Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.


1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

Another Prince of Cooks!

This post reaches a long way back, and not just because I stubbed it to write up in July 2012. Some of you may remember when I posted my so-far-last From the Sources post in August 2011 that the relevant charter contained, as well as all kinds of interesting details about managing frontier settlement, a signature by a figure identified as a ‘prince of cooks’, “princeps coquorum”, whose name was apparently Guallus.1 Another editor, working with a copy of the document that spells the name “Guadallus princeps cocorum”, presumably defective, prefers to read “princeps cotorum”, which he sees as a version of “princeps gotorum”, ‘prince of the Goths’, but I think it is safe to say that our conclusion was that this is special pleading.2 Although it dealt with territory, as it put it, “in the extreme far limits of the marches”, the transaction is said to have been done in Barcelona, and two counts and two bishops were there, presumably therefore at the palace, so a head cook somehow getting in on the witness list didn’t seem an impossible thing to happen just the once.3 Except now I know it happened twice.

Centro solar de Odeillo Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via 7270790

Centro solar de OdeilloMinube.com. So, at any rate, says the site I borrowed this picture from, which is that of a slightly different means of contact with the heavens than the church that was here in my period, the Solar Research Centre of Odeillo… This is the location of the property concerned in today’s key charter, apparently.4

In July 2012 as part of the final work for my “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Catalonia”, I went very quickly through the earliest documents in the edition of the charters of the monastery of Sant Sadurní de Tavèrnoles, which as it happens is where the charter mentioned above is from.5 And, what do you know, in a donation there in the year 815 by Count Fredol of Toulouse of a church he’d built in honour of SS Cristòfor & Hilari de Segremorta, among the again quite grand witnesses there with the count at Llívia, is a “Rainallus princeps coquorum”.6

One big problem with piecing together connections here is that both of these documents are known to use only from a cartulary of the thirteenth century. Not only does this mean that we don’t have the originals, but it also means that the copyist of one document had probably also seen the other. If the title was in one and a similar title was in the other (though what?) it could have got amended, or indeed (a point in limited favour of Udina’s ‘prince of the Goths’) if the scribe had trouble with Visigothic script he may have amended to this in both cases from something else, and a c-t confusion is very possible in that case. But there’s also problems with contamination from other sources. One that surprised me when I started web-searching just now is that such a person is supposed, in the Book of Jeremiah yet already, to have destroyed Jerusalem in the service of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and Gregory the Great spent quite a while explaining how this was about fleshly desire overwhelming the holy and so on, a pity given that the current view seems to be that the texts of the Bible that have “princeps militiae” here are probably the better ones and that a mistranslation through the Greek seems to be behind the variation.7 Now an Urgell scribe of either 815 or 973 could easily have read either Jeremiah or Gregory’s Moralia, and in fact the latter is probably more likely given the evidence we have from library catalogues, but it’s still not really a positive association, is it?8 Not the kind of person you would want endorsing your pious donation. So I’m not inclined to buy this however obvious it looks in terms of source.

Picture of interior designer and cookery book writer Valentina Cirasola wearing a hat marked "dux coquorum", roughly "head cook", borrowed from her website

Dukes aren’t what they used to be… and whoever is selling these hats is not doing so online. Where else do they think they’ll find really geeky cooks?

You may remember last time, though, that I did know of one other case of this phrase where a head cook was actually meant. Now actually there are loads, once you start digging, although they are almost all Roman or eleventh-century, but there is one in particular, to a chap called Gunzo who was given this title by the poet Ermold the Black while he was singing the praises of King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine (781-814), by then Holy Roman Emperor (814-840) but here appearing much more as the conqueror of Barcelona (801) and hero of other Catalan-side endeavours.9 I couldn’t see how that made sense as a possible source for a charter of 973, but it’s much less of a leap to wonder about an association to one of 815…

So, what would be needed to make this work? To start with, we have to make a fairly basic assumption: Louis did have a cook called Gunzo and this title was used of him. If we can accept that, the following things become possible:

  1. Count Fredol of Toulouse and Bishop Possedoni of Urgell, both involved in the 815 charter and both people who had attended Louis’s court—the grant is made for the benefit of Louis’s soul and he is spoken of in terms brimming with expressed devotion—would probably have known of and perhaps even been fed by Gunzo;
  2. Fredol, in setting up his own court in Cerdanya (because the charter describes him as ‘in session at my city of Llívia’, “sedente me in civitate mea Livia”), might have wished to imitate this regal affectation and thus entitled his own chief cook, Rainall;10
  3. Rainall got to witness this donation, which was maybe even done over dinner with Bishop Possedoni one evening;
  4. a hundred and fifty-eight years later, Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell made a big grant to the same monastery, and he did so again at a meeting (or perhaps dinner) with two of his bishops (including Guisad II, Possedoni’s many-times-successor at Urgell, as it happens) and a cook, Guadall, was also present and got to witness;
  5. a scribe at Sant Sadurní de Tavèrnoles, needing to write up quite the largest grant they’d had from a count for a while, then went back through the other big grants they had and found the 815 charter, and, thinking this a grand thing to repeat, stuck this title on Guadall, who otherwise might have been recorded by name only,
  6. and thus we have our charter.

