Tag Archives: Byzantine Empire

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part III

On the third day of the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, I appear to have followed almost exactly the same trajectory through sessions as the Medieval History Geek,1 and of course he wrote it up long hence, so you could just read about them at his. Because time is short and space is infinite but this doesn’t mean I should fill all of it, however, I’ll basically just list the papers and give comments where I have anything different to say to what he did, and therefore you may want to read (or re-read) his post first as that will, you know, actually tell you what they were about.

Session 398. Early Medieval History

Antiochene gold solidus of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602)

Obverse and reverse of gold solidus of Antioch in the name of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602), showing (obverse) a bust of the emperor facing with cross on globe and (reverse) Victory standing facing with labarum and cross-on-globe

  • Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 CE”. What I liked about this paper, which is also common to a lot of late antique history, was that although from the title you’d expect it to be very specific – one year, two polities – of course the reasons for that Byzantine support enmeshed most of the other kingdoms of Europe and what they were doing and one wound up with, not the scheming Byzantine emperor pulling strings all across our map that one sometimes gets from the more `classic’ literature but a picture of Emperor Maurice I receiving the latest unpredictable news from Spain, from Burgundy, from Neustria, wherever, taking stock of it all and rolling out a new plan to try and stay ahead of as much as he knew about developments as best he could. This seems more realistic and more useful as a comparator than the kind of gilded Byzantium-was-always-more-clever paradigm I’ve met in some work.
  • Luigi Andrea Berto, “In Search of the First Venetians: some notes and proposals for a prosopography of early medieval Venice”. I’ve had a kind of bitter interest in the origins of Venice ever since being set an assignment on it that I couldn’t do during my Master’s. The paper here was however more about the sort of problems that one gets trying to database any early medieval dataset than any specific new findings, I thought, and my notes were therefore brief because I’ve met those before.
  • Sebastian Rossignol, “New Perspectives on the Origins of Towns in Early Medieval Central Europe”. This was that slightly dubious thing, a conference paper that is basically cut down from a paper already in publication. This of course means that any feedback the presenter gets cannot profit them at all, so I find it an odd choice to make. I felt, anyway, that although the problems with deciding what is and isn’t a town were well expressed and explained here, they are also something that several people had a decent go at dealing with before I was born, so that it sounded as if Dr Rossignol had laboriously reinvented the wheel.2 Talking to him afterwards I discovered that he did know the Continental side of this literature, but whether it was useful for him to explain it all to us again I am still not sure.

Then lunch and a return to battle, or at least, opposition, with:

Session 455. Early Medieval Europe I

  • Walter Goffart, “An Experimental Introduction to Christianity for Today’s Students of Medieval History”. This, which has been gone into in detail by the Medieval History Geek so do have a look there, was another rather odd thing, since it was a pedogogical paper not a research one, unusual in this context. Also, because he is now free of undergraduate teaching, Professor Goffart was able to be fairly uninterested in suggestions about how he might modify it, because he himself would not need it. This made for a rather odd back-and-forth in questions where he basically implied that interpretation was our problem not his, leaving me with the impression that Holy Writ had just been handed down.
  • Glenn McDorman, “Diplomacy in the Post-Imperial West and the Gallic War of 507-510″. I was not convinced by the central contention of this, which was statedly that there was an agreed set of rules for conducting royal politics in the sixth century and that we can prove it—as with any system based on norms, I want some consideration of the incentives and disincentives not to play and of how the norms are communicated before I am ready to believe—but I thought it did have some value as an analysis of the way that King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths conducted his foreign relations, which might be described roughly as, “everything possible to avoid war but then go in with overwhelming force and without hesitation”. In that light, this paper was about the tipping point between these two states and that way I found it quite enlightening.
  • Gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy

    Obverse of the gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy that shows the "invincible" moustache

  • Jonathan J. Arnold, “Theodoric’s Invincible Mustache”. I absolutely loved this paper, not just because it managed to sneak some genuine historical import about unchecked assumptions by historians, fluidity of early medieval ethnicity and so on, past us but because it made really good use of a slideshow and graphics and was thoroughly entertaining. Dr Arnold is a presenter to seek out. How many people have you seen give a paper in which they said, “OK: get ready to have your mind blown” and then not delivered anything exciting? Not this time, and he had an extra slide ready to anticipate the most obvious question; I give him maximum points for preparation and style that Congress.

