Tag Archives: bad history

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…


1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA's osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic's own site really don't make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.



He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology'” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe


1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.

Three-quarters brilliance: l’affaire Zimmermann, part III

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne

Because of the various things to do with the production of charters that are currently on my plate to do, it has become necessary to finish getting to grips with Michel Zimmermann’s immense thèse d’état, about which I have already griped.1 Let me say once again that although it drives me nuts it is, honestly, deeply brilliant, full of insight and is written by someone who more than almost anyone, if not actually anyone (Anscari Mundó might perhaps challenge) knows the great bulk of the Catalan charter material, which gives him the ability to say some genuinely well-founded things about literacy and practice. And he does! It is merely that they are punctuated by things that are not well-founded, and even I can easily show this. It makes me afraid to recommend the book to anyone for fear of what they may take on trust (and indeed afraid of what I’m assuming is OK).

Let me exemplify. Chapter 3 is about the development of the notariate in Catalonia and what there was before there was one.2 What there was, Zimmermann shows, is a world where basically anyone who could write might occasionally be invited to do a charter, which they probably did by reference to whatever other charters someone might have locally since there’s no evidence of formularies till later and yet (as we lately saw) the practice is fairly clearly-defined; there must have been a mechanism of continuity here somewhere.3 Over the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, production of documents specialised, so that fewer and fewer people were making more and more documents. Also, fewer and fewer of them were priests, whereas in the ninth century almost all of them were. (Lay scribes, who are really hard to prove because clerics don’t always use their titles here, seem to have stayed steady at between 6% and 10%, ninth to thirteenth centuries.4) Increasingly, these people became attached to institutions, or scribal work was increasingly done by people who were so attached; but some of them were attached only loosely, so it may well have been recruitment of good scribes on a loose retainer (inevitably, by then, a fief; Zimmermann gives several really neat little case studies of this, which fully demonstrate his wry perception of individuality5). By the thirteenth century, this was, more or less a notariate, but it had only really become fully professionalised in Barcelona, there were still other people writing documents and it’s not a simple transition. You see, this is good stuff, and amply demonstrated.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 6, núm. 2090

There is also more contentious stuff that is worth thinking hard about. A lot of people occur in these documents with the title sacer. I have always taken this to mean `priest’, that is, as a form of sacerdos, and I take some comfort in the fact that Ramon Ordeig does so too in the Catalunya Carolíngia, but Zimmermann rightly points out that the word doesn’t actually mean that, but just `consecrated’, and wonders if it may actually refer to those in monastic communities who have yet to take their vows.6 His reason for doing this is that sees their frequency in signatures rise along with monachi, monks, while presbiteri, really certainly priests, drop off. I don’t, myself, think that pattern is repeated in the sample as a whole, rather than just in who’s writing, but I haven’t done the numbers (which would be huge). In any case, plenty of people can be found who use both sacer and presbiter of themselves and indeed some sacri who were also monachi, so I just don’t think it works.7 I’m also pretty sure sacri occur in contexts that are unlikely to feature any monks, though I haven’t happened to come across those in the same way since starting this post, so I am dubious for several reasons about Zimmermann then merrily counting these guys among the monastic scribes henceforth, but his basis for saying it is at least clear. If he’s wrong, too, then why the heck is the word sacer apparently driving out presbiter; are we watching Gregorianism sink in at some level here? Because that would be really interesting. It has also forced me to stop and take a look at an assumption about words, so on the whole this is good even if I don’t agree.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version)

So why, why, does he also say things like this? “À la fin du Xe siècle, un juge souscrit tous les actes du comte Borrell – il les souscrit SSS, c’est-à-dire qu’il est davantage qu’un témoin.”8 Let’s leave aside the argument about whether using a ruche means you’re granting legal confirmation rather than just witnessing, because I’m not sure there’s a difference but if there is one I can’t see it in, for example, the document above.9 Let’s just get straight to Borrell II. Did he really have all his acts signed by judges? And the answer is, of course, no, not even a bit. All Zimmermann’s examples postdate 985, so just staying within those final eight years of the count’s forty-eight in power, I can find thirteen documents he issued with no judges attested.10 Now, OK, easy for me, I have a database and so on, but Zimmermann has also seen several of these documents at least so I simply don’t understand where he’s coming from with this assertion. It’s not as if Borrell never had judges witness his documents, it’s not much less frequent than him not doing so, but I don’t think one can deduce from that that this is how they were authenticated; I just think it shows that there were often judges at Borrell’s court, which is, you know, not surprising.11 And this, of course, makes the fact that Zimmermann draws this out to conclude that if people wanted their transactions legally authenticated, they made sure there was a judge present, very problematic, as does the vast wash of documents with no judge present that were still somehow worth keeping.12 But if a reader didn’t know these documents, that reader would believe him. How does this fit with the good stuff? I still don’t get it.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., I pp. 113-170.

