Category Archives: Uncategorized

Name in Lights VII & Print XII

[This was originally posted on December 3rd 2013 and stuck to the front page, but now I've reached the point in my backlog where it would originally have fallen, I'm releasing it to float free in the stream where future readers might expect it. Don't laugh, chronology is important to historians...]

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotski & Jack Dougherty

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty

Some of the announcements I make here, despite backlog, deserve to be made while they’re still current. Such a one is this, though even it is a bit behind-hand: very shortly after my arrival in the new post described below, there emerged a volume edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty called Writing History in the Digital Age. This volume has had an interesting history, because it’s very largely been written and edited in public view online here. They solicited some contributions, got given others, had a couple of dedicated reviewers go through them but also let the authors see each others’ work (for once! why is this not done more often, and why does it make so little difference normally when it is?) and accepted comments from the open web too. These were surprisingly useful, and I know because I’m in it, and as I’ve recounted before wound up as a result in a collaboration I had never expected with a co-author I may never meet. In any case: the results are out, and because it’s in the University of Michigan Press’s digitalculturebooks imprint that means you can read it for free on the web here. Oddly, the title page names no authors, so you would have to be told that my/our piece is near the bottom, entitled, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy”. This may be a direct link to that essay, which is an oddly difficult thing to do. I suppose they would like you to buy the print version, which I believe exists and of which I am hoping some day to receive oneactually looks really nice and smart.1 In the meantime, though, as well as our piece I would especially recommend the several pieces on teaching with Wikipedia, something many of us may have thought of doing but fewer met the complications and teaching points involved in trying. The whole thing’s pretty good, though, and well worth some browsing time I think. I humbly recommend it to the readership…

Boring statistics: three drafts of my original version, still visible here, and three of the combined one but thrashed out in only two fairly frantic days in 2012; submission of final text to appearance, 1 year 8 months, not bad by the standards of the Academy alas. I still think it’s worth noting these things, because especially when you’re writing about the Internet, as I know all too well, content dates fast. I hope we’re still more or less of relevance, though.


1. Yes, there is still apparently a market for print works about the Internet. Have fun typing in those URLs… Full citation: Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Writing History in the Digital Age, edd. Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty, digitalculturebooks (Detroit 2013), pp. 246-258, doi:10.3998/dh.12230987.0001.001.

Avatar of Change

The morning spent photographing charters in Vic last year lately described got me a lot of good stuff, relevant to several different projects, but also one quite unexpected outcome, which was not a text, but a drawing. I was paging through the somewhat ragged Calaix 6 as carefully as I could looking, I guess, for the fragmentary Cal. 6 núm. 1600 I showed you last post when this suddenly fell before my eyes on a verso just, er, inverted:

Verso of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

Verso of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

Actually, now that I poke into this I really should have more information on it than I have. It seems to be another document written by the scribe Ermemir, one of the people whose signatures I was trying to collect on this trip, that I in fact missed, and so it’s slightly galling to find that I have a photograph of the verso but not the text. Well, I will just have to go back again. But also I should have known this was here, as Ramon Ordeig’s edition (the second time I’ve met the text of this document) notes in his, well, notes on the document: “Hi ha dibuixada una bèstia quadrúpeda”, which you may not even need translated, “There is drawn here a four-legged animal”.* I never noticed the note… But I did see the original, and my immediate thought, after “Wow! Dragon!”, which may be over-stating things a bit, was “That’s a new avatar, that is.”

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès, avatar of me as Tenthmedieval for about seven years at time of writing

A long time ago now, Michelle of Heavenfield asked me where my avatar came from and the answer was, more or less, a badly-founded whim. It’s been me for a good few years now but it’s also misleadingly religious, later medieval and connected to a place I’ve only ever passed on the train and whose documents I hardly use. This, however, is from my main archive, exquisitely contemporary (the document is from 1000 exactly, though I admit there’s no clue when the sketch was made; it could even be prior to the use of the parchment for the charter) and cool in a way that has no spiritual implications now recoverable, and seems a lot more like the kind of presentation I want. So, there we go, it’s done. By my beast shall ye know me, till I find something even cooler anyway!


* Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1858, also edited as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 644.