I think that the coffee in the more modern part of the West Michigan campus come Congress time is a little too hard to reach. The spaces between sessions are generous, but this year as last year I would be talking to people after sessions, go to seek out coffee, get slightly lost, and either only just get the vital caffeine or actually have to give up and run back. Thus, somehow, the sessions I was most likely to be late for this year appeared to be the ones where I didn’t have to change rooms. I seem to have a full set of notes on this next one so I assume that I wasn’t late; however, my notes seem sufficiently grouchy that I suspect I didn’t get the coffee. I apologise in advance to the speakers in this panel, therefore, for what may be a less generous appraisal than they deserved.

Session 511. Early Medieval Europe II

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

  • Jennifer Davis, “Charlemagne and Tassilo in 794: a final encounter”, arguing that Charlemagne’s final display of the deposed Duke Tassilo of Bavaria at court was more a display of power and confidence than a response to any real threat from him or his old duchy.3
  • Courtney Booker, “The fama ambigua of Ebbo, Bishop of Reims and Hildesheim”, arguing that we should consider Ebbo‘s choices and decisions when trying to weigh up his involvement in the deposition of his old master and patron, Emperor Louis the Pious, more than has been done. I would be inclined to agree and found the interpretations persuasive but I thought it was odd that, in a paper that urged us to hear Ebbo’s voice, none of his actual writings got quoted. I’m sure they will be in the print version.
  • Phyllis Jestice, “Constructing a Queen: Adelheid’s Great Escape and the Ottonian Image”. This was another great presentation, full of humour and irony but without ever letting go of the subject, the way that this somewhat unlucky but prestigious Queen of Italy and then Germany was presented and, well, used, by those who attacked her, captured her, married her or wrote about her (the first three groups sometimes being the same people). Even her history was worth claiming, it seems, and Professor Jestice certainly made it worth hearing about.

And then, I believe, the dance, and I also believe that I had failed to make any sensible plans for dinner and that Michael Fletcher, again, obligingly drove us out to town to get something as part of a general mess of collapsing plans that had been made somewhere around the beginning of the mead tasting and fallen apart by the end, can’t imagine why. I do remember that somewhere in that press of mead-bibbers I met, at last, the inimitable and now-unlinkable Jennifer Lynn Jordan, which was of course a delight, but mainly I have to thank Michael for making sure I got fed at the expense of his time and gasoline. By that generosity I was set up for the dance, which was loads of fun even if this time I didn’t have as much freedom (or indeed cause—no Sex Pistols this time) to let my hair down and fling it around as I had last year, because of presenting the next day. Michael and I did clear a reasonable area around us when we undertook to give `Bohemian Rhapsody’ the full Wayne’s World treatment towards close of play, however.4 I was there at the end, but not for long after, and then it was sleep before the last day of the whole shebang.


1. This nomenclature feels awkward, since I have met him and know his name and I don’t think he’s even keeping it secret; but I learnt netiquette in the old days and one of the tenets of the old school was and probably is, “you use the name that someone gives you, because identity on the Internet is meant to be different if someone wants it to be and anyway to do otherwise is kind of like calling someone a liar about their name”. Lacking instruction to the contrary, I’ll stand by that.

2. Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953) non vidi, cit. Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David M. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150 at p. 100 n. 4, that Biddle chapter being the basic starting point for this whole deal even now I reckon.