3. On the use of formularies here see for now ibid., I pp. 246-284, although this seems to attribute an almost retrospective importance to the Formulary of Ripoll, edited by Zimmermann in his “Un formulaire du Xème siècle conservé à Ripoll” in Faventia Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 25-86, online here, although it can be dated fairly tightly to 977; I cover this in what should become J. Jarrett, “Uncertain origins: comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: charter critique and history from charters (forthcoming), but until then the dating argument at least is covered in Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis (Birkbeck College, University of London, 2005), online here, pp. 63-68.

4. On lay scribes and indeed others you can also see Jesus Alturó i Perucho, “Le statut du scripteur en Catalogne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Marie-Claude Hubert, E. Poulle & Marc Smith (edd.), Le statut du scripteur au Moyen Âge. Actes du XIIe Colloque Scientifique du Comité Internationale de Paléographie Latine (Cluny, 17-20 Juillet 1998), Matériaux pour l’Histoire publiées par l’École des Chartes 2 (Paris 2000), pp. 41-55.

5. Thus, at Écrire at lire, I pp. 157-159, Zimmermann treats the comital notary Ponç d’Osor, who was a canon of the cathedral of Barcelona but also held substantial private property and notes that over the two hundred-odd documents in which he appears we see him not just acquire some of this property but also get into boundary disputes with his neighbours, one of whom later seems to have taken over his job when he dies. Before that, too, Zimmermann notes with a certain mordant sympathy that this man who had written so much finished up as one of those who had to have someone else sign his will for him because he was too ill. Poor sod. But you see my point: someone who notices this sort of thing in the documents should be a friend in all my assessments!

6. Ibid., I pp. 119-121.

7. For example, in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1255, the main actor is one Esperandéu sacer, but he signs as presbiter; in ibid., no. 1281 is carried out by one Adroer sacer et monachus; and there’s a pair of priests who hung round Sant Benet de Bages called Badeleu and Baldemar who get both sacer and presbiter used of them pretty indiscriminately and appear in many transactions; I don’t have a definitive list yet, as I’ve only noted these instances whilst working through Ordeig for other reasons – I haven’t had to work to refute this idea.

8. Zimmermann, Érire et lire, I p. 145.

9. Zimmermann makes that argument, somewhat breezily, ibid., I pp. 140-144, whilst observing a good deal of variation and change over time that I think prevent the argument floating. I also think it’s circular and that if you don’t start with the assumption that the subscripsit ruche has a specific significance, the documents don’t themselves demonstrate it. But there is at least evidence, even if its reading remains open. The document, meanwhile, is edited as Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 645.

10. They are, in order: Àngel Fàbrega i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. no. 160 (986); Josep Rius (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés Vol. I (Barcelona 1945), doc. no. 190 (986); Fàbrega, Diplomatari, doc. no. 168 (986); Ordeig, Catalunya Carolínga IV, doc. nos 1524 & 1525 (987); Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari del Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X) (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 537 (987); Fabregà, Diplomatari, doc. no. 187 (988); Lluís To i Figueras, El Monestir de Santa Maria de Cervià i la Pagesia: una anàlisi local del canvi feudal. Diplomatari segles X-XII (Barcelona 1991), doc. no. 1 (989; this may have been `improved’, but I don’t see why you’d downgrade the witnesses if you were doing that); Rius, Cartulario, doc. no. 239 (989); Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 225 (990); Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1596 (990; a bit unfair, this one, as it only survives in regesta, which firstly means it’s abbreviated and secondly means it’s out of Zimmermann’s remit, but since its witness list is recorded I’m including it); Fabregà, Diplomatari, doc. no. 240 (993); and C. Baraut (ed.), “Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, ap. 232 (which is Borrell’s flipping will). Zimmermann cites three of these editions (Junyent, Rius and Udina) and one of the relevant documentary series (one of those behind Fabregà) in this chapter alone.

11. On judges around Borrell’s court, see first Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99, then Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-101: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), p. 133.

