonia which bear a name in the form Palau- or Palou-, of which there are many and which are not fully understood. As long-memoried readers may remember, even some of the ones that are explained turn out not to be when one looks… The root is very clearly Latin palatium, which is what gives us English ‘palace’, but that can’t be what is meant here unless, as I said, conscious that there would be Anglo-Saxonists in the audience, you remember that sites like Cheddar have been called palaces, that is, big halls with some supporting sheds.1 A team led by Professor Ramón Martí at the Università Autonòma de Barcelona have made these names their own and come up with ninety-odd across the counties of old Catalonia, and some of those I’ve come across are only a matter of miles from each other; they’re just too thickly spread to be major élite settlements. Up until quite recently, there was only really one going explanation of these sites, that favoured by Pierre Bonnassie, that they were fiscal estate centres that probably went back to the Romans, but Bonnassie’s sense of the word ‘fisc’ was so broad, applying to properties the counts bought and then sold again the next day, for example, that this doesn’t actually explain as much as it might.2 And perhaps thus, it was in Bonnassie’s Festschrift that Professor Martí published the first version of his alternative theory, which he and a team of researchers have been filling out ever since, that they are in fact the relics of Muslim garrisons from the period of Islamic rule in Catalonia between 714 and 785.3

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Distribution map of place-names in palatium and palatiolum in Catalonia, from Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, ‘Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium’, Estrat Crític 5.2 (Barcelona 2011), 364-377 at p. 370

Although I did so in the seminar, I don’t want to reprise either Professor Martí’s arguments for this or mine against it here, partly because the open web is not where to start such arguments, but mainly because as I say, I don’t know what I’m doing with this paper yet. A basic problem that is worth expressing openly, however, is that as far as I can discover, the map above is as close to a list of their ninety-odd sites that Professor Martí’s team has published, which makes even agreeing with them quite difficult. One really wants to know what the evidence is. So, for the seminar, I made a list. I went through all my various charter notes and the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia and Atles Històric de Catalunya that I have and found forty-eight such sites, not too bad considering that I could barely touch the counties of Barcelona, Cerdanya or Urgell. The main thing I learnt from that was something that Professor Martí’s team would also acknowledge, I’m sure, that no one explanation will deal with all of these sites. The idea of them as fiscal complexes or ancient Roman centres runs into immediate trouble when one realises that the earliest recorded one in my list was a new-build, put up before 832 by Abbot Castellano of Arles in an area he’d just cleared from wasteland.4 And in fact, the only reason we can be sure that any of these sites were not new-builds, however unlikely it seems that they should be, is archæology, and here we mean actual digging since the eight sites that have been surveyed by Professor Martí’s team all produced ceramics that could be early enough for their argument, but equally could not.5

Archaeology underway at l'Aiguacuit de Terrassa

Actual digging underway at l’Aiguacuit de Terrassa, site of a Palacio fracta

Well, here again fuller publication of results would really help, but as far as I can discover, including from the Martí team’s own publications, only three of these sites have been dug: Palofret in Terrassa, Les Palats in Carcassonne and l’Hort de Pelat in Riudoms.6 The first of these was at least active in the right period, and the latter two of these produced unusual burials, one of which is in fact almost certainly Islamic, though I’m less sure about the crouched burials at Les Palats, which the original excavators thought Visigothic and which have now been lost. All three of the sites, however, and a number of others, were once Roman villas, and until we get something more like a list of sites with their evidence from Professor Martí’s team I do feel as if that might be a simpler explanation of these place-names, although I do note that many of these places do appear to have had fiscal connections and operated as estate centres.7 That is, however, firstly not incompatible with them having previously been villas, and secondly what we would expect from similar work in Castile and the Carolingian world where palatium is exactly what you call a rural complex at which renders are collected.8

