Tag Archives: Cambridge

British Chilterners

Enough backdated self-publicity! Here instead is another of those posts where I take a sober, careful and reasonable set of deductions made from patchy evidence by a suitably cautious and reputable scholar and just keep pushing well beyond the evidence, and again, the topic is the formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It’s not just me this topic interests, as a couple of good essay volumes show,1 but it certainly does interest me; when I got the Oxford job it was partly with a presentation on that subject, a presentation that then became a lecture three months later, and I repeated that lecture with adaptations the two subsequent years, so there’s no point pretending I don’t have views. Even if I did so pretend, anyway, for readers of this blog it would be too late.

Now, if you’ve followed that link or remember it, you’ll know that one of my pet interests is whether we can countenance the survival of whatever sub-Roman British political organisation had been improvised in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Rome into the Anglo-Saxon period, and if so where and how far, something with which one has to be careful as somewhat wild theories abound at the far end of this spectrum.2 There are a few more-or-less accepted cases of this, the northern kingdoms of Elmet and Gododdin being the obvious ones, and some arguments to be made in favour of both Lincoln and London (the former rather more so) having survived as centres of sub-Roman authority long enough to coordinate some sort of settlement of Anglo-Saxon-cultured federate troops around themselves as defences before, presumably, becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Lindsey and Middlesex, if the latter ever was a kingdom.3 If it was, it can’t have been for very long as Essex seems to have taken over London and already lost control of some of it to Kent by 602.4 But since there was a name, the idea that there was a unit there which could be described in terms of `Middle Saxons’ must have been reasonably widespread for a while even if any actual polity lasted no longer than a mayfly.

"Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571", reproduced from John Hines, "The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia", fig. 11

“Sites associated with the Battle of Bedcanford ca. AD 571″, reproduced from John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia”, fig. 11

So, this post is occasioned by having read a chapter in one of those essay volumes by John Hines.5 The case he wants to make is for the Cambridge area having for a while in the sixth and seventh century been a region of some local importance controlling a border area between two cultural zones that later distinguished as Middle Anglia and East Anglia, though by then Middle Anglia’s centre had been sucked westwards to its bishopric at Leicester and its border with its new Mercian masters. This is interesting, but it’s not what caught me because, about two-thirds of the way through, Professor Hines introduces the above map and tries to use it to argue for identifying the four centres on it, all of which bar Eynsham are at crossings of the Roman road known as the Icknield Way (Eynsham being a Thames crossing) and all of which are said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have fallen into the control of Cuthwulf King of the West Saxons in AD 571, as likely points of a decentralised British-identified group of settlements. This is not very near Cambridge and what it is doing in his argument is initially hard to see, but he lingers on it just long enough to link it tentatively to St Albans, a centre of British Christianity that Bede admits still existed in his day but won’t tell us any more about.6 Now, Hines does not put a name to this grouping of settlements, but we obviously could, and it would be Cilternsæte, ‘the people of the Chilterns’, which is in the Tribal Hidage and given its geographical referent would more or less have to be close to this zone or in it.7

The particular genius of Hines’s chapter, I think (and so does he, I think, as he emphasises it at the end) is to argue for a number of these decentralised groupings (and he sees Cambridgeshire as another, which is the link) that actually did so well for themselves, by virtue of achieving stability and relative prosperity, in a local and supra-local economy we can sort of see in metalwork distributions, that they did not in fact develop into kingdoms, remaining cheerfully established as decentralised groupings while the big neighbours who would eventually swallow them were slogging it out between élites of which only one group would eventually triumph (as with the previous one of these posts, about Kent). As he says, this implies, “that progress towards state-formation under strong monarchial [sic] government may at its very source in the early Middle Ages have been more revolutionary than evolutionary”.8

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage

The Wikimedia Commons map of the Tribal Hidage; click through for an interactive version!

This has an enjoyably Marxist-eschatological tinge, with its implication that the Revolution can only come once everyone’s doing badly enough to actually rise up, and for Cambridge at least I would imagine that the discovery of the Trumpington ‘princess’ and Anglo-Saxon remains (albeit late ones) under the University’s Old Schools may necessitate some re-evaluation of Cambridge’s only being one among many similar centres in its area, but a question remains for me about the Cilternsæte, which is, what did they have that made them a people to the outside point of view that the Tribal Hidage must represent? Why was this one people rather than many? Could it just have been a surviving British cultural identity (or even language)? Well, if we were in Gaul at this point rather than Britain the obvious answer would be staring us in the face, as Hines suggests, in the form of a bishopric at St Albans. There was once such a bishop, we know, and we also know that there were British bishops, plural, when St Augustine came to England, or at least Bede reports a folkloric story that presumes such. There has been some argument about whether they could ever been as close to the ‘English’ zones as this, but someone must have been in charge of the cult site whether they had a crozier or not. That would presumably have given some kind of thing to identify with, though if it had been the absolute key it’s strange that we don’t find the people called *Albaningas or *Verlamwe or something more pinned to the site, and it is a way east of any other centres we might put in this zone. Nonetheless, what else could there be to link all these various groups together? Should I put the Chilterners on the notional survival map if I ever do that lecture again? What do you all think?9

View of Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire

Gratuitous English scenery at Dunstable Downs in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty—or do we mean British scenery?


1. Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986); Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999); one should also mention Barbara A. E. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990, 2nd edn. 1997).

2. A sane round-up in Thomas Charles-Edwards, “Nations and Kingdoms: a view from above” in idem (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 23-58; a more British-generous view than most in Christopher A. Snyder, The Britons (Oxford 2003), pp. 73-138. The canonical patron of such views is Ken Dark, whose From Civitas to Kingdom: British political continuity, 300-800 (Cambridge 1994) is a beast to obtain but widely cited, and whose more extreme Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud 2001) is somewhat less so; there is also Nick Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester 1994), which is on its own path in the same wilderness.

3. For Lindsey, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey”, in Bassett, Origins, pp. 202-212, then Kevin Leahy, “The Formation of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 127-133; for Middlesex, see Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons” in Bassett, Origins, pp. 108-122; also worth comparing in that volume are John Blair, “Frithuwold’s Kingdom and the Origins of Surrey”, pp. 97-107, and David N. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia in the South-East Midlands” and “The Origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British Background”, pp. 123-140 & 213-222, which affect the areas mentioned as well.

4. Barbara E. Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 14 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, updated in eadem, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 45-57; cf. Dumville, “Essex, Middle Anglia, and the Expansion of Mercia”.

5. John Hines, “The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the Kingdom of Middle Anglia” in Dickinson & Griffiths, Making of Kingdoms, pp. 135-149, map here used from p. 147 and hopefully fair use since it’s part of the discussion here and low-resolution.

6. Ibid., pp. 145-146; for Bede’s reticence on Britons see M. W. Pepperdene, “Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica: a new perspective” in Celtica Vol. 4 (Dublin 1958), pp. 253-262; W. T. Foley & Nick Higham, “Bede on the Britons” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 154–185, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2009.00258.x, and cf. Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 27-41.

7. See Yorke, Kingdoms, 2nd edn. pp. 1-24 on the Hidage versus other sources; Hines references Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, but gives no page reference.

8. Hines, “Middle Anglia”, pp. 146-148, quote from p. 148.

9. Edit: I am reminded by Howard Williams in comments below that there is at least some historiography (or archæography?) on the Chilterns for those interested to follow up, and I had meant to cite it but when I got to that footnote couldn’t remember what was meant to go there… Foolish boy. The standard reference, for those few who can find a copy, is Kenneth Rutherford Davies, Britons and Saxons: the Chiltern Region 400-700 (Chichester 1982), but there is also now John T. Baker, Cultural Transition in the Chilterns and Essex Region, 350 AD to 650 AD, Studies in Regional and Local History 4 (Hatfield 2006), of which at least some is visible on Google Books. I can’t claim to have read either of these but the former at least I have been meaning to for a very long time, being a child of the Chilterns myself…

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church

Maintaining this hectic momentum is obviously difficult but I thought it might be time to try and eat in a tiny bit more to my backlog of seminar reports. This one is slightly unusual, as it involved going back to Cambridge and returning to Oxford in the course of a day, something I’d usually try and avoid, but the cause was Alex Woolf of St Andrews giving the Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture on 30th April 2012 in Hughes Hall (no relation), and as an often-acclaimed Alex Woolf fan I might have tried to make that even if he hadn’t been speaking to the title, “The Churches of Pictavia”. Since he was, I was there, and therefore, despite a recent run of hostile comments about my daring to study Scotland with my mere one-eighth Scots blood, I’m going to write about it.

Slide from lecture by J. Jarrett, "The Kingdoms of the North", British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Slide from my lecture, “The Kingdoms of the North”, British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Now, I have views on the Pictish Church, as you might expect, I’ve even explained them in lecture theatres myself albeit to a rather less exalted audience as you can see above, but my views are not very deep-seated. On the other hand they are not traditional, either. The traditional view of the Pictish Church would be that Bede knew what he was talking about and that half of Pictland was converted by missions from St Columba’s Iona and the other half by missions from St Nynia’s Whithorn, but that the southern half was more or less grabbed by Anglian Northumbria, to whom the Pictish king Nechtan map Der-Ilei entrusted the task of resourcing his new royal Church after he expelled the Columban monks around 717, whereafter the Church in Pictland seems to have remained roughly under royal control, with perhaps a centre at St Andrews (then Kilrymont), maybe later moved to Dunkeld, where its maybe-single bishop was based when not visiting the various monasteries that actually handled what passed for a ministry here.1 You can doubtless see a rather colonial narrative developed there in which the inhabitants of Scotland would be godless heathens but for foreign intervention, and predictably things seem to have been a bit more complex than that. Thanks to James Fraser we now have some doubts about where the Columban missions actually went, thanks to Thomas Owen Clancy we have doubts that St Nynia existed at all, and there’s a whole variety of older work pointing out other churches and founders around the edges of early Christian Pictland: Maelrubi at Applecross, Ethernan on the Black Isle (edit: of May), a Brigidine cult later claimed for Abernethy that might, if its association with the Pictish king-list has anything behind it, be the first `royal’ church centre….2 One could add more. Also, thanks to Thomas, it’s not clear that King Nechtan was actually in control of all of Pictland when he made his suit to Wearmouth-Jarrow, or that the expulsion of the Ionan monks was fully effective or durable, so I think that we have to think of several churches in Pictland: an Ionan one perhaps with a brief pause when they were subsumed into royal charge, an Anglian one that may likewise have later been combined with a royal one maybe based on Abernethy or St Andrews or both, whatever the grouping was that Whithorn apparently claimed in the south and a bunch of other smaller ones, single cells or clumps with their own founder legends.3 Mappings like that of James Fraser below thus seem to me a bit hopeful in their coherence, even when so unambitious.4 All of these groups were probably getting their episcopal ministry from outside quite often, I suspect, from Whithorn, from Anglian Abercorn while that lasted, from Gaelic Lismore, maybe even from Iona, though St Andrews and Dunkeld both have intermittent records of bishops in the Irish Annals in the tenth century so by then the united kingship may have been keener on centralising the Pictish or Alban epispocate near their new centres at St Andrews and Forteviot.5 It’s all so hypothetical, though, and I learnt much of this so long ago and may remember it so badly that I’d happily change any of this for a better-argued point of view; after all, it’s not so long ago that I saw Thomas Owen Clancy confront the questions, “when, where and what for were the churches of the Picts?” and conclude that the only safe answers were “during the Pictish period”, “in Pictland”, and “for the Picts to worship in”, and if anyone knows it’s him.