One tiny problem with this is how the second scribe would know Guadall was a cook, of course, and that gets easier to solve if the dinner or meeting was actually at Urgell, not Barcelona, so that the scribe might more easily have actually been present, and for what it’s worth the extremely unusual specification of location is only in the dodgy copy of the 973 charter, not Tavèrnoles’s own.11 But since the Bishop of Urgell was involved, I don’t really see any problem with that knowledge passing from Barcelona to Tavèrnoles along with whatever notes sourced the charter if the grant was in fact done in the lowlands. The very fact that the charter was at Tavèrnoles shows information went from palace to monastery, after all. As with so many of these thorny and not very significant problems, although there are lots of hypothetical steps in this solution I’m not sure any other is more elegant. And this one, if it could be accepted, would colour in a little bit of the otherwise very blank picture about how business was actually done between the powerful and influential in this period. If that was, in fact, sometimes over a meal, with servants in attendance but also trusted enough sometimes to help with things, I’m not unhappy about that at all.


1. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Diplomatari del monestir de Tavèrnoles (segles IX-XIII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 12 (Montserrat 1995), pp. 7-414, doc. no. 23.

2. Federico Udina i Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), no. 174*.

3. Ibid.: “… in extremis ultimas finium marchas….” & “Facta huius donacionis in Barchinona civitate”.

4. I have this snippet of information from a desperate websearch to try and find the modern version of the place-name used in the charter cited at n. 6 below, which brought me against José María Gilera, “Junto a un monasterio del siglo IX se edifica un centro de investigación solar” in La Vanguardía Española, 7th August 1966, p. 30, which also records, on the basis of a paper by Miguel Oliva Prat that must be in the volume II Curso Internacional de Cultura romànica, del 10 al 30 de julio 1966, Puigcerdà: Memoria (Barcelona 1966), which I can’t get here, that the initial layout planning revealed some Romanesque stonework, a few metres of wall and some opus spicatum, that were considered too ephemeral to preserve, and so presumably got dug up and chucked away along with anything else that might have been there. Argh!

5. See n. 1 above. My work referred to here is J. Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & A. Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-126, DOI:10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679.

6. Baraut, “Tavèrnoles”, doc. no. 4, though since I don’t have access to that in Birmingham I’m here using Jaime Villanueva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo X: Viage a Urgel (Valencia 1821), ap. V.

7. So apparently Massimo Manca, “Nabuzardan princeps coquorum: Una lezione vulgata oltre la Vulgata” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Filologia Linguistica e Tradizione Classica (Torino) Vol. 13 (Torino 1999), pp. 491-498, though I’m not sure I’ve understood what little Google will give me of that correctly.

8. I am, admittedly, getting this through a web version of the Patrologia Latina text of the Sententiae of Taion of Saragossa (where IV.23) rather than Gregory’s actual work, but since that’s almost certainly the version anyone in Catalonia would have read, maybe that’s OK! On the access to this text in the area see Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 739-747. Annoying for what I argue here, by 1040 at least Tavèrnoles did have a copy of this (ibid. pp. 746, 747) but I still don’t think it’s the source here because why on earth would you do that?

9. Ermold the Black, In honorem Hludowici, ed. Ernst Dümmler in idem (ed.), Poetae latini ævi carolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Poetae) IV, p. 71; there is now a translation of this poem in Thomas F. X. Noble (trans.), Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer (Philadelphia 2009).

10. The Counts of Toulouse do seem to have treated at least some of their transpyrenean domains as quasi-independent princedoms, but Fredol is beyond that area here. On that, though, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Dels Vigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicoó, Estudis i Documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols. I pp. 241-260.

11. See nn. 2 & 3 above.

Seminar CLVII: finding friends in tenth-century England

Even my implicit schedule is getting off-kilter here, sorry. This week has been busy with job applications and seminars, on which latter subject on 23rd January 2013 I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research to hear Els Schröder, then of the University of York, present a paper entitled, “Searching for Friendship in Anglo-Saxon Sources: multilingual insights into tenth-century elite culture”, and I thought you’d maybe like to hear about it.