3. Cf. Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119.

4. Except that we did not pause to recover someone from another party because we were all the party already.

Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

Seminary LV: rural élites in the Byzantine and Umayyad Middle East

This academic year I have been teaching on Tuesdays, when the Cambridge Late Antique, Byzantine and Early Medieval Seminar runs, looking after a child Tuesday evenings when the London Society for Medieval Studies meets, and writing lectures for the next Tuesday on Wednesdays, when the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar is held. And then during London’s reading week I was laid out with a stomach complaint. So I hadn’t been to any seminars at all this term until 16 November, a Monday, when Arietta Papaconstantinou of the University of Oxford spoke to the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar to the title, ‘Identifying Rural Elites in Egypt and Southern Palestine from Justinian to the Umayyads’. I was late, because it starts at five and I have, you know, a job, but I was there, so, a report.

Fragment of a private letter in Coptic on papyrus of the sixth or seventh century

Fragment of a private letter in Coptic on papyrus of the sixth or seventh century

Dr Papaconstantinou is studying the transition from Byzantine to Arab rule in economic and social terms rather than the political ones in which it is most studied. She had a lot of material, almost all of which was complicated and needed conditions attached to it. She was trying to compare textual and archæological evidence, but the various sorts of evidence rarely coincide and when it does it’s for snapshots only: one site dug, but there’s no textual record of it; there is hagiography, but no documents; there are papyri, but they all came out of a house which is part of a site that seems to have flourished fifty years later than the documents; one only really gets papyri in Egypt, but that’s where there is the least archæology, and so on. Even with papyri, we are not talking determined property archives as with western monastic charters (except in a few likewise monastic cases) but everyday administrative documents like the Visigothic slates only on the stuff to hand, lists of dues, of names. (Dr Papaconstantinou said that there is much that could be done with tax records, but I got the idea that she would like someone else to do it.)

Abu Serga Coptic Church, Fustat

Abu Serga Coptic Church, Fustat, allegedly eighth-century though much refurbished

With those reservations, her approximate picture was of considerable local continuity. Where the Umayyads took over, which was everywhere in her zone, as far as we can tell local élites remained largely unaffected, still using Greek titles (even where they spoke Coptic or Syriac) and referring to `imperial’ law long after the Greek emperors had lost any relevance. Rich get richer, poor get poorer, but I think that there’s no documentary corpus where we don’t by definition see accumulation over time, so I don’t know that that isn’t a constant; it certainly always seems to be going on. It’s only in the late eighth century that Islam begins to make itself evident in terms of personal names and new offices; until then all that happens is that the local élites report to new governors. However, against that she also spoke of a change towards involvement in the Church, because the secular promotion prospects that would once have carried those local élites out to wider influence were now closed down, as was military service. So the Church actually does better for a while because of the Islamic takeover, because it becomes the area of competition for Christian status that’s still open.

Seventh-century well exposed by excavations at Fustat, Egypt

Seventh-century well exposed by excavations at Fustat, Egypt

Most of this stuff, which interested me most, came out in questions: it seems in retrospect as if most of the actual paper was spent just laying the ground for the questions by explaining the milieu and the difficulties of the evidence. One thing that did come up again and again however was the difficulty of defining rural and urban. Dr Papaconstantinou’s main contention was that wealth and trade in the towns of her zone becomes primarily agricultural, with industry basically focussing on processing agricultural produce, rather than manufacturing ceramics or metalwork, for example. Does that stop these towns being urban? Some villages retain an administrative function even though they’re far smaller than others that become trading places but have none. The whole situation is full of edge cases. Central settlements remain foci of the community, but wealth becomes basically agricultural. I see the problem of definition here, of course, but the idea of there being towns or villages that work like that, that are places where people come for any reason other than worship, come to by default as part of their social involvement, is right off my area’s map, where you go to the city to go to court and otherwise only if you’re rich and have lots to sell. Peter Sarris compared fifth-century Gaul as a model where Church towns take over from a rurally-funded urban secular élite but this zone seemed to be functioning on a much smaller scale to me; there are only a few big cities in this area (Fustat, Jerusalem, Alexandria) and lots of small towns or big villages. So I suppose this was one of those unusual Byzantine seminars where it was the area rather than scholarship that seemed alien, whereas it is too often the other way round, where one feels that one would recognise much of this but for the scholarly language of the field. Dr Papaconstantinou therefore ought to be encouraged to keep explaining this stuff outside her field as I learnt a lot quite easily from this seminar. I have no idea how new it was to the experts, but it was new to me which is what I was after.