Map of Columban influences in seventh-century Pictland, from James Fraser's Caledonia to Pictland

Hardly an ambitious set of claims and yet still I quarrel…

That said, Alex has this habit of making long-vexed questions look unexpectedly simple, so you might wonder whether this was one of those occasions. And I will rediscover this with you, my readers, because though I remember being gobsmacked by this lecture, I was also somewhat blind-sided by a professional faux pas I later realised I’d made and besides it was ten months ago now, I just don’t remember what was said. BUT I HAVE NOTES. So, if they can be trusted, it went something like this. Alex spent some time setting up Pictland for us as a basically-British polity, using the analogy of the carrion and hooded crow which are actually the same species but differently identified in highland and lowland Britain because of a varied colouring more common in the north. This works on many levels, I love it. Pictland’s not some weird alien space, in other words, but a joined-up part of northern Britain. Alex suggested that parallels might be found between the stone sculpture of Iona and that of Dunkeld, fitting nicely with the putative royal take-over of a Columban start but suggesting much more of a Columban reach than I’d have allowed for; he added another founder saint (I told you one could) at St Vigeans, where there is of course yet more sculpture; and he stressed that despite its various possible divisions this Church shared the same literate and artistic culture as its Irish and Saxon brethren, something that Martin Carver’s excavations at Portmahomack also pointed towards by turning up a Pictish symbol stone and styli and possible evidence for parchment-making on the same site.6 These guys may not all have been singing off the same hymn-sheet or singing the same hymns at the same time (Alex elected not to talk about the reckoning of Easter…) but the books out of which they read their hymns would have been decorated much like those anywhere else in Northern Britain. It’s a while ago that the late Julian Brown observed that we may only think we have no Pictish manuscripts because we don’t think there are any but it remains true; there are a good few possible contendors.7

Book of Kells, fo. 27v, showing the four evangelists in their animal significations

Pictish beasts? Brown’s controversial contendor was none other than the Book of Kells, of which this is fol. 27v, from Wikimedia Commons

So far so much nuance; more characteristically iconoclastic in their problem-solving ability were a number of references to later Scottish churches associated with mounds, prompting the suggestion that we have few churches evidenced because worship was done outdoors at old meeting sites, though it is also true that the archæology of early possible church sites in Scotland is basically unknown bar Forteviot and that the one guaranteedly Pictish church site we have, Portmahomack, has no such forebear, at least not very nearby though it’s an area busy with Pictish stones. (I note, though, that the recently-discovered probable monastic site at Fortingall shares its location with a very very old yew tree…) In other respects, however, the Pictish Church probably shouldn’t have been very different from those northern formations with whom it shared artistic tendencies and likely therefore liturgy (since they would be in the same books). The resource concentrations that implies, however, must have taken time to amass, and so the whole realisation of this may have been late, later than Columba, later than Nynia, still in formation perhaps under Adomnán, Columba’s biographer who signally did not claim Columba as apostle of the Pictish kingdom.8 The Church’s ability to do intensive lordship probably attracted the attention of the kings (and here one can find a very similar argument in John Blair’s theory about the decline of minster churches in Anglo-Saxon England) and thus after the take-over we might think of German-style Klosterpfälze, albeit on a lesser scale.9 The chronology of this seems a little uncertain to me in retrospect: I’m sure I’ve heard Alex argue that the Pictish symbol stones are post-conversion so if it signifies that Portmahomack is in an area rich with them must there not be some kind of church structure before it? Isn’t that already really very close to the supposed take-over period? It is likely that I have failed to record the full subtlety of what was being suggested here. In any case, there was evidently so much variety in this ecclesiastical set-up that it is, alas, quite possible that our nice, new and all-but-unique type-site may actually have been unusual.

