Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!

Some more of that critical diplomatic

The first Leeds conference I went to was in 2005, and although I was not exactly in the money at that stage (not least because of having only been involved at very short notice to fill a gap in an acquaintance’s session) I did allow myself to buy one or two books. By now I know very clearly to avoid Brepols‘s stall unless I’m feeling very rich, their books simply can’t be afforded by normal people, but on this occasion I bought two, one because it was surprisingly cheap and one because it was brand-new and clearly vital to what I was working on. This latter was Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle) by Benoît-Michel Tock.1

Cover of Benoît-Michel Tock's <Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle)

Cover of Benoît-Michel Tock’s Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle)

So, OK, let us not discuss how I was only reading this obviously vital book after owning it for more than eight years, after even meeting the author and in the meantime writing what I think is a pretty good round-up of current study in diplomatic; the answer would be something inadequate like, ‘the article I need it for has always needed so much more work than my others that it keeps getting put down the list compared to things I can finish sooner’.2 I did it in late 2013, and I could tell straight away that I had been right that it was vital, even if only giving me a good basis for things I already thought, and so you will be hearing more about it here for a little bit. For now, I’ll just give you a short extract so you can see why it caught me. M. le Prof. Tock wisely begins his book with a short round-up of issues backed up with a rather longer section of discussed examples, talking not just about the signatures on the documents but their diplomatic as a whole. In the case of his earliest example, though, an 848 donation to the cathedral of Rodez, these two overlap, as witness.3 I translate:

“The order in which the signatures were applied is not clear. The four autograph subscriptions constitute a sort of group in the middle of the signa: this is doubtless not by chance, and without doubt they were emplaced together. Was there a blank space left for them in the middle of the signa? No, because the signa at the end of the line are well adapted to them. Were they written before the signa? No, because they themselves are well adapted to the signa at the beginning of the line. In fact, the last line of signa runs very close to the penultimate one, doubtless so as not to impinge too much on the scribal signature. One must therefore deduce that the scribe wrote his own signature first, then that of the actor (the reverse also being possible) and those of Fréderic and Sigsimond. He then left the pen to the four autograph signatories, and took it back to insert, where he could, the six signa that were left for him to write. Why were Fréderic and Sigsimond entitled to this favourable treatment? Was the aim aesthetic, or was it perhaps because they were playing a particular rôle in the transaction (were they heirs of Allibert [the donor], for example?)? We do not know.”

Rodez, Archives Départementales d'Aveyron, 3 G 300 no. 1 R 162

This is the charter in question, Rodez, Archives Départementales d’Aveyron, 3 G 300 no. 1 R 162. M. le Prof. Tock benefitted in his research from the massive ARTEM database of all French-held charters from before 1121, which went online a few years ago, but inspection reveals that they have yet to add in the images that were the root of the whole thing, so this is scanned from Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins, p. 26, ill. no. 2, because the text is only fully comprehensible with it in sight.

“It is probable that the scribe wrote the actor’s subscription at the same time as the text of the act, and added those of Fréderic and Sigsimond to it at the time of the donation ceremony. This is at least what is suggested by the line spacing – normal before Allibert’s subscription, larger afterwards – and this corresponds to what one would imagine: the scribe obviously knew that the donor would be present at the donation (how could it be done otherwise?) but could not foresee what other persons would be present.”

This is very much the kind of reading of documents I think is important, and every now and then I try it here. It’s one of the reasons that working with original documents is so rewarding: from such tiny details one can get at the actual nuts and bolts of how people made these texts that we rely on and what the procedures of creating them may have been. I find this an unusually clear explanation of what the visual clues are that tell us such things, though, and am now very much looking forward to finally reading the rest of the book.


1. B.-M. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle), Atelier de Recherches sur les Textes Médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2005).

2. That round-up being J. Jarrett, “Introduction” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 1-18, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101674..

3. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins, pp. 25-29, quote all on p. 29. The charter is printed in Antoine Bonal (ed.), Histoire des évêques de Rodez (Rodez 1935), 1 vol. only published, pp. 500-501, but of course now it’s online as Acte n°3958 in Cédric Giraud, Jean-Baptiste Renault et Benoît-Michel Tock (edd.), Chartes originales antérieures à 1121 conservées en France (Nancy 2010), http://www.cn-telma.fr/originaux/charte3958/, last modified 3rd February 2014 as of 14th September 2014.

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Seven men in a high castle

This gallery contains 26 photos.

The last of the Côte d’Azur tourist posts is also the largest and the most academic. Our final trip destination was a place called Roquebrune-Cap Martin, whither we were lured by the promise of a tenth-century castle. This was actually … Continue reading

Feudal Transformations XIX: change before the year 1000

Cover of Guy Bois's Transformation of the Year 1000

Just after arriving in Birmingham, I finished reading Guy Bois’s provocative book The Transformation of the Year 1000 and was actually quite impressed; it represents a far better saving throw for the transformation theory than I’d anticipated.1 Seeing a problem with packing almost all the change required by the theory of Duby and Fossier and the like into a few decades shortly after 1000, Bois comes up with a quite complex paradigm of change in which he manages to have both slow change and a ‘revolution’ at the end of it.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Go on, one more time won’t hurt

This he does basically by saying that what we have in the tenth century is the final slow settling into ruins of the ancient state, with public government and justice, towns driven by a parasitic state apparatus administering those systems, and slave agriculture. This had been increasingly unsustainable as time went on and efforts like the Carolingian reforms to prop it up with new structures (and here’s the subtlety) actually accelerated its collapse by making more possible locally-concentrated power at the same time as a coincidentally burgeoning economy made that economically viable. Inside the old structure of society, therefore, new bases of importance and power were emerging centred on the market and on local territorial domination, all of which in fact made it harder to maintain the older bases of power as a monopoly. The revolution came when, with the end of the Carolingian state and withdrawal into the Île de France of its Capetian successor (because this is a paradigm about France, don’t think otherwise), the exterior structure of public power finally collapsed into dust, ceased to operate as a brake on the forces of social change, and what was left standing was this incubitic set of new power bases, now free to grow, around which the opportunistic (and here most of all the monks of St-Pierre de Cluny) coordinated their operations. And thus feudalism.2

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Supposed denier of Charles Martel, Marseilles, probably 737X43

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection
Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864x77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of King Charles the Bald (840-77) struck at Blois 864×77, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.QC.5360-R, of the Queens College Collection

Silver denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Billon denier of Count Hervé III de Donzy (1160-94)

Who even knows what they thought that monogram meant three hundred years later? Evidence of high medieval numismatists, as with so many other things, is easiest to find in Spain…

The first bit about this that caught my critical imagination is the idea that those who were interested in patching up the ancient state actually undermined it; that is, the Carolingians in trying to make things better actually make things worse. Bois exemplifies this using the monetary system, which is probably why it caught my attention. In brief, the Roman system of gold and silver coins struggled on till the sixth century, whereafter the gold coinage was debased until it more or less ceased to exist, in the course of which it was struck by hundreds and hundreds of semi-private issuers all over Francia. After this the whole system atrophied and a desultory and poor silver coinage of a very various standard was all the money there was. The Carolingians, faced with a mono-metallic system, reformed it several times until there were a restricted number of royally-controlled mints striking a more-or-less good coinage but only in silver. This was lower-value, thus more accessible, so that greater monetisation resulted than had been so for a while, enabling market exchange and the collection of revenues in coin at new levels. And that meant that when the royal hands came off the tiller in the early tenth century that resource was available to the new local powers, who start minting their own silver coin in profusion (here again, nost least the monks of Cluny).3 I think there are problems with this as an actual account of the history of the coinage – that local minting in silver takes much longer to start happening than Bois’s chronology of change implies, suggesting that it is a result of market growth not a cause, for one thing; for another, Cluny got a royal license to strike coin, and it was otherwise outside any useful royal jurisdiction so one could read that as an increase in royal power and it’s certainly hard to see it as the opposite – but it’s an excellent illustration of Bois’s more general model of damaging attempts to preserve a dying social system.4