Seminary LI: `brothers’ in Byzantium

Due to reasons of travel idiocy I missed the antepenultimate Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this term, and although I made it to the penultimate one on 3rd June, Professor Claudia Rapp presenting on “Ritual brotherhood in Byzantium: origins and context”, so did Magistra and it it is very much more her thing than mine. One could say, eruditely, that complex questions of masculinities and historians’ attitudes to them were involved which she is far better educated in teasing apart than I am, or you could say, as she put it when we discussed it later, that she is the Internet’s go-to person for gay monks. I’m not about to argue with someone who can claim that sort of status, I tell you. And therefore she has done a proper write-up of it, which you should go and read, and I will therefore only do a summary so that you know roughly what was at issue.

Icon from St Catherines Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

Icon from St Catherine's Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

There is in Byzantine liturgical texts, 62 of them in fact, a rite called `adelphopoiesis‘ for allowing two men to become spiritual brothers, supporting each other above all others, cohabiting and sharing their property. It basically established an artificial kinship tie, but unlike the other two ways of doing this, marriage and sponsorship of baptism (that is, godparenthood), it doesn’t preclude marriage to others and doesn’t give any inheritance rights so doesn’t disenfranchise the family. (This latter, it should be said, came into question in the latter part of the paper.) Professor Rapp has written about this before, but was returning to it after some time away.1 One of the reasons it’s an issue is that the controversial John Boswell included adelphopoiesis in his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York 1994) as a cover for gay marriage, or at least a marriage-like arrangement. (Hello Byzantium? This is the 21st-century UK and California calling, we need to talk to you about wording… ) I haven’t read Boswell’s book so I don’t know if he suggests that this is what it was invented for or merely that it was allowed to perform this function, but this is what Professor Rapp was initially writing against. (You can find Paul Halsall, no less, speaking for Boswell’s defence with due respect to Professor Rapp, online here with an account of Boswell’s wider controversy and the sometimes vicious reaction it has engendered.)

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

In this paper, however, Professor Rapp was expanding on something that she only touched on in that earlier paper, the monastic context in which she believes the rite developed. Certainly she had lots of evidence for this kind of association, between hermits and disciples, between pupils of such hermits, and generally quite a lot of formations with which one might have been led to believe that the Lives of the Desert Fathers is full once you start looking. She also looked at building layout (as shown by archæology of monastic sites like Pherme, above), shared burial and general lifelong friendships being recognised in sources and attempted to place the whole thing in a much wider context of male homosociality that none of us, I think, would deny were it not raised in this context. Speaking as one whose work is fundamentally based on the idea that the fact that some people in the Middle Ages got on with some other people but didn’t get on with still others has historically explanatory value, I am all for this, but I still didn’t quite think she’d bridged the gap between the desert and Constantinople five centuries later. Perhaps this is just because she had so much evidence from the desert that it swamped the rather thinner trail to the later centuries, but it seemed to me that there was room for other antecedents and not enough ways to distinguish the results of this ceremony from ordinary lifelong friendship. The liturgy is evidence of a serious thing, yes: but we can’t use other male-male life collaborations as evidence for that same thing because that same thing seems to be defined by the liturgy, you see. If you argue that the liturgy is only recognising a pre-existent thing you wind up having to explain the liturgy as aberrant and thus losing all your evidence for social recognition of whatever it is you think is going on. There is more that could be said here and Magistra says much of it: here is a taster.


1. Claudia Rapp, “Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium” in Traditio Vol. 52 (New York City 1997), pp. 285–326.