Three-quarter view of the St Andrews sarcophagus as diplayed in 2006

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives, as displayed in 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

You may be forgiven for thinking that it would take a somewhat impressionable cast of mind to depart from this basically-reasonable and plausible-sounding lecture `gobsmacked’, and OK, that is perhaps true. This is because what I haven’t told you is that in the final minutes Alex brought in the St Andrews Sarcophagus.10 One of the enigmas about this fine article of Pictish sculpture is that its iconography appears to be partly Persian, which takes some explaining. There have been explanations, largely involving motives transmitted in textile, which is sort of fair enough but what’s it doing here? Alex has what must be the answer. But because the Hughes lectures are published, and I’ve already here anticipated half a dozen of the things you might want your copy for, though hopefully only so much as to sharpen your Pictophile appetites, I will leave this one secret so that you have to get hold of it. It’ll be worth it….


1. One might seek such a view in works such as Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A. D. 80-1000 (London 1984), J. MacQueen, St. Nynia (Edinburgh 1961, rev. edn. 1991), or Alan MacQuarrie, The Saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish Church history A. D. 450-1093 (Edinburgh 1997). Perhaps the key introduction would be Kathleen Hughes, Early Christianity in Pictland, Jarrow Lecture 1970 (Jarrow 1970), repr. in eadem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 38-52, which was of course the prompt for Alex’s lecture subject.

2. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-115; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The real Saint Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; P. A. Yeoman, “Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 75-91; Sally Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display” in eadem (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 36-62 at pp. 42-50; and Abernethy and Dunkeld I have from Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967), pp. 84-90; there must be better references but I found it there in my notes and don’t fancy hunting for more.

3. Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (2004), pp. 125-149.

4. Fraser, Caledonia to Pictland, p. 110, though to be fair he does also observe, pp. 108 & 109: “It is a leap of faith to conclude from such scattered notices [as those he has just gathered] that Nér and Banchory were Columban monasteries in seventh-century Pictland….”

5. Henderson as in n. 2 above; for Forteviot, see Leslie Alcock, “Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal church and palace” in Susan Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 211-239, though there must by now be something more given recent digs. Ah yes: websearching reveals Nicholas Aitchison, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal centre (Stroud 2006), though I’ve not seen this myself.

6. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Jarrow 2008); for wider context see Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 297-398.

7. Julian Brown, Northumbria and the Book of Kells, Jarrow Lecture 1971 (Jarrow 1972), rev. as “Northumbria and the Book of Kells” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 1 (Cambridge 1972), pp. 219-246; repr. in Brown, A Palaeographer’s View: the selected writings of Julian Brown, edd. Janet Bately, Michelle Brown and J. Roberts (London 1993), pp. 141-178.

8. Adomnán, Vita Columbae, edd. & transl. Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Anderson as Adomnán’s Life of Columba (London 1961), rev. M. Anderson as Adomnán: Life of Columba (Oxford 1991), II.32-35.

9. John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 323-341; for Klosterpfälze see John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in early medieval Germany, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series, 21 (Cambridge 1993).

10. Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus.

Seminar XCIV: cows, mills and bullion from the Duero to Dublin

Life seems at the moment determined to carry me relentlessly between cities, but I have plenty of good reasons to be in Cambridge at almost any time, and so when I learnt that on 17th March the Chadwick Memorial Lecture would be given there by none other than Professor Emerita Wendy Davies, it seemed rather as if a number of birds had queued up in front of my metaphorical mangonel. This was not least because her title was “Water mills and cattle standards: probing the economic comparison between Ireland and Spain in the early Middle Ages”, which may not sound so great in a detached way but Wendy is a person who can give a fascinating seminar paper about a single charter formula; her fans, among whom I freely number myself, must have known this would be good. And so it was. While a comparison between Spain and Ireland in the early Middle Ages may not seem that intuitive, it’s surprising how well it works (as long as you stick with Northern, Christian, Spain anyway). For example, Ireland is famous now for medieval mills; Spain has fewer known in archæology (and much less archæology generally, though there is apparently hope for a dig of a Leonese market site which would hopefully be fascinating) but does have lots of recorded disputes over them; both countries are also famous to medievalists for using cattle as currency (even if some of us disagree as to their value), and though there are other similarities these were the ones Wendy decided to use as wedges to open up the nature of early medieval societies a bit.

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

There are also differences. You won’t see documents like this in Ireland, but on the other neither will you find 50,000 ringforts in Spain, and though there are forts, very few have been dug. The climates obviously differ, though by less than you might expect in Atlantic, misty Galicia. Nonetheless, Wendy also detected similarities in the persistence of tradition, both regions having seventh-century law active in their courts till much later, for example, and using sculpted stones as boundary markers; in transactional language (and here, I have to admit, I find my notes less convincing than I found the lecture); in the importance of cereals, which is to say considerable but far from total, and in the growth of this cultivation over the ninth and tenth centuries (though that, I think, you would see in most places); in valuation, which was sometimes by cattle and otherwise by metal or other goods (in Spain the metal was notionally coined silver but only in Catalonia, which Wendy as usual disclaimed, was that coin actually available), with massive variation;1 and therefore in the exchange of unlike things, which means that there was some kind of commercial infrastructure in both places. Again, where not, you might wonder, but the evidence we have to demonstrate this is weirdly similar in its difference in these two places compared to elsewhere, where it is usually simply money (though that, as we know, need not always imply trade).

