Seminar CXLV: more Anglo-Saxon feud and punishment

I’m not sure I’ve blogged two successive versions of one paper except inadvertantly, and I’ve certainly decided not to do so before now, but I will make an exception for Dr Tom Lambert and his paper, “Crime, Community and Kingship”, which I wrote about here when it was presented in Oxford but which on 12th February 2014 was also appearing, with modifications, at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. You may remember from the earlier write-up that whereas the standard picture of Anglo-Saxon law has been that it develops from feud to royal enforcement, Tom argues for a two-part system from as far back as we can see up till the twelfth century at least, in which there was injury and crime.1 The former was to be compensated for or avenged and the latter, because it had no obvious worldly victim—things like sacrilege, failure to do public works, and so on where the victim is the whole community or no-one—falls to the king to prosecute. He sees the Anglo-Saxon period as a long process of increasing regulation and efficiency management of a system that basically fitted that description throughout. So, that was the Oxford pitch, what had changed by the time it came to London?

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester, image from Wikimedia Commons

I suppose that one point I hadn’t properly taken on board before is that when we see Anglo-Saxon law for the first time, in the Laws of Æthelberht, there is no sovereign paradox in them.2 The issue of the king’s right to make law or decided compensation isn’t really touched upon, but his rights are in the code, and they are of a different grade but not a different order; he is just a ‘big freeman’ with some extra duties. He is not outside the system as later royal legislators have to be in order to say what the system is or does; instead the code shows us a bigger system of which the king is also part. This includes feud, in as much as the king receives compensation for the death of a free man, perhaps (I considered) because he has lost the resource of that man’s military service or similar.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

What this men is about to do was messy but completely legal, OK?

Tom was also working a bit harder to make this argument fit with his earlier work arguing that theft was one of the most serious offences in the Anglo-Saxon world of misdeeds because of its secret nature, which more or less prevents people taking vengeance; how can you if you don’t know whodunnit? The whole village becomes suspect; the cohesion of the community is placed under threat until the matter is resolved.3 A good honest slaying is easy to settle by comparison! And it’s in the area of pursuing thieves and protecting the Church especially, Tom argued, that we see royal expansion, rather than in attempts to limit feud. The king’s business was the kind of offences that people can’t punish themselves, and so it remained right up to the Conquest and beyond. In questions, Susan Reynolds, with her typical insight, pointed out that what we are talking here is ‘punishment’ versus ‘damages’, that is, exactly the difference between criminal and civil law that England still maintains… Since homicide is now definitely criminal not civil, however, there’s a change to be explained still, and Tom puts it later than 1066.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

The opening of the Laws of Edmund in London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

As for the people’s action, even the royal legislation is full of references to assemblies and local courts; in fact, it tries to make them do more and make justice the affair of lower-level assemblies, moving prosecution of offences down from towns to hundreds! This is, you have to admit, not the kind of appropriation of right of court to royal justices we see under Edward I. What is is, however, Tom now conceded, is a universalisation of practice across a much wider area as the kings of Wessex brought the rest of what is now England under their control. There was some tension there, I thought, since Tom’s picture was being extrapolated from laws from several kingdoms in the first place, but it’s sort of got to be true anyway; the king decides which set of local customs he endorses, and to say anything at all that puts him in charge (which shows that I have not entirely left Wormald behind) he has to do something other than tell everyone to go on with what they were doing. Some communities must have experienced royal demands for how they did things as cancellations or abrogations of ‘their ways’. This is true of far more things than just crime and punishment, of course, but it does tend to be where my sympathies always go when the extension of royal power turns up in argument (as in Oxford it so often did). The thing about a big society is that it normalises all the little ones…


1. That standard picture is now canonically enshrined in Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003).

2. The sovereign paradox, that he who would change the law must be above it, is repeatedly explained by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, though once is really enough.

3. See T. Lambert, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law” in Past and Present no. 214 (Oxford 2012), pp. 3-43.