Models for a public academy

Student protests in London 2011 behind book-cover shields

At least some people still believe the humanities can defend themselves…

This is another post that represents a long thought process, and not a very conclusive one. Towards the end of 2012 I was becoming gloomy about the state of the academy, probably not least because of grave doubts over my future place in it, but also because of the various UK government initiatives that seemed set to make life in it harder and less honest, about which there’s been better commentary than mine would be. In Oxford, where I then still was, this was for many taking the form of wondering if the university might be able to go it alone, partly out of frustration at what the pressure to meet and manage targets was doing to the size of the administrative establishment even as money for teaching and research was being cut, but also out of the ability of some commentators to come up with costings that made it look as if even Oxford was unlikely to get back in research money as determined by the REF what it had put in in staff time and effort and lost research time. And if not Oxford, then who? And so on. And it all had me thinking if there might be a way to envisage a future university which did not have the reins held by government money in this way.

I am now further out of this bubble than I was in December 2012, though you can see that even much later I was still smarting with this kind of logic, but back then I was reflecting on the double-edged sword of the problems history has generating the kind of ‘impact’ on public policy now demanded by the government for its money and the continually steady recruitment this supposedly useless degree manages in so many places. History is, as Magistra put it in a different context, a cash cow, even if it’s still probably not possible to teach it at university level as a money-making enterprise except to the very rich. Still, it is usually facilities-light (no labs) and student-heavy, and this tells us surely that we are not without impact, that people think history can be useful to them (for, for example, stopping people believing rubbish) or is just interesting, and this is also suggested by the fact that books on it sell, even books with footnotes. Book sales and student recruitment are of course not counted as measures of impact, which is vexing because it is the most obvious impact we have, on people’s minds and memories.

The obvious conclusion I was being led to in December 2012 was that it might be possible, then, to operate academic history research on some kind of broad-based public subscription model. Kickstarter had just started operating in the UK, too, so some kind of model for how it might be done now existed: a plea passed around blogs and Twitter, per project. You’d have to be good at explaining why it was interesting and what your project would find out, and you’d hope to get conventional publication out of it (of which free copies would need to be available for some of the subscribers I guess), but the primary communication of progress and results would be online, with people who genuinely cared and had the best reason so to do. It might be really quite energising, if also probably exhausting, and it would escape the national constraints of so much current funding.

But after a while I realised that what it could not be is big. It would have to meet the salary and travel costs of each researcher; a year’s work probably costs £40,000, then, living fairly cheaply (because of course, unless this is still happening inside the university, you have a lot of costs for access to published materials, for the reasons we’ve just discussed). Kickstarter currently has about £190,000,000 pledged to it (says Wikipedia as of today, with conversion from dollars by UCC), and while that’s obviously not the same as money actually paid, let’s just assume for a second that that is a reasonable sum to think this initiative could raise, after the same sort of growth period. That is a university sector, a whole international university sector, sciences and all, of 4,750 researchers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency says that there are currently 185,535 academics employed in the UK alone, and while I’ve no idea whom they count in or out, it is still two orders of magnitude bigger than all that Kickstarter money could fund.

In any case, Kickstarter’s median funding level is in the four figures of dollars (says Wikipedia again), so pursuing that analogy means that we’re looking at maybe funding two months’ of work, not a year’s. That means six times as many individual projects but the £190,000,000 was Kickstarter’s sum for the year, not two months, so that’s the same people doing six projects a year to stay afloat. There are all kinds of bits of this comparison that don’t join up but it’s not at all encouraging. It seems more than likely that any academy that operated thus, in direct service of public pockets, would have to be dramatically smaller than the one we currently possess, or else funded substantially by commercial interests. So we are not going to get free this way.

This was my conclusion when I happened across one of Eileen Joy’s many manifestos for the university outside the university that she has herself started creating. Because of her willingness to put her lack of money where her mouth is in this respect, I take Eileen’s vision seriously: if she can live by it, so may others be able to. Despite this, she and I have never seen eye-to-eye about the scalability of such alternatives, and finding myself at the end of the same thread of apparently-inexorable arithmetic, I wrote a long comment. It was so long that I decided it was in fact part of this post, and so here it is:

“The numbers game is the problem, of course. In at least one Utopia the university is a social and economic organisation that permits scholars to focus on the production of, well, let’s not say knowledge but insight, without having to hustle for a living first and foremost. I’m going to claim that teaching is part of that process, too, though it mires us in awkward ethical positions about trying to reproduce ourselves or create structures that make our education ‘vocational’ by making spaces for our pupils, many of whom are as worthy of them as we are. When the numbers don’t add up any more to make the ideal possible, though (and to be honest I’m not clear how they ever did, or how any government ever accepted the Haldane Principle), that lack of trammeling of our work and thought is first to go, of course. At that point, and especially at this point, abandoning the structure looks like the useful and ethical thing to do. But we will still have to hustle to pay to do our work on the outside. Even if we run as vagabond scholars living on publishing and generosity, we are still selling to live and that means someone is buyer. Who’s free to think, then?”