Hiberno-Norse penny of c. 997, presumably Dublin mint, imitating contemporary money of Æthelred the Unready

Hiberno-Norse penny of c. 997, presumably Dublin mint, imitating contemporary money of Æthelred the Unready

Both also seem to have gone through some parallel developments in the Viking era, which is odd as although there certainly were Viking attacks on Spain as we have before here discussed, some of the things that are usually explained by Viking influence in Ireland also happen in Spain, apparently for other reasons: a boom in the use of silver bullion as currency (eventually as coins in Ireland but as argentazas, which no-one is sure about,2 in Spain, Catalonia again apart), a new development of certain urban locations as population, military, administrative and economic foci (in Ireland Dublin and Waterford, in Spain most obviously León), and burgeoning exchange relations. Several of these are wider European phenomena, in which case their national explanations might need questioning… As Dr Mairé ní Mhaonaigh pointed out in her response, of course the Book of Invasions tells us Ireland was settled from Spain anyway, and there are probably more similarities to be found yet, but in this respect I think what I took away was one of my old favourite sentiments, hurray for deviation and variation. Because, in the things that are not quite the same lies a shortage of variables that means we can sometimes actually pin down the reasons for things, and that’s really rather what we’re here for, isn’t it?


1. W. Davies, “Sale, price and valuation in Galicia and Castile-Leon in the tenth century” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 149-174; soon also Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 8.

2. On the beginnings of coinage in Ireland, see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 4. The Dublin coinage c. 995-1050″, Presidential Address in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 78 (London 2008), pp. 111-137; on argentazas, Davies, “Sale, price and valuation” again, though a Catalan comparison such as J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243 at pp. 226-227 & n. 39, might still interest you.

In delight at reading Andy Orchard for the first time

(Written offline on the bus to Heathrow, 04/04/11 13:29.)

Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, upper margin

The Old Irish text of the poem on the Vikings in the St Gall Priscian quoted below

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I was friends with a lot of people in the Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic (plus ça change) and this means that some of them were taught by Andy Orchard, now Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College and Professor of English and Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. I never was, being a historian, and because his interests are more linguistic I have somehow managed to miss out on reading any of his stuff until now. I have been robbing myself. Observe this:

The Sankt Gallen manuscript of Priscian also contains some of the earliest surviving vernacular Irish verse to have survived in a contemporary (or near-contemporary) witness. One such famed marginal poem was evidently composed with the Viking threat in mind:

Bitter is the wind tonight
It ruffles the deep sea’s grizzled locks
I do not fear a crossing of the clear waves
By a band of greedy warriors from Scandinavia

But if, as has been suggested, these lines were written in the manuscript not in Ireland itself but by one of the Irish peregrini on the Continent, they nonetheless reflect the extent to which these peregrini may have carried their learning and literature with them, as likely in their memories as on the written page. In another well-known marginal poem, again preserved in a Continental manuscript, an Irish scholar celebrates his cat, who, significantly, carries a Welsh name (Pangur): Wales would have been on a commonly used route to the Continent for many Irishmen. Bizarrely enough, at least three other marginal Irish jottings in later manuscripts mention cats that have gone astray, so offering an endearing sidelight on the home life of at least some Irish scribes. The Sankt Gallen manuscript also contains a rueful comment on Priscian’s assertion that ‘Virgil was a mighty poet’ (Magnus poeta Virgilius fuit); someone has added in Irish, ‘and he isn’t easy, either’. Elsewhere in the margins of the same manuscript the word latheirt is written twice, once in ogham; since the word in question elsewhere seems to gloss the Latin word crapula (‘drunkenness’, ‘hangover’), one wonders in what state the scribe must have been who wrote the original Irish.1

You see? Note not only the significance he gets out of the name of the cat, meaningful trivia there, but also that he uses the relative pronoun ‘who’ for it, not ‘which’. Elsewhere he suggests that the weird Hiberno-Latin text called the Hisperica famina would, if one wanted to know what sort of text it was, have its title best translated as ‘Latinacious speakifications’, which I am amazed is not a blog already.2 Back in Cambridge I was told that Professor Orchard’s supervisions were often held in the pub, something I don’t think we can do now even in Oxbridge; be that as it may, however, I think it is fairly clear that learning from him must be great fun.


1. Andy Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular languages: the creation of a bilingual textual culture” in Thomas Charles-Edwards (ed.), After Rome (Oxford 2003), pp. 191-219 at pp. 204-205. The St Gall MS is online now, of course, linked through the image, but if you try sourcing the actual poem within the manuscript via websearch it’s so rarely fully referenced that you have to wonder whether everyone isn’t just quoting the MGH text. By means of this exciting site that has done a digital edition of all the glosses in the text, I can tell you that it is Sankt Gallen MS 904, fo. 112v, but I’d have taken a long time to find it otherwise.