Working for San Salvatore I: making a polyptych

I seem to have taken the chance of the latter part of the Birmingham job to indulge in reading large amounts of primary material. First there was the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, about which you’ve by now heard quite enough, for the paper about documents that predate their archives that I may some day finish, and then as I first wrote this, in May 2014, there had just been the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, which I was reading for the submission version of the paper about Carolingian crop-yields which I gave at Kalamazoo in 2011.1 The point I wanted to make with the former of these kind of disintegrated as I got into the material; it’s not clear that all the material that the monks of Beaulieu were assembling was actually theirs and far less of it is non-ecclesiastical than I had thought. There’s an interesting story to be told there (I should say, another one, as Jane Martindale already told one) but it’s not the one I wanted.2

Thesouth portal of St-Pierre de Beaulieu

One last picture of Beaulieu before we leave it for a few months… By Sjwells53 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The Santa Giulia di Brescia polyptych has been far kinder, in as much as it serves my purpose perfectly: those scholars who have posited low crop yields using its figures have done so by what I can only call unthinking assumption that the figures are what they needed, and this is easily disproven.3 In fact, not only can one not show that the monastery’s estates were yielding less than was sown, as has been argued (nonsensically), in one or two cases it is clear that the yields must have been much higher, so it all works very well for me. But there is so much else one could do with this document, and in the paper I can’t, I have no space and it would be irrelevant and to do anything separate with it I would have to work through a mass of Italian historiography, Italian being a language with which I struggle, and probably then find out all this stuff was well-established anyway. But this is where a blog helps: I have to tell someone, so I shall tell you.

A corner of the cloister and the solar of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Santa Giulia has not made it through the ages quite as unchanged as Beaulieu

Let’s start at the beginning by explaining the word polyptych, perhaps not in the average person’s everyday vocabulary. This is a word scholars of the early Middle Ages use for one of the various large-scale estate surveys carried out by fiscal or ecclesiastical agents: these seem to start in the Carolingian Empire, though the techniques presumably weren’t new then, and they carry on being made well into the Middle Ages: Domesday Book could be argued to be the ultimate one and there’s a twelfth-century one from Catalonia I need to read some day, and so on.4 At the later end this category blurs into inventory, survey, census and so on, and it’s something of a term of art. It’s also not the word the texts use, which is almost always breve, though brief these texts are not. Anyway, Santa Giulia’s is quite late, probably dating to 906, and it’s out of area, being from North Italy, which would once have counted as Carolingian heartland but by this time not so much.

Polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832

This is not from the Brescia manuscript, which is not online as far as I can see, but from the 9th-century polyptych of the Paris monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, MS Latin 12832, online at Gallica; this is fo. 8v.

We don’t have all of this text. The original manuscript survives, and it must be a fascinating thing though it’s quite hard to check since the shelfmark given by the best scholarly edition, which dates to 1979, seems now to have been reorganised out of existence and the Archivio di Stato di Milano, although they have been digitising their stuff since 2000, don’t actually, you know, have any of it online yet. The edition is good, however, and furthermore that has been competently digitised, so you can play along here. But the original would be more fun: as it survives it is apparently twelve big pieces of parchment sewn together top-to-bottom into a roll. One of these pieces is a later short bit acting as a replacement for the end of its predecessor, whose final lines apparently became almost-illegible, but otherwise we have the work of three scribes, two of whom write large chunks and could have been working independently, but the third of whom drops in for a few lines here and there not just within entries but within words of the second scribe’s work, so that they must have firstly been working together and secondly working with source texts. That was always likely, but it at least eliminates the possibility that the information was being written up ‘live'; you can’t really change scribes in the middle of a word if someone is standing there dictating it to you, you’d think.

The cloister of Santa Giulia di Brescia

Back to Santa Giulia’s rather post-medieval cloister

The information that they were receiving and recording was done to a pretty tight template. Interestingly, it’s less tight in some areas than others. The text opens in the middle of an entry, and most of the first few have become illegible, but once they’re not they’re in the Brescia area: after a while the scope moves out to properties nearer Bergamo, Modena, Cremona and Piacenza, and Modena especially is not in style. This seems partly to be because the second scribe thought some details were just too tedious, but in other cases it seems to be because the information hadn’t come in as expected: there are gaps left on the manuscript as if more were expected. Sometimes these gaps are very large, twenty-odd centimetres of unused parchment, suggesting that perhaps entire settlements hadn’t yet reported in when they started writing up and in fact never did, while at the end, after they’d got down to the properties that aren’t even land but just some people in Ivrea who sent them honey once a year, or similar,5 what seem to be extra estates from Brescia and Bergamo were added which had apparently been missed out earlier and whose returns therefore presumably came in late.