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

Façade of the Palacio de los Hospitalarios, Ambel, Aragón, from Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, this is also plausibly the case in Aragón, because the Palacio de Ambel, about which Dr Marter was talking, is or at least was indeed a rural estate centre where renders were collected. That rather minimises its very complex history, though, the earliest parts of which are pretty obscure. What you are looking at there is, functionally, the outside of a really posh nineteenth-century block of flats. The trappings of that have been stripped away, however, to reveal a Renaissance grange of the Hospital of Saint John, for whom its Preceptory died in the siege of Malta of 1515, which seems to be depicted in a few surviving wall-paintings inside the building. And it really is inside, too: the current roof, complete with arcade, is directly over three small towerlets invisible under the tiles, between which it’s actually possible to clamber on top of the vaulting that used to hold up the old roof, and now just holds up the ceiling on its underside. Before the Renaissance phase, this was a complex of buildings rather than the single quadrangle arrangement, and one of those buildings was a Gothic church, erected by the Knights Templar from whom the Hospital got the place when the Order was suppressed. Its rood screen is still there and behind it is Islamic decoration in geometric interlace, and internal decoration that includs fake bricks painted over the stone courses, but all of this is Templar-period, not Mudejar. The church, though, is probably the oldest bit of that complex, because it reuses a circular tower, which is reckoned a Torre dels Moros (as almost everything early in Spain seems to be) but which, being built of packed earth on a stone lower course, isn’t giving away much with its architecture. It is probably ninth-century, which is still Islamic in this area, but the dating evidence is basically guesswork, so other schemes could be considered.

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Decorations now inside the church of Sant Miquel Arcángel, Ambel

Dr Marter and his team, or teams of which he has been part, anyway, have been working on this place for years, and what they are mainly doing is trying to stop it falling down and slowly restore it to its medieval configuration, which has involved such things as removing trees, finding a sixteenth-century letter hidden in the wall, and so on. But there was also time for some reflection on how the building had gone through its earliest sets of changes, and why the church wears such Islamic decoration. Was there an existing church in the area that this one replaced, and whose existing congregation, presumably Mudejar or Mozarab or whatever one wished to call them, culturally Arabicized, needed to be comforted that the new lords understood who they were and what was particular to them? Maybe, though if so sticking a Gothic rood screen in the way perhaps cancelled that message. Anyway, it seems clear that the place has lots to tell even after so many years’ work. And both of us got to think quite hard with each other’s examples about what one calls a Palacio on the Christian-Muslim frontier of Spain, and what work a palace really did anyway, and what it might once have been so as to wind up performing those functions. It was a good evening and I hope to see and indeed take part in more seminars so well configured in the future.


1. Obviously I have not yet got bored of citing John Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 144-153.

3. Ramón Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) : hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-69.

4. Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXX (Barcelona 2006), doc. no. 17.

5. When I gave this paper, the most recent publication of the team’s theories seemed to be Cristian Folch Iglesias and Jordi Gibert Rebull, “Arqueològia, documentació escrita i toponímia en l’estudi de l’Alta Edat Mitjana: els casos dels topònims pharus, monasteriolum i palatium” in Estrat Crític Vol. 5 (Barcelona 2011), pp. 364-377; there is also Gibert, “La integració a al-Andalus dels territoris a ponent del Llobregat” in Butlletí de la Societat Catalana d’Estudis Històrics 16 (Barcelona 2005), pp. 39-72 at pp. 50-55; Ramón Martí, “Palacios y guardias emirales en Cataluña” in A. Riubal (ed.), II Congreso de Castellología Ibérica, Alcalá de la Selva, 2001 (Madrid 2005), pp. 293-309; and Ramón Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, among other publications that more or less replicate these, though there might be newer ones I’ve missed.

6. The data for the latter two sites have to be strained from the publications in the previous note: there is no stand-alone publication of them that I’ve discovered, and these articles give you little more than a few lines on each. For Palofret, there is Joan Soler i Jiménez and Vicenç Ruiz i Gómez, “Els palaus de Terrassa: estudi de la presencia musulmana al terme de Terrassa a través de la toponímia” in Terme Vol. 15 (Terrassa 1999), pp. 37-51, online here. This article was written in the liught of Martí’s first publication of his theory, so that the interpretation of the site as Islamic is partly following him.