2. Orchard, “Latin and the vernacular”, p. 202.

Some of my teachers on the Internet

Here is a light-weight diversion while I wrestle with a lecture. By various routes I’ve happened upon some of my old teachers in Cambridge strutting their scholarly stuff on the Internet and thought I’d direct your attention to them. Dr Catherine Hills, famous in certain circles as the person who’s probably excavated more Anglo-Saxon graves than anyone and whose recent book Origins of the English is well worth a look, lectured me in Anglo-Saxon Archaeology during my M. Phil. in Medieval History at Cambridge, and has always been ready with news and help since then when I’ve had the pleasure of running into her. Here she can be seen talking about a dig in her actual college, Newnham, and although it is something of a puff piece about how brilliant a Cambridge education is, nonetheless there she is being herself and unproblematically getting teenage girls to clear a metre and a half depth of soil in order to uncover Roman remains.

And then, more purely scholarly, my old boss, patron and fount of information and help, Dr Mark Blackburn, who also taught me during that M. Phil. as well as by knowledge, publication and example for the time I spent at the Fitzwilliam, managed to get onto the BBC to talk about Anglo-Saxon coinage (and an Elizabethan medal), and there aren’t many people who could do so interestingly enough to make that worth recommending. Here Mark demonstrates that he can. Long may he so continue! It’s an article with supporting audio, so I can’t embed it here, but do go look and listen.

Then, lastly, one of the people I owe most to, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, was awarded a Heineken Prize last year and was therefore hauled onto Youtube, as it were, to talk about her research. And it’s still there, er, here:

The setting is somewhat incongruous but the erudition is real and somewhat better-founded. I, for my part, will have a couple more short Oxford seminar notes then a Cliopatria media-medieval-misuse post, and then I want to ask you guys for some teaching suggestions, but I am not, at the moment, going to guess when I manage this. Keep an eye out…

Kalamazoo and Back, V: say your piece and get

Sorry this has taken so long to complete. I actually put it off earlier today because of not having my notes before realising that I could actually remember pretty well because the only session I made it to on the Sunday was the one I was in… I’d have liked to see what my colleague Rory Naismith was saying in ’562. Medieval Money: Coin, Trade, and Credit’ but as it was I kind of had to attend…

Session 536: The Court and the Courts in the Carolingian World

(Also covered at Medieval History Geek here.)

I had worried about sleeping late, given that this session was the morning after the dance and earlier than any of the others, but in fact nerves or drink-confused sleep had me awake quite early and I was on station in good time, both fed and caffeinated enough to make some kind of sense. And just as well because there was plenty of information to make sense of!

Extract from a manuscript of Marculf's Formulary

  • Warren Brown, talking to the title, “Local Conflict and Central Authority in the Carolingian Formula Collections”, reminded us as is his wont of the very different sort of evidence that formulas contain about what people were getting up to in the Carolingian period. These documents, templates for writing charters, have often only studied as sources for the documents that were abstracted to make them, but because they are not subject to the kind of preservation bias that means most of the rest of our record is mediated by a link to ecclesiastical property, here you get to see what else people needed documents for, from making wills and settlements to issuing a safe-conduct for someone enjoined to lifetime penitential pilgrimage for killing his wife… Warren’s paper was essentially a demonstration of these possibilities. There are as he admitted still limits: you get to see what documents people wanted because of events, which is not the same as a record of the events themselves, but it still gives a much broader picture of society and a much fuller impression of Western Europe’s use of documents. I’ve heard both Warren and Alice Rio deliver papers that are essentially, “Hey did you realise how much interesting stuff there is in formulae?” now, and the measure of how correct they are is that there has been hardly any repetition between the papers.
  • Following Warren, largely to keep him apart from Geoffrey Koziol I think, was me, giving a rather sketchy paper (I thought, but then I knew what I’d wanted it to be) entitled, “The Carolingian Succession to the Visigothic Fisc on the Spanish March”, which was mainly intended to ask what strength there could have been to a claim to be living on ‘royal land’ in tenth-century frontier Catalonia. I considered possible continuity with the Visigothic fisc as far as we can know about it, which isn’t far, although it seems to be what some of the sources imply; I also considered the Muslim interregnum that ran things in this area for sixty years, and some rather odd suggestions that historians have made about it, but considered in the end that we couldn’t really tell much about this either, and finally wrapped up by giving some specific examples of the sort of claims that were made, showing that they were likely to be mistaken but concluding that attachment to the past, which was at least possibly genuine in some cases, was important both legally and culturally whether it was true or not, all of which leaves quite a lot still to be investigated. Or at least, that’s what I was aiming for: if you want an impression of how it actually came across, have a look at Curt Emanuel’s write-up and my comments over at Medieval History Geek. Someone, I now forget whom, told me they’d been taking pictures of me presenting, so if that person owns up and if they were any good, I’ll add one here for vanity’s sake later.
  • Last up in this session was Geoff Koziol, talking to the title, “Power in the Palace in the Last Years of Charles the Bald (869-877)”. This was a fairly in-depth account of the shifting political constellations in the West Frankish king’s final years, as the title implies, and it would be rather difficult to summarise as it was full of small interesting parts but an overall scheme is perhaps no easier to determine for us than it was for Charles; certainly, existing overall schemes don’t quite cover it, though I would have liked to have a copy of Jinty Nelson‘s Charles the Bald to hand to check things against in questions and see where Geoff differed from her. One place where he certainly does is that he thinks that what we can see of the palace and its élites shows none of the office structure or church/laity separation envisaged by Hincmar of Reims in his tract De ordine palatii, which claims a far older source but must have been informed by Hincmar’s court experience under Charles. This makes it much more likely that the DOP is a kind of protest written to an ideology, which does rather threaten any claim made for it being an faithful record of the court of Charlemagne: Hincmar’s court may have been an effort to turn back to clock, but it was a clock he very definitely saw himself winding. (Not sure if that metaphor will hold up if you look too close, let’s move on…)
  • King Charles the Bald of the West Franks in old age