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny. “Cluny Transept exterior” by RTPeat / Richard Peathttp://flickr.com/photos/rtpeat/1086420685/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem I have with arguments like this that run, ‘O well they tried, poor dears, but the whole thing was doomed, quite hopeless, they were spitting in the rain’ about the Carolingians, which in some ways go back to Louis Halphen and his contemporaries, is that they benefit from the fact that the Carolingian Empire’s fall is there to be explained. Most of us would not, however, put this down to critical internal systems failure, but to a prolonged civil war more or less due to the royal family’s inability to stick to an equable division of power followed by a long series of assaults by raiders for north and east further destabilising transregional solidarities.5 A counter-factual approach that could accurately remove the effects of the Viking attacks and, if not eliminate the Brüderkrieg at least make it more like the equivalent, and very long-lived, Merovingian system in which the important thing was not so much the periodic war as that that war was always between rival Merovingians, perhaps by predicating a reasonable supply of healthy male heirs, would quite possibly entirely vindicate the Carolingian reform efforts, which after all did at least at first make them much stronger kings.6 An analysis that relies on an absence of competent legitimate operators of a system isn’t really assessing the viability of the system itself. Likewise, Bois’s argument is proven by the eventual collapse of the ancient state, but there’s a species of teleology involved when he says that the Carolingians’ own measures worked against their interests, which forces him to define the things they did that endured as part of the new world, if only because they survived. Given the collapse was to happen, there’s no successful innovation that Bois’s theory would actually credit to the Carolingians except ones that they abandoned.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Now, let’s take it to the March! Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

This is all the more paradoxical because the same problem exists in reverse with Catalonia and the scholarship of the feudal transformation. As Bonnassie famously argued, Catalonia (where a strong and (I would argue) even strengthening public power was maintained up till very late, there was then a political vacuum caused by a double minority in the rule of Barcelona forcing other motors of power to pick up the slack and after a short civil war the public power recovered only by adopting these other motors and abandoning its old ones) is an almost perfect archetype of the feudal transformation, but because it so clearly revolves around the power vacuum of 1018-1035 and before that the public power seemed to be riding the serpent of progress really pretty well, people don’t like it as a general model.7 There’s also the problem that this was the only area of Latin Europe with much of a gold coinage, because of raiding and trade with al-Andalus.8 But Bois’s argument also revolves around a dramatic state collapse at the same time as an economic take-off. Is this somehow not the same?

Gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76)

Sticking with the metaphor, this is a gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), by way of illustrating that at least some things were not quite the same in Catalonia

Bois was of course writing a micro-study of Burgundy, not Catalonia, and it’s the anti-transformation lobby who have preferred to ignore Catalonia’s apparently indissoluble example of the phenomenon.9 All the same there is a problem here because Bois’s model doesn’t work for Catalonia. Firstly, it’s very unclear how much Carolingian reform was in fact applied here: the local law was left running, the final currency reform of 864 was never enacted here, the intellectual culture arguably stayed fairly Visigothic and the counts operated as independents from a very early stage. Secondly, as said, public power here did not atrophy: the counts, despite various troubles, remained militarily effective and towards the end of the period, fuelled no doubt by the various reveues of the frontiers, were even overhauling and improving the apparatus of state power and their control of it. Only when that effort was slackened did stuff go wrong. It is hard not to see Borrell II’s and his son’s creation of numerous castle-holding dependants as the seeds of their own undoing, but it’s not undoing but lack of doing that let them grow.10

Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), where as you have read some of that castle-ceding was done