7. I get the Roman data also from the articles cited above, which is a bit master’s tools, but presumably the data is all equally valid.

8. See for example José Angel García de Cortázar & Ester Peña Bocos, “El palatium, símbolo y centro de poder en los reinos de Navarra y Castilla en los siglos X a XII” in Mayurqa Vol. 22 (Mallorca 1989), pp. 281-296; Josiane Barbier, “Les lieux du pouvoir en Gaule franque : l’exemple des palais” in Carl Ehlers (ed.), Deutsche Königspfalzen: Beiträge zu ihrer historischen und archäologischen Erforschung. 8: Places of power, Orte der Herrschaft, Lieux du pouvoir (Göttingen 2007), pp. 227-246; Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243-264.

Because if that’s Gothic this must be Roman

Posted with apologies for the delay in both posting and in dealing with comments, for once not because of my life but because of WordPress being uncharacteristically useless in dealing with the Heartbleed bug I hope you heard about, let’s attack that easiest of targets, to wit, historiographical views on ethnicity. Here is a straw man: let us once more consider the Visigothic Law. Redacted principally in the reign of King Chindasuinth of what we know as the Visigothic kingdom of Spain on the basis both of ‘ancient’ law and subsequent royal edicts, in the form we have it it had been updated by several subsequent rulers and was intended to be widely owned and consulted, as indeed the numerous copies we have of it suggest it was.1 Surely this is the ultimate expression of a Visigothic identity, matured by years of rule and a full conversion to Catholicism? So if that’s Gothic, what went before must be Roman, no?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4404, a Narbonne copy of the <em>Breviary of Alaric</em> made between 804 and 814, fo. 1v and 2r I think

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4404, a Narbonne copy of the Breviary of Alaric made between 804 and 814, fo. 1v and 2r I think

Well, no, obviously not, you may immediately say: firstly the premise is rubbish, but also the artwork is hardly Classical, is it, there is interlace, geometric ornament and the oval-eyed staring faces characteristic of pre-Romanesque portraiture of the earliest kind, or indeed of the earlier copies of the illustrated Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse.2 Also, it is, you know, the Breviary of Alaric, that being King Alaric II of the Visigoths, named after their most successful leader, the guy who actually sacked Rome… This is if anything more Gothic, you may say. But what is this text? It is a codification of Roman law. On the left-hand page of the spread you may even be able to read the name of the Emperor Theodosius, under whose orders the Codex Theodosianus, of which the Breviary is as the name suggests an abbreviation, was compiled, about fifty years after its issue. That’s him in the picture, not Alaric. That’s how Gothic this is.

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne; the other kind of Gothic (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, we can complicate matters further, because this is also Carolingian. That is, this actual manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, was made and illustrated in the Frankish city of Narbonne in the early ninth century.3 Admittedly, Narbonne had only fallen to the Franks in 759, when the local ‘Goths’ (as the Chronicle of Moissac does indeed call them) decided that between the Muslims inside the city and the Frankish army outside they’d rather take their chances with Charlemagne’s dad Pippin the Short, and threw the Muslims out and made terms. One of the terms was that they got to keep their own law.4 Which one, do you suppose, this one? or the ‘Visigothic’ one? Either way, this is at least two generations after the conquest and yet it was still being copied, a Gothic compilation of Roman law copied under Frankish rule in a city they’d freed from the Muslims depicting the Roman emperor who hadn’t issued it in a style some would happily call Mozarabic. Assign an ethnicity to that.