What a cheerful man, eh? And this is all damn discouraging, but what I have also been noticing is that not everyone is being discouraged even so. Eileen is obviously the most encouraged and encouraging, but the search for direct access to the public purse to solve the problems of dealing with its appointed guardians has still been happening. The first link I had for this is now half-invisible behind a paywall, so I can no longer see what the exact basis for the headline “Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty” is, and I think it may be labour rather than funding. Still, it’s a way, and it seems to have done fairly well for what is now the Irish Archaeology field School. And then there was this:

Section of the PHD Comics cartoon for 6th May 2013

Section of a PHD Comics cartoon on just this issue

Again, that’s science, but in the public marketplace the two cultures punch much more equally, I think. And yet all the same the numbers are what the numbers are and I don’t feel that I’ve given up hope prematurely. This may be the way a small bit of the sector now goes. It may at least prevent us from returning to a Victorian academy where privately-funded scholars do most of the interesting, but often problematic because unchecked, work and propagate it via learned societies, but the academy it enables will still be very painfully shrunk. And yet larger alternatives still fail to be imagined

Open Access done wrong

Some of the posts I have queued up from last year are now looking sort of irrelevant. I’m not sure this isn’t one of them, because as I will conclude the debate is now moving on, and because it represents a reply I wrote in May 2013 to a blog post written in February 2013 responding to various other documents and reports from earlier that year, but still, the debate is active, and I hope to catch up on it soon, and meanwhile my starting position might as well go on record, I guess? The basic position to which I seem to be developing is, the Anglophone world doesn’t know how to do open access, and until it does pursuing that agenda may serve some ugly outcomes.

Open Access seal

It’s a good graphic, but does it really tell us that this debate is going to be pursued solely by rational evaluation of outcomes?

The starting point for me here was a post at Historian on the Edge, here, itself expanding on a comment on a post at Modern Medieval where I also commented, so you can see where I was starting from there if you like. At that point Historian on the Edge had lately been locked down to allow comments only from Google accounts, and I didn’t want to get one just to chime in there, so I stubbed my draft comment here as a post and expected it to be up rather soon than this! The Historian on the Edge post had done a sharp job pointing out the damage that author-pays models of open access publishing might do to the careers of new or less established scholars, and pointed everybody to a then-recent open letter by the President of the Royal Historical Society on the issue which made some of the same points. (And that in turn links to many other documents including one from the American Historical Association also reckoning that the model looks bad for history, and which also seems canny to me.) Anyway, to his points I then wanted to add this:

“I’m glad to see this issue getting a higher profile, and even gladder to see the RHS actually doing something, even if it is essentially to look out for its own activities. All the same, I find it exasperating that what they call for is a ‘debate’, and a debate to be conducted almost entirely between ourselves. Surely the correct response is a stand against the idea, given that many of its qualities as proposed are so pernicious? Is there much to debate? (I think that in this respect the Open Access agenda is the cloth over the conjuror’s hand.) This has so far happened with almost all the government’s proposed reforms, but the appropriate response to this kind of thing is surely not, ‘Let’s all talk amongst ourselves about how we can compromise with the government,’ it’s ‘This is awful and it should not stand‘. The issue that should be making us all jump, as you correctly say, is: ‘Where’s the money going to come from for us to do this?’ The answer appears to be: ‘Why, from you yourselves! We will not be giving any extra money for this.’ Indeed, I can’t see any reply to that question that would make more sense than, ‘Since you will be buying far fewer expensive journals you can all cut your library’s subscription budgets and use it to fund self-publication!’ Firstly, and weakest, that’s unlikely to happen: the library budgets may be cut but the savings won’t make it to academics. Secondly, of course, what you also touch on, this assumes that we never need to read anything by people from countries who still publish with publishers, which is not how research works; perhaps Willetts & co. still think that all work worth reading on any academic field comes from the Empire? And, thirdly, peer review doesn’t like self-publication and I can’t see how it ever will. But is there any other way in which going to an APR model is actually going to be cheaper for institutions and, more especially, for those without institutional support for their work?