The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the <em>Liber Feudorum Maior</em> of the Counts of Barcelona

An illustration, not of Anglo-Saxons but of the problem: were these two men… "friends"? The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona

Dr Schröder completed her thesis in 2012, and was here doing that trickiest of things, trying to compress a 90,000 word thesis into a 9,000 word paper and still be comprehensible and interesting, which she certainly managed.1 There was still something of a chapter-by-chapter structure visible, so that we got methodology and literature first. That revealed that, unusually for the early Middle Ages, the sources here are unusually secular. For some reason we have no tenth-century letter collections, for example, so the usual focus on lettered ecclesiastics isn’t available. The relatively few charters also don’t use such language or work in such terms. There thus isn’t enough material to approach without models, and one needs several: the sources call ties of dependency as well as interdependency friendship, and such language is especially strong at court where the stakes are much higher and the social distances greater than we would find in wider society.2 Dr Schröder therefore called for more discourses to be brought into play.

One source of material is the Anglo-Saxon royal lawcodes, but here friendship turns up mainly as something the kings can make perform official functions: a `friend’ will stand surety for someone, will do the king’s bidding if they wish to retain his `friendship’, it’s quite formal and of course may not have actually worked. Such relationships where we can see them in operation are explicable in terms of negotiation as much as attachment, and may have been quite evanescent. (I myself think that such relationships, if detectable over time, must indicate a kind of attachment too, even if only an ability to get along for the parties’ mutual good, but I admit that even that model fails to register short-lived and unsuccessful friendships, which might be very useful to be able to cultivate for just long enough… Here, well out of my usual period, Richard the Lionheart’s persistent ability to bounce back from disaster by relying on even his enemies’ goodwill often strikes me like this.3)

Cover of Linda Tollerton's Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England

The only decent image I can quickly find of an Anglo-Saxon will is on this, the cover of a work by another York doctoral alumnus and published by the same people as my book … so I guess I’ll link!

Wills look slightly better for the enquiry, as 15 out of 67 use this kind of language. Here again we see these relationships under strain, especially as what is being envisaged here is kind of the last call upon them, be that dependents appealing upwards or lords and husbands trying to call on loyalties in life to protect their wife and children after their death. The problem still exists that informal relationships are here being turned into obligations, just as in the laws.

Thus one winds up forced onto the writings of people like Ælfric and literature like Beowulf, as usual dragged to whatever century one needs for the argument—the field will probably collapse if we ever do agree a date for that poem… But here we get words like ‘leof’ (love) much more, even if Ælfric does tend to gloss it in Latin as ‘venerabilis’, venerable, or ‘honorabilis’, honourable, rather than, you know, ‘amatus’. Again, to an extent, we see these terms because people place obligations on them, to support the person expressing the tie either in preaching or in battle; the language is evoked to formalise a relationship into expectations of action. This also clouds the occurrences in hagiography: St Dunstan wound up looking after the treasury of King Eadred because he was the king’s ‘specialis amicus’, which thus winds up looking more like an office than a relationship, and is of course the same sort of arrangement as we see in the wills: you will do this, because you are my friend… Even advice and counsel can be viewed through this frame and once one sees the frame it’s hard to unsee it.

I presume that there must have been people in Anglo-Saxon England who got on with each other as friends in our sense of the term, but what this paper seemed to show is that our sources are largely using such terminology as cladding for something else when they write about it. Bernard Gowers made the excellent point that we only have such writing because the parties in a relationship are not, or are not going to be, in regular touch; we wouldn’t have anything from people who saw each other ever day and hung out together precisely because they could communicate face-to-face. Alice Taylor re-emphasised that these sources don’t see friendship as a relationship of equals, as we tend to do, and wondered what other terms could be searched for that might correspond more closely to our frameworks, but Dr Schröder thought that both level and hierarchical relationships could be found, and it seemed to me that we were seeing the terms in use when someone wanted to use the relationship, thus converting it into a power relation in which someone can deny a demand only at the cost of continuing the relationship. There are also issues about family, who don’t get treated separately by the language of friendship, and of gifts creating or cementing such relationships…4 the enquiry is not over. It was, all the same quite clear that there had been a thesis’s worth of work in getting this far, and it will be worth hearing about Dr Schröder’s next steps!


1. Her thesis was “Friendship and Favour in Late Anglo-Saxon Élite Culture: a study of documentary and narrative Sources, c. 900-1016″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of York, 2012), online here.