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

An actual Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109 once again, from Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the idea that use of the Visigothic Law, as we call it, represents a deep investment in the Visigothic past should be queried more often than it is. The text is only given that ethnic title by us, its name in the actual texts being the Forum Iudicum, more or less Judges’ Conventions. It also substantially erases any difference between Goths and Romans that earlier codes had maintained: the old difference only leaks through in one or two clauses where it is ruled against. The first issue of this lawcode was arguably the point at which its own users stopped seeing the point in marking customs and behaviours out as Gothic. It’s not a monument of that identity; it’s its tombstone. That is, admittedly, not how it is used even in my period, where the text is often called the Law of the Goths, but that is nonetheless not what its authors had intended.6 And for somebody in Carolingian ex-Muslim ex-Gothic Narbonne it was, in any case, not the law that was most worth copying; they wanted the one it had replaced. We’ve seen before that Gothic identity seems to have been something a very few people in Narbonne still made something of in this period; now as then I think that the evidence forces me to conclude that they only cared because mostly, other people did not. It would make a lot of things simpler if we sided with the majority here…


1. The canonical cite here is Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, “La creación del derecho en Cataluña” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 47 (Madrid 1977), pp. 99-423, now revised in his La creación del Derecho: una historia del Derecho espa&ntidle;ol (Barcelona 1988), 3 vols, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1989-1991), 3 vols.

2. The fullest study of these manuscripts is John W. Williams, The Illustrated Beatus (New York 1994-1998 & Turnhout 2000), 5 vols, but shorter introductions to the text and what it was doing can be found in Williams, “Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liébana” in Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (edd.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1992), pp. 217-233 or Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 81 (1995), pp. 185-210. References to it as Mozarabic are trivial to find, though almost any use of this word is misleading: see Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008).

3. It is Paris, BN MS Lat. 4404, and the attribution is from Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antés del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), no. 129 (p. 382).

4. The best account of this is still Josep María Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136 & 137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols, I pp. 5-7, but I should also mention the new and useful summary in Cullen Chandler, “Carolingian Catalonia: the Spanish March and the Franks, c. 750-c. 1050″ in History Compass Vol. 11 (Oxford 2013), pp. 739-750. The Chronicle of Moissac is printed in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica… Scriptorum tomus I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) I (Hannover 1826), pp. 280-314.

5. E. g. Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), online here, III.1.2 ruling that mixed marriages are legal; slightly more respect for remaining differences in X.1.8, 9 & 16 & X.2.1 & 5 probably have to do wth the fact that here rights in land that could have been inherited are concerned. II.2.2 is adamant that everyone, even the king, is subject to the same law and II.1.8 refuses to recognise any other Roman law than what is compiled into the Forum.

6. Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

Seminar CLII: Thames Valley oddity over several centuries

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

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott

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

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

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

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

Foundations of a Roman farmhouse at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Foundations of the Roman farmhouse

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

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

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

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

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

‘Deviant’ burial from the late Roman cemetery

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

Saxon pottery from settlement excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Saxon pottery from the settlement site


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

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

Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon England

One of the features of being so far behind with seminar reports is that I find myself writing about papers whose definitive versions have already been published.1 In some ways this is better than writing about work in progress, as it avoids the occasional issue about whether I’m letting people’s findings out before they’re ready for that to happen and means that my post becomes mere advertising (or, I suppose, warning, but I very rarely bother with reports on papers I can’t say good things about).2 In other ways this is worse: the people who are most interested may well already know about the work. But the Internet is large and not all of you are plugged in to the mains feed of the UK academy, so, I imagine people are still interested in Professor John Blair addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on 19th November 2012 with the title, “Land-Surveying in the Post-Roman West” even though you could now read it for yourselves?3 (I should note, by the way, that this means I’m skipping Annette Kehnel talking to the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 7th October 2012 with the title, “Rituals of Power through the Ages – a History of Civilisation?”, not because it wasn’t fascinating but because Magistra et Mater covered it in depth some time ago and you can read about it at hers.)