Open Access debate graphic

It’s great that there’s an international movement to make top-quality knowledge fully accessible, don’t get me wrong, but it will have to be answered nationally, not internationally

“I’m still not sure that this government actually has a higher education policy, and it gets clearer and clearer that the coalition aspect of it is preventing them actually forming policy, but if there is one, I think it might best be seen as privatisation by strangulation, by raising the costs of public funding so high that eventually universities decide to do without. Since the managerial class of most universities see size, turnover and income as more important than viability, however, that particular decision will be very far off for most of them. None of it looks as if they think it might be important to have expertise on things somewhere in the country.”

There are a lot of things there that I think I would now put differently, especially in the last paragraph and not least because of a lot of time spent debating such issues with the authors of a new and recent publication on these issues done for the British Academy (who have got involved at last) that I have yet to read fully.* When I have I hope to write more on this, but that delay means there’s time for exactly the kind of debate I was disparaging a year ago! I suppose the key issues I still see as worth pursuing in that comment are not so much about open access as about publishing and the academy, and they are these:

  1. Peer review costs a lot in terms of time but is terribly remunerated; we cannot easily make it more expensive but neither can we do without it. It seems to me that since the only part of the mechanism into which money systematically goes is the publishing industry, it is them we should be looking at to bear those costs.
  2. Academic research is an international operation, as are most of the biggest publishers interested in it, but its components are nationally funded and vulnerable to political concerns of an entirely uninterested kind, as we see here; the main agenda here is that the Tories would like to be paying a lot less government money for the university system they want, as far as I can see, rather than any clear ideas of what that system should be or how to achieve that.
  3. This is the issue it is not least because the UK academy has no adequate means of resistance or debate to such policies, since its representative bodies like Universities UK are too entrenched in competition for the increasingly limited public money there is to be able to band together to find alternative ways to support academic research, giving them neither interest nor ability to lobby the government with better ways to build excellence in intellectual endeavours.
  4. Given all these factors, I think that the current shift towards open access, while laudable in motivation and intent, is one of the forces that’s going to break the current model of the academy, academic careers and academic publication and I really think therefore that we should have some kind of alternatives ready before we give in to it!

On that last, I have more old thoughts to be updated which will follow in a couple of posts’ time. On the others though, I am very much open to debate. What are your thoughts?


* Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science (London 2014), following up on Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013).

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…

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.

Almodis, by Tracey Warr: a review

A long time ago I wrote a post that tried to tell the story of the specifically-Catalan feudal revolution, in purely political terms: a collapse of governmental initiative, a move towards independence by the frontier magnates dependent on the revenues and status they derived from the border raiding that was no longer being coordinated, and the eventual recovery of power by the young Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I, aided not all by his grandmother the Countess of Girona who was flatly sure he had it all wrong and wouldn’t give up her regency. He was aided not just by the idea of institutionalising a feudal structure in the nobility, but by a controversial wife, Almodis de la Marche, twice married already and this time abducted from her second husband. She doesn’t appear to have regretted this, as she appears with him in many documents and received as nearly as many oaths as he did. In general, she seems, somewhat ironically, to have been exactly the same right hand of comital government that her obstinate grandmother-in-law had once been for her new husband’s grandfather, Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell. The couple eventually forced grandma, in her seventies, to surrender and there must have been a final meeting between the beaten old countess and the controversial young one, which I’ve always imagined would film tremendously. Indeed, I said as much in that post. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would base a novel on the events.

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The author of this novel, Dr Tracey Warr, contacted me with a view to organising some kind of book launch talk. I didn’t know how that would work out and decided I’d rather not, but said that I would certainly review the book if she cared to send me one. She did, and I so far haven’t, but in very late 2012 I finally got that far along my to-read shelves and lighted on it. And at last, here is the review.