    I don’t have any notes on the questions, largely I presume because I was standing up and answering, but I also presume that no-one bowled me anything that I had to incorporate into revisions; as I recall, in fact, Warren and Geoff got most of the questions not least because we’d been told they would fight and they’d more or less refrained from doing so, so people were trying to kick it off, all in good fun, people, all in good fun. I was fairly happy with how this all went, anyway, and thanks are of course due to Jonathan Couser for organising it and Julie Hofmann for her inestimable chairing.

After all this I very much needed coffee, so Another Damned Medievalist and I set off in search of it. It proved to be harder to find than I’d anticipated because of distance, and because of lack of caffeine oh noes recursion and because the main coffee options weren’t running on this last day. I had intended to make it to ’573. Topics in the History of the Frankish Empire’, not least because one of the people presenting, Wes Bush, had made a point of getting himself introduced to me the previous evening and because he was also talking about the charters of Charles the Bald. In fact, though, by the time we were near the building it was ten minutes after start time and I didn’t have the energy to face down the late entrance so ADM and I went and looked for book bargains and there found both coffee and Steve Muhlberger, so we sat and nattered and then once we were more collected we got our various baggages arranged and piled into cars by prearranged scheme to go and eat at a diner in town, whose name I have unjustly forgotten because it was really nice. This was almost another blogger meet-up: besides myself, Prof. Muhlberger and ADM there was also the Notorious Girl Scholar and Lisa Carnell, the Congress Coordinator who doesn’t have a blog as far as I know but you know, give her a break, she obviously had her hands fairly full! and there was a sixth person who was furthest from me at the table and damned if I can now remember who they were which is really unfair on them and I do hope they’re not offended. I spoke of long-distance travel in Canada to Steve and goth dress-up to Lisa (some of my best friends, etc.) and again didn’t really get to talk to Dr N., but the food was extremely welcome and very much what was needed to set me up for the long journey home. I also owe ADM and Lisa considerable favours for letting me get at and borrow a printer to reprint my plane ticket; what happened to the original I have no idea, but it went, so I would been a bit stuck without them: thankyou both.

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

CNN map of the infamous ash-cloud, April 17th

Delivered back to the Goldsworth Valley Complex, we found firstly that some really enterprising tagging of one of the exhibitors’ lorries had happened while Lisa’s back was turned, and then that the buses to the airport were not exactly running to timetable. In fact they were making it up on the fly, it became clear once I’d got on one, and this meant that people asking whether this was the bus scheduled for such-and-such a time got some fairly unhelpful, if amusing, answers, because there wasn’t really a right one. I got to the airport in the end and there had the company of Dr Catherine Rider, whom I’ve known a long time and whom I’d seen at several points in the Congress and not actually been able to catch to say hi to. Eventually, though, there was a plane, stuffed of course with medievalists, and then another plane, just about. There was also an ash-cloud, of course, and as I arrived in the international departure lounge at O’Hare, the flight four hours before mine still hadn’t left; I was glad to have a different place to wait to see what was going to happen as there were some very tired and angry people waiting for that one. We heard the cheer when they were allowed to board from where we were, all the same. Up till then things had been extremely frustrating: CNN, broadcasting loudly over our heads, was telling us all that the Atlantic was shut and we’d had it, and the airline employees who could be found said they didn’t know, but to anyone who was alert it was plain that the signs were good: the cabin staff were waiting to board, as soon as the plane was there it was restocked with food and our baggage was loaded. The airport clearly thought we were going, but still people went off to find someone else, who didn’t know anything either but was happier than they were to make stuff up, and then coming back and reporting this hearsay as clear evidence that we weren’t going to be able to get home. This is why the critical disciplines are needful in education, people, so that people don’t panic and start demanding hotel vouchers on the back of uninformed guesswork. Anyway, they let us on when they were ready and then waited a short while longer and eventually we headed away and we were two hours late back, so I missed my planned bus home but on the whole it was still the most comfortable long-haul flight I’ve ever taken, I managed to sleep a bit and one of the important lessons I learnt from this whole trip was that the extra money you pay for flying British Airways across the Atlantic is worth it, because everyone else I knew on this journey was flying American and were rather later and less comfortable.

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

Cambridge, Parker's Piece, coach station

And then I went to work, not to do any but in order to pick up and fix a new bicycle on which to ride home on the back of a few hours fitful sleep and imminent jetlag, an effort which caused at least one good friend to diagnose me as completely mad, and this may be true (especially since I had stupidly had the bike tools in my carry-on, which gave the security at O’Hare some pause for thought) but it seemed an appropriately odd end to a long journey in which a wide range of silly things had happened as well as serious ones, and almost all of them fun. If I could get someone else to pay I would happily do it again next year. And thereby hangs another post I have yet to write, so I’d better get on with the backlog… Mind you, the books I bought and had shipped back only arrived at work today, so in some sense the whole saga has only now closed; but an awful lot has been happening meanwhile!