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

The whole reason that I spent three years in Oxford was ultimately that Professor Blair (whom I have to call John, really) had got money from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out a thorough-going survey of how settlement changed in Anglo-Saxon England, and I got lucky enough to be his stand-in. This left him free to bury himself in site plans, and as he did so, he told us, he began to notice a particular measurement coming up again and again. Now, this way madness can lie, as John was well aware. Not only do many medievalists not really understand numbers, so that they tend either to dismiss arguments that involve them or else accept them completely uncritically, but medievalists who do understand numbers have in some cases gone much further with them than many would credit, attributing immensely complex calculative abilities to those writing Latin prose in the period, er, just for example.4 At the far end of this lies work on monumental alignments, some of which is justly to be lampooned but some of which is just hard to assess.5 There is some limited work on Anglo-Saxon land measurement, which came up with a common ‘perch’ of 4·65 metres, but testing this has always been tricky because there’s always more material that might not conform.6 John, however, had got closer to being able to survey it all than anyone else ever has and saw what was, indeed, a ‘short perch’ of more or less 15 feet in many many places (although, interestingly, not in Wessex). Aware of the dangers, at this point he’d got a statistician involved and, giving them as close to raw figures as he could, was informed that there was a genuinely significant peak at the 4·6 m mark in them (pretty much 15 ft), as well as some other peaks at the multiples and fractions of that unit that were less demonstrable. Reassured that he wasn’t just seeing things, therefore, he then set out to find out how this was being used.

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

This part involved quite a lot of maps with grid overlays. Here, if anywhere, was the problem of subjectivity. Some of John’s example cases appeared more or less inarguable, although the problem of whether the archæological sequence was right in the first place and all the structures John was lining grids against had been there in the same period was lurking behind even these somewhere. This was easier to accept in some cases than others, especially given that John is famously willing to reinterpret other archæologists’ findings when he thinks there’s reason to do so.7 In other cases, though, I really wanted access to the files so I could see whether shifting the grid overlay by a metre or so one way or the other, or around by a few degrees, would not show up just as many matches, not that I would have been clear what it might mean for the theory if it had. Certainly, there were a few cases that made me think that John’s choice of what to align the grid to was possibly more arbitrary than was good for demonstration. This was much less so in the case of individual buildings (and a surprising number of square and rectilinear buildings could be relatively easily fitted to a 15 ft module, these including not least SS Peter & Paul Canterbury and All Saints Brixworth, whose bays and aisles snap nicely to it, with explanatory significance to which we’ll come), although quite a lot did so only in one dimension, being for example 15 ft wide but, say, 22 ft long, and most site maps provided one or two buildings that just failed to align at all, let alone be the ‘right’ size. The larger the map got the more this kind of non-conformity seemed to me to make the choice of where to lay the grid basically arbitrary, though the fact that some sites present several possibilities may work for John’s theory as much as against it and even, I suppose, open up the possibility of micro-phasing in their topography. Anyway, here was where I was least sure how much credit to give the idea.

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d'Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d’Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

But, as long as even a small number of widely-spread and unconnected sites appear to conform at all, even if many others don’t, something needs explaining, and John had an explanation for how this might all be that, I think, makes his other cases easier to accept as possible. Unlike the prehistoric monument guys who have to assume that the knowledge of calculating such alignments and measurement techniques (not so much of lengths, which could just be a marked rod—perhaps the best bit of the paper was pictures of John himself messing about in open country with a fifteen-foot rod of his own manufacture seeing how hard it would be to lay out a village plan with it, the answer being not very—but of consistently precise right-angles) was transmitted somehow, John could point to texts, in the form of the manuals of Roman surveyors, agrimensores, copied in monastic contexts more or less throughout the period. We’ve already seen some of these texts on this blog, in fact, as such a manual exists from Santa Maria de Ripoll. Finding them in Anglo-Saxon contexts is a lot harder, but the fact that a lot of the uses of this 15-ft module are in fact ecclesiastical suggests that this is the easiest way to imagine its dissemination, monks with building projects putting into action the instructions of the ancients that they actually had written down.