So we certainly don’t have a full inventory of Santa Giulia di Brescia’s property here (not least because it would still have been San Salvatore di Brescia in 906 I think) and the most obvious thing that’s missing is the monastery itself, which was at least mentioned somewhere in the text, as the scribes refer back to it as ‘the aforesaid monastery’, but in what we have is not mentioned at all.6 This suggests that what is now the first parchment probably wasn’t originally, and of course that means we don’t know how much is lost, especially as the twelfth parchment also breaks off in medias res. That unknown quantity is also the basis for the date of 906, which is not given in the text that we now have but which is recorded on the dorse of the roll, and which may therefore have once been in the missing part of the text. People have debated the palæography a lot and argued that this is anything from the original to a late-eleventh-century copy. Some of the land involved was only granted to the monastery by King Carloman in 879 so it’s younger than that, but the consensus seems to be that it could be 906, so it may as well be.7

Precept of King Carloman for Saint-Sauveur d'Atuyer, 883

Again, not the right manuscript, but the look is right and so is the dedication, this Carloman confirming the rights of Saint-Sauveur d’Atuyer in 883, from the inestimable Diplomata Karolinorum

Now, there are a whole range of things that interest me about this text, some of which will be their own posts, but let’s stick here with how they made it. As I say, the information is recorded to a template. Each estate is broken down by assets with the assets listed in the same order. Some estates didn’t have, for example, a spelt crop, but when there was a spelt crop it’s always tucked between the rye crop and the barley crop—not the only example, this—so there must somewhere have been a guide that said what order things should be listed in. There’s two ways that could happen, obviously: either the information came in more or less unsorted and the scribes arranged it according to a list in the office or else the template was actually used in the collection of the information. I think it must have been the latter, because there is as I say variation in the order around Modena. The scribes could obviously have fixed that if they were already reorganising data to a model. That they did not suggests that the model was used at record point, not at redaction point.

In other words, the monastery would have sent people out with a form to be filled in. For some reason this makes me terribly gleeful. It’s not that I have any great love for bureaucrats. It may be that I do love making lists of stuff, and it therefore reaches me inside to have good evidence of tenth-century people also making lists of stuff that were meant always to be in the same order and so on. But mainly I love it because this means it is possible to reverse-engineer the form they used, or at least something that would produce the same results. So by way of both showing you the kind of data we have and quite how bad my obsessive compulsion can get, you will find my version of that form, with one estate’s data entered into it, below the cut. For those of you slightly less keen on fine-grained (aha ha grain, sorry) agricultural demography, a seminar report will be along shortly… Continue reading

Seminar CXLIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England?

We have already recently mentioned the scholarly debate over whether or not there was a particular fear of the the world associated with the year 1000 in the Middle Ages, and that I was teaching a course on such matters in Birmingham this last spring. Thus, when I gathered that Professor Catherine Cubitt was giving the Royal Historical Society’s Public Lecture on 7th February 2014 with the title “Apocalyptic Thought in England Around the Year 1000″, I made sure I ws there, both because of the theme and because Katy is always interesting. Because of the reading for the course, I was one of the people in the audience who knew a lot of what she was saying, but by no means all and I came away with many new thoughts.

Having written all this and starting the search for links and images, I discover to my delight that the lecture was in fact recorded, so you can watch it uourself and see how fair I'm being! And it's worth the watch, if you like such things, and not just for the Steve Bell cartoon visible in the clip here...