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if you have a feudal transformation in one area and an explanation for it, but another one in a different area whose relevance you have to dismiss because its explanation is clearly different, this is kind of like ignoring that your theory has been falsified. Of course there are factors in CataloniaBurgundy’s changes of that era that Catalonia did not share, so the problem exists both ways, but this suggests to me that the problematic has been placed at the wrong level. If you accept both then feudal transformation becomes only one way that states of a certain kind might respond to the end of effective state governance in an ‘ancient’ or ‘public’ mould. After three years of teaching this subject to graduates, I came to conclude that the correct question to ask about the phenomenon it assumes is not, “Why is all of Europe going through a social crisis c. 1000?”, which is fairly easy to disprove premise by premise and then ignore, but “Why do so many and various polities of the post-Carolingian world finish up so similar in social articulation and governance despite their different situations and paces of change?” This turns it less into a question of modes of production or public versus private than into one of cultural transfer and the appropriation of ideas between governments, which is maybe not as exciting, but might have a lot more application to other situations.


1. G. Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992).

2. Ibid., pp. 161-167.

3. Ibid., pp. 165-166.

4. Philip Grierson, “Coinage in the feudal era” in Il feudalesimo nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 949-959.

5. See François-Louis Ganshof, “L’échec de Charlemagne” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Vol. 91 (Paris 1947), pp. 248-254, transl. as “Charlemagne’s Failure” in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy: studies in Carolingian history (London 1971), pp. 256-260, taken up by e. g. Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium. Soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire (New York City 1954), Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingien (Paris 1968), transl. as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977).

6. Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” in Peter H. Sawyer & Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29.

7. 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, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, as ever; cf. Adam J. Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order and the written word, 1000-1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 51 (Cambridge 2001).

8. Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543; J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243.

9. Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777, where see p. 773 n. 17; the whole article later repr. as “Note critique” in idem, La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? Servage et chevalerie dans la France des Xe et XIe siècles (Paris 1997).

10. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010).

Gallery

Rue obscure et château-fort éminent

This gallery contains 11 photos.

When we arrived in Nice last summer and travelled immediately to Beaulieu-sur-Mer, our journey took us through a place called Villefranche-sur-Mer, which our tourist information told us was worth a look also, and this turned out to be very true … Continue reading

Widow warlords

A couple of days ago I found myself engaged once again in one of the arguments about medieval society it’s just impossible to resolve, that of how possible it was for women to wield political power as men did. It’s impossible to resolve because it obviously wasn’t usual for women to do so, so every case of a woman who did is exceptional and thus probably unsafe to generalise from. There’s a whole argument’s room in that ‘probably’ of course, but on this occasion the argument focussed on Jeffrey Bowman‘s article on countesses in Catalonia and the Midi in the tenth and eleventh centuries that I mentioned a few posts ago, and there you may remember me promising a post about how I thought his case could be deepened. So, this is it.

Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona as portrayed in Televisió de Catalunya's series Ermessenda

There are no contemporary or even medieval depictions of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, but that’s OK because TV has since provided

Professor Bowman, you may remember, developed a fivefold set of acts of power that he thought women would need to do to hold power like men, and then argued that they did, at least in this area and time.1 These were fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’, and of these perhaps the toughest to show is fighting. His best example, and everybody’s for female power in this area, is Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, who wound up running her son’s and initially her grandson’s governments and had to be forced to let go by said grandson making open war on her. One of the issues about her rule was that she didn’t send campaigns into Spain to keep the castellans rich, but she certainly directed armies when necessary, though whether she was actually ever in battle herself is harder to show. Her three-generation coregency and final reduction to ignominious and short-lived dowagerhood is about as extreme an example as it’s possible to get, however, even if she was followed by another countess of almost as much ability and independence of whom we have already heard (but who also got murdered).2 And besides, she was at the head of her state. There is only room for one such person at a time; like Margaret Thatcher, she did not necessarily leave the ladder down behind her. So what were the possibilities like a few rungs down?