12. So, for example, in Junyent, Diplomatari, I counted 10 judges who appear in a total of 29 documents; I probably missed a few but there are 628 documents in the collection, and almost all of these guys turn up in the last ten years (see previous note). There is a complication in that we know Guifré Vicar of la Néspola, who appears ibid., doc. nos 557, 603 & 634, was a judge (so attested in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1825) but he is never given the title in any documents from his lifetime. Nonetheless, how many can there be like him? 599?

“Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems

I’m actually catching up on backlog here, assisted by the fact that both Oxford Medieval History seminar and Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar have had to cancel their first week’s event this term. There is of course the little matter of imminent Kalamazoo and a few other more local deadlines, so things are still a bit pressed. In that spirit, I hope you won’t mind if once more I link you to a bunch of things that other people have written while I get on with mine.

  • First up, I was genuinely delighted to see that someone (who has so far remained anonymous) has done a wonderful and sympathetic photo-tour of my old workplace, the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He has captured both its industry and its habitual near-chaos, and it probably also qualifies as bookshelf porn; do have a look, it’s great, and cheered me a great deal as I did and do like the place. (A tip of the hat goes to my erstwhile colleague Andy Woods, who mentioned this on Academia.edu.)
  • Secondly, do you remember Francis Fukuyama, the man who declared that history was basically coming to a kind of entropic close as liberal democracy won out everywhere? I could sort of understand his point of view when I first met this, as I live in an allegedly-liberal democracy myself and didn’t get out of it much then, but you might have expected him to backpedal a bit these days. Instead, he now has a book called The Origins of Political Order in which, if this review and interview in the New York Times is a fair account, he basically goes straight from tribalism to feudalism without pause or consideration. “He explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare”, says the reviewer, which will give you an idea. There is much praise quoted from political scientists, but dear gods, this is no kind of `science’ I wish to recognise, and I think it will make most historians feel slightly ill. Consider yourself warned for when your students have read it…
  • More authentically medieval, you may have met in old work on medieval Europe, occasionally still parroted in textbooks, the idea that the transition in Europe from post-Roman to high medieval society was based, among other things, around the recovery of the ability to make and use the `heavy plough‘, a wheeled plural-beast-drawn thing capable of turning thick, clayey, fertile soils, with consequent benefits in crop yield, harvest size, surplus and bang! feudal transformation! etc. Since the Romans had heavy ploughs, and they’re not exactly mystical high-tech., this has always looked like rubbish to some people, or at least, more to do with social choice and structure than with the actual technology, and occasionally we find bits of the things that help fill in the picture. The latest of these is also, I think, the furthest west anything like this early, and has come out of the very interesting excavations at Lyminge led by Dr Gabor Thomas that I’ve mentioned here before. It is inarguably seventh-century and should hopefully bury this ghost of technological determinism plus Dark-Age benightedness in the hole whence it came. (I learn this from David Beard’s Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog, to which a hat tip.)
  • Borrowed from the webcomic Least I Could Do

    But the cream of the crop is indubitably the one I’ve borrowed for the title, which may become my new motto, and which comes from a report in The Guardian, itself reporting on a report by the English school inspectorate, OFSTED, which, ah, reports that in too many schools, pupils are not being taught to go beyond the textbooks, which are often themselves constructed for the A-Level examinations and not beyond, resulting in a `stultification’ of history and children not being prepared for further study in the subject. Well, yes, we have many of us met stuff that looks as if this could be its explanation, I’m sure. But the interesting bit is where OFSTED set out their stall for what they’d hope the teaching of history in schools would achieve. Although this refers to and sits alongside the current government’s insistence on a connected narrative, rather than an episodic drop-in on supposedly-important eras (and the article is accordingly headed with an icon of the government’s current history god Simon Schama), it carefully ignores the bit that comes with that about an excessive emphasis on skills.

    Instead they conclude that: “… history is well placed to enhance pupils’ sense of social responsibility, teaching about diversity, migration and national identity”. And when they say, “teaching about,” they seem to mean “teaching to question,” as they quote an unnamed pupil (unnamed even in the actual report, not that the Guardian links to it of course, but it’s easy enough to find here) who said, as per the title, “Studying history stops people believing rubbish“. That’s it! I mean, damn, print the t-shirt, start the marches! The trouble is, I grow to suspect more and more, is that the powers-that-be would rather have voting populations who do believe rubbish, and I don’t know how we win that fight (though some thoughts will eventually emerge here in the next few weeks). This one I also got via David Beard, this time at his Archaeology on Europe blog, so a hat tip there. And that’s it for now, see you shortly!

Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

Carnivalesque

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and anyone who prefers not to align themselves with such categories, welcome! Welcome one and all to the August 2010 edition of Carnivalesque, every thinkin’ antiquarian’s choice of historical blog carnival, today with its ancient and medieval showin’. Yer host finds hisself somewhat in the Victorian mode as he sets about the confection of this display of learnin’, so fetch yerself some seats and prepare for stories of Discovery! strange Curiosities! lively Controversies! and Instances of Scholarly Resource and Sagacity! the like of which ye’ve never seen before, or at least, so I shall claim. And pride of place—wait a minute there, madam, please—pride of place goes to the two of you who submitted posts for the carnival, you can sit at the front in this pair of carven thrones I brought back from Niger on me grand tour, dontcherknow. And indeed, before I start, let me congratulate one of ‘em doubly by sayin’, I’m never sure whether or not to include prehistoric matter in Carnivalesque, but on this occasion Judith Weingarten has saved me the bother by hostin’ the renowned Anthropology Carnival, Four Stone Hearth, over at Zenobia: Empress of the East, and by Jove, there’s a fair deal of medieval and ancient stuff there too, I declare, so if after the extravaganza below you find yerself unsated, get thee thither I tell you! So then!

Discovery!

George Scott in Burma

George Scott, explorer, administrator, photographer and introducer of football to Burma, who is completely unrelated to this blog but who will be the unofficial voice of this post all the same

Startin’, as a proper Victorian explorer should, in the bowels of a pyramid in the Nile Delta, what are these strange words inscribed at the end of an apparently dead-ended tunnel? Heather Pringle at the Last Word on Nothing quite literally has the inside information.

Back in old Albion, however, everything has been comin’ up Roman, be it literally thousands of silver coins in Frome as described here at Antiquarian’s Attic, or what may be the old home of the unfortunate fella who is best known to history as Emperor Pertinax (reigned 193 to, er, 193), described via Archaeology in Europe.1

Oddly, however, the medieval discovery of the month, in yer humble host’s still more humble imagination, comes not from Europe at all but from that lot over the water who gave us Benjamin Franklin and the Dukes of Hazzard, and who also, it would seem, preserve microfilms of otherwise-lost medieval Bibles, almost unbeknownst even to themselves. Whoever tells you there are no more medieval sources to be discovered, I tell you sir, that cad is a charlatan and a bounder, and furthermore wrong to boot. That somewhat controversial couple at Medievalists.net are still the only ones with the story, here.

Curiosities!

International exhibition watercolour by Joseph Nash

Watercolour of the International Exhibition, London 1862, by Joseph Nash

Now, let’s turn our minds to the divertin’ and unusual. Back to the Romans again. You may never have wondered how on earth those cunning fellows went about keeping the legions on the Rhine fed, but Gabriele Campbell has, and characteristically has pictures of the boats used to do it, over at the Lost Fort. Then, if you prefer your history to be about the ladies as much or more than the gentlemen, you may wish to give an eye to to a rather surprisin’ instance of a Sassanian royal lady trying to be both: Queen Bōrān, King of Kings, whose story is told by Judith Weingarten once again at Zenobia: Empress of the East! Next, no medieval carnival is complete without those dastardly yet colourful Vikings. After all, they were responsible for the end of Pictland dontcherknow, or at least so Tim Clarkson argues at Senchus. But what on earth were they up to with these strange stones in their graves? Melissa Snell, About.com Guide to Medieval History, has some answers.

Now, it is said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but sometimes it’s dangerous even to leave the bed: the lately-rebloggified Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard has some surprises from the great unwritten book of Muslim political strategies that may make us all look askance at our family members, as long as our family happens to be a powerful one in twelfth-century Syria anyway. Which is, of course, not to say that politics was exactly safe at the same sort of time in the West, as the Headsman at Executed Today illustrates with a post on the dangers of speaking your mind during the Hundred Years War. Then, more peaceful but far less effective, a poignant tale of failed diplomacy when the nearly-last Byzantine Emperor visited the England of Henry IV is told by Tom Sawford at Byzantine Blog. Finally in this section, possibly early modern really but far too curious for a Victorian explorer not to pick up and take home on dubious terms, had you ever wondered what Henry VIII’s religion was like before England went Protestant? A recent acquisition by the British Library makes his younger piety look look positively medieval, and is described by that controversial couple again, this time at Early Modern England.