Getting at whether writers, and by this given the sources we mean churchmen, obviously, were really worried about the imminence of the end of time and the Final Judgement is complicated by the fact that it’s a really obvious preaching tool. While Richard Landes and others may be right that for some people, the Final Judgement was a happy promise that although they’d been beaten down on all their lives by over-privileged people on horses living in halls, God would eventually, and perhaps soon, set things right, certainly the sermons we have from this era, a genre in which England is unusually rich, think that their hearers needed to be afraid, because time for repentance and mending their ways might be running out.1 This is fire-and-brimstone preaching at its most immediate, I guess, and it requires a peculiar two-handed approach: the End must be close, close enough that the signs are evident, but also there must still be time to make things better or it’s too late to preach. The result is that the Apocalypse becomes always imminent but never here, and in this respect we could have just the same debate about Pope Gregory I around 600 as we could have about, say, Abbot Æfric of Eynsham around 1000, whose list of events that should be read as showing the end times being in progress went back to the first century!2 If there was genuine worry about these issues, it’s both hard to separate from the utility of the trope for moral reformers (the basic conclusion of my students that term) and possible to find whenever we have the right kind of evidence.

London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, showing the text of the Tribal Hidage and the opening of the Grammar of Æfric of Eynsham

I can’t show you a picture of Æfric, but I can show you an eleventh-century writing of his name in this manuscript, London British Library MS Harley 3271, at the head of his treatise on grammar, weirdly facing a text of the Tribal Hidage

Nonetheless, there is a lot of this stuff, relatively speaking, from tenth- and early-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s easy enough to see why: the country was beset by Viking attacks it was not managing to resist, the kingship of Æthelred II (978-1016) was increasingly paralysed by poor leadership and treachery, and things were not getting better despite an increasingly desperate moral agenda at court.3 Here again we have the problem that one of the people who was most involved in that agenda, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, was also very fond of the Apocalyptic message as a preaching tool, seen most clearly in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, apparently first written after the worst had happened and the king had been driven out but redone several times after that. Since he also helped draft Æthelred’s later laws and perhaps his unusually verbose and ‘penitential’ charters, that the voice of the state has an urgent tone of repentance about it is not surprising.4 The agenda was probably not cynical, either: Æthelred’s charters seem almost to be searching for what he and his people may have done wrong in their different pleas for forgiveness: yes, the imminent Last Judgement, but also various saints he might have offended, the soul of his murdered brother, his mother’s curse… he was apparently a haunted man and whatever Wulfstan’s concerns were, they found a ready audience with the king.5

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993 very full of apologies for the king's earlier mistreatment of the abbey

Nor was it just Wulfstan that used this stuff, either; we’ve mentioned Ælfric and there are various anonymous homilies preserved that also like the Last Days as a trope. Furthermore, for what it may be worth, Wulfstan himself seems to have been concerned about this all his life, in his earliest works before he was part of the government and even still after Æthelred’s succession by Cnut and the consequent end of the Viking menace.6 The End was still coming! Katy’s conclusion was therefore that, even if such thinking and preaching served a moral and reformist agenda and was being used to that end by its propagators, there were still a lot of those, sufficiently many and widely-disseminated (especially in the laws) that people at large would have been much exposed to this rhetoric. (I think now of the rhetoric of the term ‘recession’ and how that is used as a critique of the establishment, too, whatever its empirical truth.)

The <em>Sermo Lupi ad Anglos</em>, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat (though I’m afraid i don’t know which manuscript)

As the first questioner noted, this did not entirely address the question of whether there was much popular take-up of the idea that End was near, and Katy conceded this, saying that Richard Landes has made this such a difficult question that it couldn’t be addressed in this forum. (My students would generally come to the conclusion that it can’t really be addressed at all.) Jinty Nelson noticed, and I later made sure my students did, that the English rhetoric of the End is quite, well, Insular, in as much as it doesn’t partake of any of the developing Continental and Byzantine traditions about the role of a last emperor in clearing the way for the End, even though (as I pointed out) Æthelred did sometimes use the Greek imperial title basileus in his charters; the sources are Revelation and St Augustine and not very much more.7 Another point I tried to raise (because there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a little knowledge, I suppose) was around the laws: unlike the various sermons, and charters whose audience was a single court assembly then a monastery thereafter, the laws represent official disseminaton of this rhetoric, or so we assume. (I did privately wonder if Patrick Wormald’s work on the manuscripts allowed us to conclude that actually half of this stuff never left Wulfstan’s office in Worcester and represents only the versions he would have liked to send out.8) Katy replied that she felt that the Apocalyptic rhetoric has to be read into the laws, rather than being there explicitly, and indeed this was what I later found with my students. That was a good course, and the lone group that took it did their best with it; looking back, though, I realise that this lecture must have set a number of the places whither I wound up trying to guide them…