New data from unbyzantine Noviodunum

Here’s something you won’t (yet) find on Archaeology in Europe. One of my immediate colleagues, Dr Adrian Popescu, has for some time been co-leader of an ongoing excavation at what was Noviodunum, now on the outskirts of Isaccea in Romania. The site has a long and complex history, but between the year 602, when it was lost by the Byzantines to the Avars and then Bulgars, and somewhere around 971, when it was retaken and refortified by Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (who says the Byzantines were over-subtle and finicky with their words, eh?) its history is a bit of a blank. It has been supposed that it was deserted and insignificant during this period of ‘barbarian’ control.

View over the site of Noviodunum

View over the site of Noviodunum

Well, now things are more complicated. The part of the site that has shown the eleventh-century occupation has mainly derived that date from analysis of midden remains and rubbish-pits, and an associated cemetery was expected to date from a later consolidation of the new occupation, not least because the burials are east-west oriented, mostly unfurnished and arranged in rows, all of which suggests a fairly short-chronology Christian burial site which should therefore belong to a resettlement. The chronology has to be short because the arrangement of the graves respects them all, whereas in old cemeteries new graves tend to overwrite the oldest ones, and the religious inference comes from the orientation and the general lack of grave-goods. In fact, Adi tells me, the first radio-carbon dates from the cemetery suggest a date in the tenth century, meaning that they’re probably looking at a site with an urban function before the reconquest. If so, it would be very unusual for a Bulgar site to either be this urban or to have a Christian burial ground, and may prompt a re-evaluation of the political conditions on this frequently-crossed frontier.1 They’re still trying to work out calibration on the radio-carbon dates, because this area and period are hardly ever dug this seriously as opposed to the Classical levels (a problem we’ve talked about before), but it’s all quite exciting. I’ll let you know when publication looms.2


1. You want context? Context can be found, in terms of general politics, in Jonathan Shepard, “Slavs and Bulgars” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. II, c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 228-248, online here, and idem, “Bulgaria: the other Balkan Empire” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. III: c. 900-c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 567-585, online here, and in terms of the frontier more specifically, P. Stephenson, “The Byzantine Frontier at the Lower Danube in the Late Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands 700-1700 (London 1998), pp. 80-104.

2. Preliminary results of the earlier seasons of excavation are published as Kris Lockyear, Timothy Sly & Adrian Popescu with Mihaela Ciausescu, Clive Orton, Jane Sidell and Robin Symonds, “The Noviodunum Archaeological Project 2000–2004: results and conclusions from the pilot seasons” in PEUCE: studii şi comunicǎri de istorie şi arheologie, New Series Vol. 3-4 (2005-2006), pp. 121 -158, online here.

Seminary XXX: Ephesan epigraphy and Byzantinist jibes

Professor Charlotte Roueché

Professor Charlotte Roueché

The Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 8th October was by Charlotte Roueché, under the title of “Late Antique Ephesus: Walking the Streets”. As you may be able to tell from the title, Professor Roueché has a lively sense of humour, which made this one of the most amusing papers I’d been to since Roger Collins last addressed the seminar, though the number of jokes at the expense of classicists and archaeologists and well, anyone who wasn’t a Byzantinist epigrapher rather did in the end pile up a bit like Frank Zappa’s works, snarking at so many people that there’s no way for the listener not to be attacked.