Controversies!

Uncle Wattleberry bounding and plunging, from the Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Antipodean scholarly disagreement circa 1918

Now, it is the nature of scholarship for men and women of strong opinions to demur from one another. Sometimes this is the product of earnest and well-founded differences of view, and sometimes, we fear, it is a battle of those who know somethin’ about a subject versus those who care to know nothin’ about it but wish to speak out anyway. Without specifyin’ which is which, may I humbly draw your attention to the worthy writings of the followin':

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

On some matters of controversy, however, it doesn’t behove an Englishman to comment, still less one posing temporarily as a Victorian imperialist: we refer of course to the decision, bitterly protested in certain quarters, by the Medieval Academy of America not to move their annual meeting from Arizona despite its recent anti-immigration bills. On this a great deal has been written and I would refer you especially to posts in the following places:

Enough to make a chap glad to be living in the past, were the past only any less troubled of course, which I think we can safely say, given much of the above, it wasn’t. However, the task of discerning its nature becomes ever easier, or do I mean more complex, thanks to endeavours like those we shall now unfold!

Instances of Resource and Sagacity!

The Mariner in How the Whale Got His Throat, by Rudyard Kipling, as the protagonists meet

A fellow of famously-infinite resource and sagacity, about to meet a spot of bother

We note, for example, the availability of a new database of Ancient Greek epigraphic epigrams, greeted sardonically by Roger Pearse at his eponymous weblog (with a tip of the solar topee to Muhlberger’s World History).

Likewise sardonic is the take of relative newcomer but prolific bloggist Dr Beachcombing on recent research into the causes of death at Pompeii. Obvious, a chap might think, what with that volcano next door, but it is surprising how few medicos have stood around volcanic eruptions checking on how people die and so the Pompeii finds are actually advancing pathology. Is this mere quackery? Read Dr B and discern!

Similarly ingenious efforts with the dead have allowed some scientist wallahs in Bristol to determine the identity of a body in a royal Englishwoman’s grave in Magdeburg Cathedral, and Michelle of Heavenfield reckons up the score.

All this scholarship does us little good if no-one is readin’, of course, and so we can all be grateful for the blog of the so-called Medieval History Geek, who often seems to do nothin’ but! Here he begins to digest the most recent issue of Early Medieval Europe and ponders the question of how many great ladies of Carolingian Europe might have been able to read and write.

Almost lastly, it always does us good to reflect on how we go about our scholarship, and I might therefore point the finger of note at m’colleague Magistra et Mater, who has been wondering whether the current vogue for crowd-sourcing is ever likely to help the strugglin’ medievalist, and at Bavardess, who has been thrown bodily into a field of which she knew little, the oral history of her countrymen, and found some peculiar parallels of methodology; both of these are reflective but worthwhile readin’.

And finally, though our work is largely private, the real success is to get the government behind your work of course. The question is, who puts the government behind you? One answer is the United Nations, and very recently they have announced this year’s additions to the list of World Heritage sites, as well as some deletions, sad to tell; Dis Manibus has the full run-down at Votum Solvit, including not a little ancient and medieval both, and a whole range of places to consider for the next grand tour, though this time I must take those dem’ marbles out of my baggage before I pass through Customs, what?3 So, I hope you’ve had a diverting read, and you can find out where the next edition, modern style, will be at the usual address. And with that it only remains to say, pip pip!


1. I realise that though Archaeology in Europe is immensely useful, it is only repeating others’ content, but this blog has an old affection for Emperor Pertinax and I couldn’t let it go unsatisfied.

2. And, as you may have seen, the proposed mosque is not the silliest or most redundant thing anyone’s been proposing to build in the area… (h/t to Edge of the American West).

3. Didn’t bring any chalk, either, so I couldn’t get a game in any case.

There are few tools of refutation so effective as parody

This is more the remit of Aardvarchaeology and Bad Archaeology, the latter of whom have indeed already picked it up, but Ben Goldacre of Bad Science has struck a blow for archæology being a science by covering a new piece of pseudo-archæology in his blog. Do you remember ages back I reported on a Leeds paper that rested on some fairly challengeable observation about proximity of certain sorts of sites to each other, after which someone had said to me, “yes, great, now they should plot them against telephone boxes and see if that pattern doesn’t look just as significant”? Well, this is the same reaction but taken far further. Hurrah for Matt Parker and hurrah for Ben Goldacre for reporting him.