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Fitting nicely with this was not just the number of his examples that John thought could be linked to monastic contexts (especially here the estates of Bishop Wilfrid of York (among other places) whose resort to Rome and Roman technical knowledge is well-documented), where possibly others might be less willing to assume a monastic church structure all over Anglo-Saxon England than he, but also the fact that this module is very hard to find in use between the eighth and tenth centuries.8 In other words, it is best attested during the first, ‘golden’ age of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and then in the age of the Anglo-Saxon monastic reform, both eras in which monastic learning was in fact involved in economic development and alterations to land-holding and land use.9 This works not least because, even though John was quite happy to find connections via which monks might actually have owned or operated many of the estates in question, you don’t actually need that as long as you accept that someone with a project to build a new village or whatever might be aware that the monks had information on such matters which they would probably impart on request. It would need to be quite high-culture monasteries to have a copy of the Ars gromatica in their collections, maybe – it doesn’t show up anywhere outside Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia before the 13th century, says Michel Zimmermann though with various inevitable issues about patchy evidence survival, and Santa Maria is the biggest knowledge storehouse not just in the area but for some way beyond – but a mechanism for the transmission of this knowledge is visible, plausible and thus arguable in the cases where the evidence on the ground might not convince by itself.10

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

Different ways of laying out fields in the Ars gromatica text in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

There is a lot more that could be squeezed out of this, including the possibility of what would basically be tenements laid out for what would basically be serfs by monasteries, although the questions afterwards came substantially from a number of people who were very interested in the continuing use of the Roman foot, questions that made John’s contentions look much saner by comparison in fact, and to which he wisely ducked all answers, saying that the external verification of his 15-ft perch meant that it was the only measure he dared say was genuinely present in the data. John’s final publication of this is a meaty 49 pages in the quarto format Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, too, so I guess that a good bit more has been squeezed out in that version. If you want to know more, therefore, I can only recommend you have a look and get the information from the man himself!


1. How do people manage this? I gave a paper on Monday. If I knocked in all appropriate revisions and rewrote, I could have something ready to send out by the end of the month probably. It would then take at least six months to be reviewed, the changes that required would probably take me another three and then it would still be eighteen months on average till it got to print. So, some time in 2016? Even being a retired expert with a complete grasp of the evidence would only let me crunch three months out of that two-years-plus process. But Lesley Abrams of last post cut that lead time in half and John Blair, of this post, did even better…

2. This has been a matter of concern for me ever since I did my first one of these posts, seven years ago more or less. I always come back to the same answer: if someone is willing to talk about their work in public, anyone who really wants to misuse it can already get at it, and meanwhile, if I write about it more people know whose work to use respectfully on the subject… But it’s always a little dicey.

3. As J. Blair, “Grid-Planning in Anglo-Saxon Settlements: the short perch and the four-perch module” in Helena Hamerow (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 18 (Oxford 2013), pp. 18-61.

4. By which I really mean David Howlett, British Books in Biblical Style (Dublin 1997), a six-hundred-plus page monster that rather defies evaluation, alleging deliberate arithmetical meter in a host of Insular Latin works and apparently only one of five such books Howlett now has on such questions.

5. For example, Charles Thomas, Christian Celts: messages and images (Stroud 1998), blisteringly reviewed by the normally-equable Thomas Owen Clancy in Innes Review Vol. 51 (2000), pp. 85-88, DOI 10.3366/inr.2000.51.1.85.

6 P. J. Huggins, “Anglo-Saxon timber building measurements: recent results” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 35 (Leeds 1991), pp. 6-28.

7. E. g. J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121.

8. The former is of course the great minster debate, actually framed as such in Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104 & J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212.

9. These threads both picked up and carefully woven into much else in J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 135-367, no less.

10. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 891-897 on the Ripoll manuscript and its milieu.