2. The two works whose models my notes suggest were drawn on, and ultimately found wanting, were Gerd Althoff, Amicitiae und Pacta: Bündnis, Einigung, Politik und Gebetsgedenken im beginnenden 10. Jahrhundert, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXVII (Hannover 1992), transl. as Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 2004), and Stephen C. Jaeger, Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility (Philadelphia 1999).

3. My pet episode of this is when Richard lifted Saladin’s siege of Joppa in 1194. He charged ashore in full armour, bust into the city and commandeered the three horses left there, but when the Earl of Leicester was dismounted in a press of fighting, Richard weighed in and put the guy on one of his spare horses, at which point Saladin’s brother Saphadin sends a man into the battle with two more mounts for Richard, saying to the king that he looks as if he’s running short! The two accounts of this differ on whether Saladin himself had sent the horses or not, and the matter is complicated by the fact that Richard had knighted Saphadin’s son earlier in the campaign. It could also be intended as a barb or a display of the disparity of resources, of course, but if so it’s still a joke between people who shared a frame of reference. Not in any way the same cultural circumstances of course, but Richard did go on to lift the siege, so those cultural circumstances got him out of his mess and he’d helped to create them… Source texts in Helen J. Nicholson (transl.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: a translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Crusade Texts in Translation 3 (Aldershot 1997), VI.14-24, the knighting of Saphadin (Sayf al-Din)’s son at V.12; variant testimony noted p. 364 n. 67.

4. ‘Friends by blood’, as Marc Bloch put it. This subject is one of those many where it doesn’t seem like a few pages of Bloch’s Feudal Society (transl L. A Manyon (London 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 123-125 for ‘amis charnels’ and 231-238 for dependency expressed as friendship) ought to be able to say everything there is to be said on a subject and yet it’s really really hard to surpass them…

Building states on the Iberian frontier, II: clearing the land

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Continuing as promised, or threatened, the rethink of my picture of frontier development in Catalonia spurred by the recent chapter by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes on the same themes in tenth-century Castile… let’s talk about peasants.1 At some level, after all, the expansion of settlement, social structures and government into an unorganised zone requires the basic work of somebody taking tools to the soil, felling unhelpful trees, clearing scrub, putting it to the plough or planting helpful trees and generally turning the land to use. This is implicit in any story of territorial expansion that isn’t simple annexation of territory where someone else has already done that. The question is thus not whether this is happening, but rather who is controlling it. Now, I have worked on this for Catalonia, partly because it’s just inherent in an expanding frontier situation as I say but also because of an early article by Cullen Chandler that I disagreed with and which gave me a fair bit of work to figure out what my alternative picture was (and even longer to publish it).2 This does mean that I could simply direct you to that work but because it’s part of the argument that I’m developing here in reaction to the Escalona & Reyes chapter, it needs to be out where it can be seen. I will reuse some text, though, and the first bit I will reuse is that from my book which attempts to describe how other historians have answered this question of control. Given that what follows is quite a lot of quotation, and that the whole post is plural thousands of words, a cut seems moot here… Continue reading

Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-’Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!


1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

Building states on the Iberian frontier, I: putting the peasants up front

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let's have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

This is going to be a long and thinky post, and short of illustrations, so let’s have something scenic to start with. This is the mountains of Montserrat seen from the Riu Llobregat, the far frontier in my period, an image from Wikimedia Commons

As I sat down to write this I was having trouble thinking something out, and by now my favourite strategy when this happens, assuming that I can’t trap someone at a pub table and thrash it out at them verbally, is to try and write about it. So this is the first of a number of posts messing with questions of agency and, well, credit or blame I suppose, in the creation of medieval society at the Muslim-Christian frontier in medieval Iberia. It comes out of reading a genuinely excellent account of that for Castile in the tenth century (the most important of European centuries, as I’m sure you realise) by Julio Escalona and Francisco Reyes.1 It gets right down into the mechanisms by which lords got themselves into positions of power on the frontier and then used those to make themselves more important wherever else they turned up, creating extensive lordships which would only be converted to intensive ones much later. This is a really clear chapter, informed by a lively and interesting new theoretical base, and is important not just for the tenth century and debates about state formation on frontiers anywhere, but also about the delay in what comes after, the intensification, which of course plays into the feudal transformation debate of which everyone is so tired and so on.2 It really made me think but one thing that it made me think was that it’s only about lords. This has made me write a great deal, and out of general mercy for the audience I put the rest behind a cut, but if you feel up to it I would be very interested in feedback and corrections, not least because I tread on several nationalisms in the course of it and need to know what bits may make people angry… Continue reading

Seminar CLV: an uncertain number of Vikings in a boat (at Ardnamurchan)

As I work through this backlog of seminar reports I do begin to realise that maybe one reason I seemed to get less done in Oxford than I have done since is because I was at seminars all the time… In particular, on this occasion, on the 21st of January 2013, I was at two in immediate succession, in that way that the coincidence of the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar at Oxford currently makes possible. This post is about the former of them, when Dr Oliver Harris of the University of Leicester came to speak with the title, “Places Past and Present: the Ardnamurchan boat burial”.