Now, I could tell you about viscountesses (and in a future post I will) but viscounts were not really very different from counts by the late-tenth century; they too were rulers of their areas, even if some notional comital superiority was occasionally acknowledged.3 So how much further down the ladder can we get? Well, in my famous book I mention a lady called Adelaide (as so many were) who ran a castle. This is admittedly Bowman’s third act of power, not necessarily his first, but it’s worth looking at how she got it. The castle was the Castell d’Orsal, south of Vic, and it enters our record in the hands of the viscounts of Girona. They sold it, however, to a man called Radulf, and he then sold it to Adelaide.4

Remains of the alleged Castell de Malla

This is on Wikimedia Commons as the Castell de Malla, but to the best of my knowledge that should be the just-visible remains on top of the hill (what you can see is basically what there is).5 What this building is, therefore, I’m not at all sure… By Elmoianes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-es], via Wikimedia Commons

Now straight away we hit the problem of exceptionality, although for once not about the woman but about the castle. Orsal’s initial owners must have been holding it privately rather than in their official capacity, since though they were viscounts they were not viscounts here, so it’s not entirely clear that the castle had military obligations to fulfil, although there was a ‘beneficium’ in its territory which suggests fiscal land-stocks dedicated to its upkeep.6 The comital family also held land nearby, both Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell and his sister Godregilda Countess of Pallars, and had clients here, of whom one, Riculf, may have been Adelaide’s husband.7 Also, it doesn’t seem that the castle was worth keeping – all these powerful men selling it very quickly – so it may not have been very well-equipped or repaired. It was apparently OK for Adelaide to be a castellan, in other words, but that may be because there was nothing that really came with the castle. And for castellans, she is the best case I can find.

But, surprisingly, we can get lower down and much more certain at the same time. Rather earlier in the century and higher up in the Pyrenees, we have the will of a woman called Oliba (usually a man’s name but here specified ‘femina’).8 She was old enough to have two sons, one of whom was a deacon and the other dead, and she was reassigning the inheritance to take account of that latter fact. And, in the course of rewarding the surviving son Ludiric because he had “remained in my obedience and desired so to do”, she gave him an alod big enough to have an island in it, in the territory of the castle of Bar, and it came with various revenues including those “de predam et de ostem”. I cannot think of any way to translate that but “from plunder and from campaigning”, and with that seems to follow ineluctably the implication that this land supported a warband, and neither the fact that she was an ageing widow nor that he was a churchman were apparently going to stop that.

Obviously it's only a guess, but here's a farm in Bar with an island in the Riu Segre on its likely property; it could be where theirs was...

So, OK, again, we have the obvious cavil: there’s nothing here that proves she herself was fighting, even less that proves that he was. In fact, he can’t have been expected to, if he owned the land, since if he was receiving revenues from some venture he was presumably not bringing them in himself or he could just have kept them— with Ma dead, who else could claim? Nonetheless, they were running soldiers. Whether they told those soldiers where to go or just sent them out for pigs (another of the revenue sources mentioned), no questions asked, they controlled men of war enough to take some of their booty off them. And this, apparently, like Adelaide’s control of a castle, was, if not usual, at least by no means so odd that it needed explaining in the charter.

When I bring these examples up, and others of women witnessing or signing documents, people who work on other early medieval areas where they get none of this stuff often ask me why tenth-century Catalonia should have been so well-disposed to women’s rights, justifiably enough. I have tended to suggest that if they had my evidence density maybe they’d see this too, because these are—here it comes again—probably not usual cases. But they were possible cases, and that in itself merits more explanation than I’m usually willing to give it. That doesn’t mean I have one, but I will suggest two interlinked factors that must have played a part. One, both Adelaide and Oliba were widows, which is to say, there had once been a man with whom they shared these rights, and second, as often said here, in Catalonia the law of resort was still the Visigothic Judges’ Book.9 These connect because the Visigothic Law was fairly generous to wives and widows: while their husband was alive, they held ten per cent of his property with him, and after he died, they got to keep that tenth for their support, until or unless they married again, in which case it devolved to the children of the first marriage since she would now have a new tenth.10 How often that was actually done is not clear, but it was often enough that “from my tenth” is a way that widows disposing of property by charter explained how they came to own it.11 Now, unless we are to suppose that people deliberately chose that tenth to exclude any land they held with a military duty or whatever being done from it, which would often have been quite hard to do I’d guess, widows of men who ran soldiers must sometimes have wound up with a warband’s base on their hands when he died, in perfect legal right. Actually, this land of Oliba’s came from her parents and Adelaide just bought her castle, but my point is that women running soldiers must have come up enough that if it was acceptable one way, it might be acceptable in others.