Cover of Tracey Warr's Almodis: the Peaceweaver

This is, first of all, not a book to be judged by its cover. The woman in a modern top and flamenco dress disappearing into neo-Classical architecture tells you nothing at all about either plot or historical accuracy: the former is imaginatively woven through the known threads of Almodis’s life, which are enough to start with, and the latter is really fairly impressive. Many of the same names feature in Dr Warr’s historical note as do in my footnotes here, and she attempted to work in their words where possible, which sometimes results in slightly unlikely exposition, but exposition that isn’t out of place in the lead character’s mouth, as she is,or becomes, a politician first and foremost. Despite this, as said, the events of her life cry out for, cannot indeed really be explained, without considerable drama and tension:

“Almodis de la Marche was a real person. That she was repudiated, kidnapped and murdered, that she was three times married, had twelve children, played an active role in the government of Toulouse and Barcelona, and was literate, are all documented facts. It was a story that needed writing!” (‘Historical Note’)

Well, it has been well written here. I was initially somewhat deterred by the way in which it’s done, which is first-person present tense internal monologue, usually but not always from Almodis’s perspective. The device of a loyal (but complaining) servant from the North of France gives an outside perspective somewhat like the one that Bernard of Conques gives us on the cult of Saint Faith that I once talked about here, as well as a character more amiable than the countess (who is more admirable than amiable), and when the countess and her servant argue a lot of social information is squeezed through their conversation. It sort of has to be, because Dr Warr is careful enough to avoid her characters going too far towards breaking out into lyrical descriptions of the countryside—these are here but kept more or less under control—so conversation between the characters is vital for conveying contextual information. A lot is done, perhaps inevitably, by making Almodis a devotee of Dhuoda’s, which lets the Carolingian background in through in occasional shafts of light, though as we’ve mentioned here there is at least a Barcelona connection there…

Given the restrictions of the style, though, this sort of revelation is handled very well. My only eventual problem with the narrative technique was the way that the present-tense narration tends to collapse chronology; it’s just as well that each chapter is headed with place and date, as I frequently had to check back on finding that we seemed to have jumped quite a few years. By the end of the novel, in fact, the jumps get very large indeed, so that Almodis’s life and death in Barcelona get very little space after the drama of getting her there, leaving her effect on the government and the civil war in Catalonia almost untreated, perhaps because we’ve already seen her at work in these ways in Toulouse. Just for that reason, though, I’d like to have seen what difference there was in Barcelona, and Catalonia getting more narrative time generally. So I was a bit deflated by the end, which doesn’t leave Almodis’s murder explained very well (though of course she stops narrating at that point and obviously hadn’t seen it coming, so it’s hard to do more in a story told this way). All the same, I read to the end very avidly despite my initial reservations. I can’t allow for the effect of me being familiar with the characters in a way, and being delighted with how they were imagined, but I finished the book in two late-night sittings because I didn’t want to stop reading, and was pleasantly surprised by the way that the story wasn’t told as I expected it. None of the scenes I’d imagined as part of it were present in this version except the confrontation with grandmother Ermessenda and even that didn’t play out as I’d always figured it would. Yet as far as reimagining historical figures’ lives and loves go, I’m now more convinced by Dr Warr’s version than I am by my old one, so hopefully it’s as interesting also to someone who doesn’t think they know what’s coming.

Depiction of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona and Countess Almodis de la Marche from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Ramon Berenguer I and Almodis again, in happier times than her final ones. High five! Again, from the Liber Feudorum Maior via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Warr makes Almodis into an extraordinary but plausible character and most of the supporting characters are also very well-drawn, although even though our narratrix is a woman in a man’s world, the men are often somewhat less developed as characters. Churchmen, especially, get little depth, and one of the things I did find implausible was how little truck Almodis seemed to have with worship. More could have been done with that, if it was deliberate. Again, this is partly technique: Almodis works through women first and foremost, and her family next, and the Church last of all, and that makes sense in the story’s terms. If there’s a deeper historical agenda here it is to make the eleventh-century Midi clear as a world where women could and did hold the reins of power, even if only as far as the men in their family let them. One of the things that’s clear about her era, however, is that while widows were best placed to wield political power really, many men in power did rely on their wives to help them with it, and Almodis and her grandmother-in-law are as said the best examples I can think of of that working in practice.

That the lack of Church was the thing I found most implausible, however, means that not only did that agenda not dominate things enough to bother me, but that Dr Warr got away with an episode in which some of her characters wind up embroiled in a battle while disguised as monks, so for that alone I would recommend this book, but there is more to be said for it besides. It doesn’t pull its historical punches, it delivers a fair few unexpected twists, the writing can be affectedly beautiful but the emotional content is delivered raw and ungarnished and the period and country of the narrative are given enough space to remove any doubts one might have that their struggles have purpose. So, don’t be misled by the cover; this is a serious entertainment…