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

The restored Prytaneion at Ephesus

This is, admittedly, not to say that she doesn’t have a point. Even if one didn’t know full well that classicists are likely to want to dig up a fourth-century site to find what’s under it, and quite likely restore the early Roman stuff which was probably robbed to build the later stuff (of which she used the example above, the Prytaneion of Ephesus whose columns had been dismantled and reused in the sixth century), one could easily believe that Byzantine inscriptions, written of course in classical languages (both Latin and Greek at Ephesus at least—more on that in a minute), would not rate high in the publications of this material, done of course by classicists for the most part. She had one very sharp example, of a column at Ephesus on which had been inscribed an acclamation of the Empress Eudoxia, which was therefore published in the relevant corpus for the year 395 or thereabouts, because Emperor Theodosius I (379-395)’s wife was called Eudoxia and therefore, &c. Unfortunately, Emperor Heraclius (610-641) also had a wife of that name, and since the other thing on the pillar is an acclamation of him, it seems overall more likely that it’s the later not the earlier. But the corpus puts the one early and Heraclius’s late and there’s no indication in the edition that these things are associated in any way. This is a problem about which we heard a great deal. (The relevant pillar is one of many on what’s called Marble Street, shown below, though I am informed by Prof. Roueché herself that properly speaking Marble Street starts beyond that, and the below is really Kuretes Street, as confirmed here. The photographer didn’t know that, then, is all I can say…) Ephesus also has the additional problem that, being in Turkey even if at the very western end of it, the government is more interested in Ottoman archaeology than Christian archaeology, so funding tends to have to come from overseas and then be successfully got into place. (That this can be done is shown by the huge Inscriptions of Aphrodisias project, which has them all online now, a process in which Professor Roueché had no small part.)

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists

Kuretes Street, Ephesus, crowded with tourists; Marble Street lies beyond

Because Professor Rouché was conscious that she was talking to an audience who primarily work on Latin, Western, parchment texts, she spent perhaps more time than she really needed emphasising the particular difficulties of an epigrapher: the fact that the evidence comes out of the earth without much ability to choose it, that it has to be cleaned, has often been reused, and so on. I think we got all of this quite easily but I’m no-one to criticise for making the most of the special nature of one’s field after all. What she was actually doing was coming to ask for comparanda, because what you can’t easily see on that image above is that the actual paving stones are also heavily inscribed, and what the inscriptions mean is rather unclear because they’re only symbolic, in the literal sense of being composed of symbols. They are traditionally dismissed, as Professor Roueché was inclined to see it, as gaming circles, which as she said belongs to a very Gibbonesque view of the late Empire where everyone’s so decadent that they’re playing dice in the middle of the street, perhaps because there’s nothing else to do till the barbarians arrive and so on. Of course, in Ephesus, which was a provincial capital till the seventh century (there’s a relatively neat and well-illustrated account of its history here, and Philip Harland has a page up about the site), that takes a bit longer, and the classicists and classical archaeologists have to deal with the fact that very little of the visible fabric is older than fourth-century and had even then seen centuries of use, modification and rearrangment. She wonders, anyway, if they may not be positions marked out for groups in ceremonies, for which there would be more readily intelligible parallels both from earlier Greek cities and later Rome, or even market-stall stances, which one wouldn’t want in text as market-stall holders would probably change faster than you wanted to replace your paving-stones…

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, where St Paul is supposed to have preached

Two other interesting things struck me as being worth remark about this paper. The first was that the extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Aphrodisias, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface… The other thing was language shift. A lot of the inscriptions are Latin, but most are in Greek, and at Aphrodisias almost overridingly so (because it’s not a capital, was in fact a free city which Romans have to have notional permission to enter, and so on). All the same, when dealing with the Emperors Latin creeps in. I’ve been noticing this myself with Roman Provincial coins lately that I’ve been cataloguing for the exhibition I mentioned, over time what was ‘SEBASTOS’ (transliterated) becomes the Latin word that translates, ‘AVGVSTVS’, but still in Greek (so usually AUGOUSTOS, again transliterated). She pointed us at an acclamation of Justinian I that ends, “TOU UINCAS” in Greek letters, that is the Latin ‘tu vincas’, thou shalt conquer, simply transliterated into Greek without translation. There are others like this, but by this Latin is on the retreat in the Eastern Empire: all the same, apparently when dealing with emperors of the Romans, as the Byzantine rulers consider themselves, one uses the language of the Romans, at least a bit. Both of these things involve mindsets very different from those I’m used to thinking of, but as Professor Roueché observed during the questions, it presupposes that the people making these inscriptions are trying, if rather diffidently, to identify with the West as a larger thing that includes them, and from which scholarship tends instead to divide them. Worth remembering.

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias

Fragment of a letter of Emperors Valerian and Gallienus (260-68) preserved in stone at Aphrodisias