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

You may have heard about this site, because it was all over the news when it was fresh; the BBC coverage includes a short video showing our speaker in full animation; that may make it clear how much fun this paper was, but it was by no means lacking in care and thought even so. Basically the story is that they were doing a much wider survey of this peninsula on the western coast of Scotland, interested in remains of all periods (and I mean all – they have found Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and early modern stuff here, all within a few kilometres of each other, though no medieval bar what I’m here describing), and identified a low mound that early modern ploughing had respected. Investigation revealed that this was probably because it was full of stones, and once the turf was cleared off them it began, as Dr Harris put it, to look suspiciously like a boat. If there’d been any doubt, the finding of a broken spear and a shield boss helped reassure them there really was something here, and that something, rivets made clear, had been an actual boat that was dragged up the beach, parked on a local rise in the ground, banked with kerb stones and then filled with stuff. That stuff also included a drinking horn whose fittings survived, an axe, a cauldron or hanging bowl with a hammer and tongs in it, a whetstone, a sickle, food, apparently a bag of spare rivets and under it all, perhaps originally down the side of the boat, a sword. (I do wonder in writing this up if the person in question were being marked as a shipwright, but if so obviously a fairly martial one.)

Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the Ardnamurchan boat burial

One of quite a number of pictures from the same press shoot by Jeff J. Mitchell that one can Google up of Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the burial

What it could not then be said to have included, however, was a body, though soil analysis may change that (or by now, may have, though I can find nothing newer on it). For now, though, the possibility that there was never a person in the boat remains intriguingly open, and a further possibility (suggested in questions by Lesley Abrams and David Petts in accumulation, on the basis that sickles usually occur in female graves) is that there was more than one, accounting for the multiple significations of the goods, though in that case the chemical action of the soil was unusually aggressive for the area just here. Likewise absent was any scientific dating as yet, but the sword, which had copper and silver interweave decorating the pommel, was enough for Colleen Batey to suggest the first half of the tenth century, and I am as happy with that as I ever am with stylistic dating, given that I am not expert enough to contest it and would rather have some figures out of a computer. I would also like some publication beyond the very short note in Medieval Archaeology for 2012 that seems to be all that has so far resulted, but the Historic Environment Record lists a report apparently submitted as part of a post-excavation budget submission, and maybe that’s where things rest. That would be a shame but hopefully eventually remediable.

Aariel view of the coats around Swordie Bay, Ardnamurchan

The coast around the site, which could you but see also houses a Neolithic chambered tomb and a Bronze Age kerbed cairn as well as the ship burial. The name of the place? Swordle Bay…

The main thing that Dr Harris was keen to stress, anyway, was the landscape into which this then-new monument was being inserted, which could fairly be characterised as funerary: the very stones they built the ship-setting with were robbed from a Neolithic cairn nearby! The wider landscape is also obviously maritime: though this is the only boat-burial so far found on the mainland, it’s really only just the mainland and has a lot more to do with the others on the islands to which the sea links it for users of such boats than the zones inland. The longue durée approach of the project here was good for showing depth in time but breadth in space is also pretty clear for its frame of reference; all the goods seem to be Scandinavian in type or manufacture and there’s no reason to suppose the person was at all local. (There were two teeth, so isotopic analysis may just be possible, but without a skull, who’s to say whose teeth were deposited for what reason?) The diggers presumably knew the coast, picked a very well-used bit of it full of monuments to make their own, built it and then sailed away again, a burial very much in keeping with how Vikings interacted with this coastline and others further south when they lived. There’s a lot more it would be nice to know here but this paper gave us a lot more than was on the web, so it’s nice to be able to distribute it a bit further.


As far as I can discover, so far the only academic publication of the site (a somewhat unfair judgement-by-comparison on the press releases and website, which contain nearly as much information but fewer site photos) is Oliver Harris, Hannah Cobb, Héléna Gray & Phil Richardson, “A Viking at Rest: new discoveries on Ardnamurchan” in Märit Gaimster & Kieran O’Conor with Rory Sherlock (edd.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland – Fieldwork Highlights in 2011″ in Neil Christie (ed.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland 2011″ in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 333-339 of 321-339 of 301-339, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.00000000011.