We expect, of course, based on later primogeniture and despite any number of romances in which women get knights in to defend their castles and don’t even always marry them, that this would have seemed so unnatural that it had to be altered. There are enough female litigants in the record here, though, including castellans’ widows who defeated the Church in court, that I suspect women being so shunted out of control would have generated a record.12 I also think we probably expect that particular sense of the unnatural too much. We might, realistically, be beyond the law in Oliba’s case, with frontier pig-raiding a bankable source of cash, but she still had a charter written and in any case, pioneer pragmatism surely ought to have seen an old woman elbowed out of place in favour of an able-bodied man sooner, don’t you think? If it was weird out here, it should have been fightin’ weird not legal weird. So perhaps it wasn’t weird at all, just unusual. We still have the philosophical wrangle about what to do with an unusual thing that perhaps still happened a lot, of course, but if we’re not happy making rules out of it at least we can also avoid making rules out of its more common opposite.


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200″ in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. The standard book on Ermessenda is Antoni Pladevall, Ermessenda de Carcassona, comtessa de Barcelona, Girona i d’Osona: esbós biogràfic en el mil·lenari del seu naixement (Barcelona 1975), but you can find him reprising it more recently for an audience of Romanesque fans in “La Comtessa de Barcelona Ermessenda de Carcassona” in Amics de l’Art Romànic de Sabadell no. 109 (Sabadell 2011), pp. 519-538, online here as PDF.

3. On viscounts and their power see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141; cf. cf. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngi en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29-75, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974, 1989), 2 vols, I pp. 181-226.

4. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 82-83; the documents in question are printed as 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. nos 1774 & 1805.

5. Jordi Vigué i Viñas, Albert Benet i Clarà and Antoni Pladevall i Font, “Castell de Malla” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya romànica, II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 292–294.

6. The beneficium is in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 350; see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 84.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 661, 1542 & 1730 show Borrell’s lands here; the first of these shows Goldregilda as neighbour. For Riculf, see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 84-86.

7. My reference here is Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels segles IX i X, conservats a l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 7–143, doc. no. 70. Now, it’s a while since I saw the text of this document. I’ve been citing this charter for this fact ever since my doctoral upgrade in 2001, but my viva revealed that I’d read one other thing in this document quite wrong, and now that I go back to my notes I find that they say nothing of this, which is a little disturbing. It’s on open shelves in Cambridge University Library, P582.b.1, probably North Front 5 still; if any of my readership happen to be passing, and wouldn’t mind photocopying or scanning a text, I would be quite grateful for it…

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

9. 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.1.6 sets the tenth, though note that III.1.7 says that the bride’s father inherits it when she dies, presumably not a usual occurrence and not something I can document.

10. This, however, is common: some examples are Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 95 (where the woman had kept the tenth from her previous husband despite remarrying), 560, 579, 596, 636, 726 (consenting to its alienation), 919, 1040, 1263 (a couple who weren’t even legally married, Unifred and Sesnanda), 1299, 1404, 1548, 1727 (Ermessenda!) & 1822 (citing the Law for it), and these are just the ones in that collection where I made a note of it.

11. Ajó, widow of the Vicar and judge Guifré de Néspola and perhaps daughter of the Vicar Sal·la, founder of Sant Benet de Bages. Again we see the problem: she was certainly unusually privileged, and the result is almost unique in terms of preservation, but how much more could we nonetheless expect this unusual thing to have happened… ?