1. I’m leaving aside here the point made by both Landes, often, and Katy here that a long tradition of literature starting with Christ Himself in the Gospels held that the date and time of the End could not be known, and that any attempt to calculate it was to defy Christ. This is true and much reiterated, including by Katy’s sources, but the post is long enough already! Some obvious references at the outset, however, are Richard Landes, Andrew C. Gow and Daniel C. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), where Malcolm Godden’s “The millennium, time, and history for the Anglo-Saxons”, pp. 155-180 is most immediately relevant; compare Edwin Wilson Duncan, “Fears of the Apocalypse: The Anglo-Saxons and the Coming of the First Millennium” in Religion and Literature Vol. 31 (Notre Dame 1999), pp. 15–23, a basic introduction to the issues, and Simon Keynes, “Apocalypse Then: England A.D. 1000″ in Premyslaw Urbańczyk (ed.), Europe around the Year 1000 (Warsaw 2001), pp. 247–270.

2. We found on the course that Bernard McGinn (ed./trans.), Visions of the End: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages (New York City 1978; 2nd edn. 1998) was an indispensable source of primary material, including if I remember some of Gregory the Great’s writings on this issue, but see on him also Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End” in Chris Humphrey & Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34. For Ælfric a good starting point is Pauline Stafford, “Church and Society in the Age of Ælfric” in Paul E. Szarmach & B. F. Huppé (edd.), The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds (Albany 1978), pp. 11–42.

3. Here the most obvious thing to cite is none other than Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 85 (London 2012), pp. 179-192, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x.

4. I discover now in searching for stuff to support this post that there is now plotted Andrew Rabin (ed./transl.), The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (Manchester forthcoming), which looks very useful.

5. Here, meanwhile, the obvious cites are now Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203 and idem, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Aethelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258–276, and in case that doesn’t seem coincidental enough, I should mention that the lecture was preceded by a recitation of new fellows of the Society, of whom Levi was one! So the world remains tightly bound, unlike, as Wulfstan was fond of emphasising, Satan (see William Prideaux-Collins, “‘Satan’s bonds are extremely loose': apocalyptic expectation in Anglo-Saxon England during the millennial era” in Landes, Gow & Van Meter, Apocalyptic Year 1000, pp. 289-310.

6. See Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the holiness of society” in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York City 1999), pp. 191-224, repr. in Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (London 1999), pp. 225-251; Joyce Tally Lionarons, “Napier Homily L: Wulfstan’s eschatology at the close of his career” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004), pp. 413–428.

7. For the wider scene the most neutral introduction is probably Simon MacLean, “Apocalypse and Revolution: Europe around the Year 1000″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 86–106; for the Byzantine tradition, try Paul Julius Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Los Angeles 1985), perhaps updated with Paul Magdalino, “The Year 1000 in Byzantium” in idem (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden 2003), pp. 233–270. Æthelred had the title basileus used for him in a full forty-three of his charters, which you can make the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England list for you here; it is often basileus of Britain or even of Albion, too, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the Kings of the Scots’ increasing use of the title of King of Alba.

8. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003); see also idem, “Archbishop Wulfstan, eleventh-century state-builder” in Townend, Wulfstan, pp. 9-27.

Link

An insider’s view of Lichfield cathedral

Special Subject Field Trip to Lichfield Cathedral, 19th March 2014: Swords, Hoards and Overlords: Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

One of the two courses I ran at Birmingham last year was a two-term option on early Anglo-Saxon England, taken up to more or less the death of Bede. I got handed that remit as part of my contract negotiations and if it had not already been advertised, I think I’d have stretched it to reach King Alfred, but it was still fun, I had an excellent group for it who remained interested throughout, and the person who had designed the initial offering, none other than Peter Darby, had built in two slots for field trips. The first of those was to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to get up close to the Staffordshire Hoard, but the other had not been fixed, so I cast about and thought of Lichfield Cathedral. This was a splendid idea: the chapter did a great job with us, including not just making sure we saw more bits of the Hoard, the St Chad’s Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, but letting us in places others might not get to go. And, since we had been awarded money to cover the travel, the School of History and Cultures demanded a student report on it that they could use for publicity on a specially-created blog, and one of my students, Alex Tweddle, bravely stepped up to write it around my photographs. It took a little while to go online: I didn’t help by thinking it would be best to send the relevant person actual HTML and a ZIP folder of image files, in whose use I then had to train them… It still shows the signs, alas. But since April it’s been up!

Dilbert cartoon for 9th November 1995

I always think of this cartoon in such moments, but had forgotten its medievalist reference point…

Alex’s text is almost embarrassingly fulsome but I’m quite pleased with the photos (one choice one set as header), and it was a marvellous opportunity, so perhaps you’d like to go and have a look?

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.


1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!

How a saint’s cult gets started

When as medievalists we are told by our sources about a saint’s cult, it is most often of all via hagiography, a written Life of the saint that explains his or her lifelong holiness and authenticates it by means of miracles, especially by miracles after death, since these tell you that the person in question has gone to Heaven (because God does not hear the prayers of the damned). Such an account is still part of the required apparatus for recognition of saints by the Catholic Church now, I believe, but it’s also reckoned to have been a vital part of a cult site’s own propaganda. We don’t often catch the cult before that point, when the propaganda hasn’t really got started and everyone’s only just cottoning on that something special may be happening here. But there is such an episode in the charters of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, with which I was finishing in April 2014 when I stubbed this post. Let me introduce you to the Blessed Rainer.

Apses and chapels of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

Let’s have a different picture of St-Pierre from the normal one… By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Rainer’s cult doesn’t seem to have stuck, but a man called Remi wanted it to and at some point in the reign of King Lothar III (954-967) he gave Beaulieu a manse in Oriols (in Davazac in the Limousin) for the benefit of his own soul and someone called Robert, and:

“in honour of the blessed Rainer who was provost of the selfsame place already said, and because of this, that the selfsame man showed his great virtue to all who were there present, when a crippled adolescent who had been brought to his tomb, through the great felicity of his intercession, quickly came running before the altar of Saint Peter; and this great miracle was produced on the feast of Saint Martial.”1

This is almost all we get on Rainer; one other charter from 968 refers to a church or altar of St-Rainer that had already received some of the testator’s land in a place called Flexo in Puy d’Arnac, right by the monastery, so perhaps he was moved out into his own chapel, and that’s the last notice as far as I know (not that I have gone looking).2 Even here there are some interesting questions, though. Why didn’t the monks keep him, if he was already a focus of popular devotion? (Presumably one doesn’t dump one’s invalids in front of a nobody’s tomb when there’s an altar of St Peter nearby…) Why is it on the feast of Saint Martial (who was culted not here but at the local diocesan of Limoges) that all this occurred? It may be that, since this was a monastic church, people simply couldn’t access it except on feast days, of course, and the house’s ties to its bishops were usually pretty good early on so an open house for Beaulieu on St Martial’s in recognition of that is not implausible.

View down the nave towards the altar of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

A view down the nave to that same (well, not *the* same, but a similarly-positioned) altar of St Peter. By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Still, one would expect Peter to make a better showing here. Was he just too big and universal to petition? Beaulieu did have other saints present, though: at various points in its charters it claims additional dedication to all of Felix, Felicitas, Felician, Denis, Martin, Benoît and Eloy, so you’d think that one of them at least meant something to the visitors. I wonder if that wasn’t perhaps precisely the problem: they had all this holy weight stored up and it was one of their provosts who attracted the popular attention. Was he getting out and doing good works and making the rest of them look bad? (Another Cuthbert?) We can’t know, of course, but today is as good a day as any to take notice of one medieval man who was thought a bit more remarkable than most by those who remembered him.


1. Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), doc. no. LXX:
“in honore B. Rainerii qui de ipso loco jam dicto præpositus fuit, et propter hoc quia ipse virtutem magnam omnibus qui aderamus ostendit, adolescens etiam qui deportatus ad ejus tumulum contractus fuit, ipsius intercessione cum magna felicitate, ante altare S. Petri currendo festinus pervenit; et illud magnum miraculum ostensum fuit in festivitate S. Martialis.”

2. Ibid. doc. no. CIX.

Seminar CXLII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.


* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…