This is how we keep the gates, keep the gates, keep the gates

I don’t want to attempt to diagnose the processes behind this, but you will able to guess from my comment what I think is wrong with it, if that remains. Mind you, the worst instance of this I ever heard of was another institution in Cambridge that shall remain nameless whose entire application instructions for a research fellowship were, in totality and without omission: “To apply, send the usual materials to [address] by [date],” which is a gem I’m sure you’ll agree. I tend to blame these things on thoughtless insularity rather than malice aforethought, but they are more common than they should be, i. e. they exist.

[Edit: I should add, as I have been reminded, that the Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic Department actually has a commendable and demonstrable track record in hiring from outside Cambridge and non-traditional backgrounds, and clarify that this post was solely meant to call out an administrative infelicity, not to attack the blogger's personal attitudes to it.]

Trying to cure cancer while some bloke goes on about Arabs

There are many things about the Cambridge college system that may not look terribly good in the twenty-first century, but there are also things that do. In particular, a college of, say, about seven hundred people, of whom maybe three hundred are engaged in research, is a good size of community for researchers across many different fields to interact, learn from each other and so forth without one necessarily being forced to deal with people whom one would rather avoid. It’s a good group to make friends in, and there’s a handy expert in most fields to go and ask about something with whom you have an immediate connection to draw on.

The bridge over the River Cam in Clare College, Cambridge

The bridge over the River Cam in Clare College, Cambridge

That said, these interactions can benefit from helping along, and not everywhere tries to foster them. One of the things I’ve so far enjoyed most about being a College Research Associate at Clare in Cambridge is that the college does try and make these things happen, and consequently feels like a genuine scholarly community. And it escapes the old-fashioned image of the Oxbridge college to an extent simply by the subjects those scholars are studying. The reason for this post is the Clare Research Symposium, whose third instalment took place on March 11 this year and which I was at, and the program from it demonstrates my point, have a look at this:

Session 1

  • Eamon Murphy, “Shakespearean Tragedy and the Literature of Roguery”
  • Karina Jakubowicz, “Concepts of Landscape in the Writing of Hilda Doolittle”
  • April Ledbetter, “Make Your Own Myth: identity in Harry Potter costume play”
  • Mark Schenk, “Folded Textural Sheets—from Origami to Concrete Formwork”
  • Simon Byrne, “Graphical Methods”
  • Alison McDougall-Weir, “‘What Do Scientists Do All Day?’: Architectural Intent and User Experience in the Architecture of Science”

Session 2

  • Peter Riley, “Walt Whitman and Real Estate”
  • Robin McCaig, “Debunkin’ Dönitz: what the Nuremburg Trial really said about submarine warfare”
  • James Blackstone, “‘Reds under Beds’ Revisited: the McCarthyite Right and US Foreign Policy, 1950-1954″
  • Rebecca Voorhees, “Crystallographic Study of the Ribosome: quality control in protein synthesis”
  • Jutta Wellmann, “Can Mechanical Forces Regulate Cell Adhesion?”
  • Matt Cliffe, “How to INVERT Data and Structure: structure determionation of disordered materials from diffraction detail”

Keynote Speech

Session 3

  • Rebecca Bradshaw, “The Creation and Evolution of Royal Iconography as seen in the Bett al-Wali Temple, Egypt”
  • Jared James Eddy, “The Roman Disease Pthisis and Modern Pulmonary Tuberculosis”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “What’s in an Ethnonym? Arabic-named Christians on the Frontier of Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Gary McDowell, “Frogs, Mice, Zombies? Making Proteins Stable in the Quest for Brains”
  • Madzia Kowalski, “A Glimpse into Translational Ovarian Cancer Research: is AMD3100 a potential therapy?”
  • Scott Newman, “Evolving Genomes in Breast Cancer”

Session 4

  • M. Tamaruya, “Sue You in America or in England?”
  • Teale Phelps Bondaroff, “Prime-Time Campaigning: the media capture strategy of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
  • Peter Dixon, “Barriers to Cooperation in Civil War Interventions, or, Why Can’t They Get On?”
  • Susanne Schweizer, “Gaining Control: from cognitive to affective control”
  • Sinead English, “Measuring Growth Rates in Wild Meerkats”
  • Merlin Sheldrake, “Horticulture-Vultures”

Now, one can immediately tell from this that Clare’s investment in the natural sciences and medicine is pretty high, but they had made a valiant effort to balance arts and sciences, or at least humanities and sciences, and also to make everyone talk to the others. So each of these papers except for the keynote was a ten-minute presentation with as few difficult words in as possible, and as a result I think everyone learnt a lot about others’ fields. This is good. The keynote, also, I think, did a very good job of introducing the non-historians in the audience, of whom there were many, to some of the basic problems of agency that we face in thinking about the past: does society shape individuals or vice versa and, in this particular case, how individual and undetermined is genius? I think the scientists would rather have seen experiments devised to test this than an account of the past couple of centuries’ thinking about it, since as we have said here before there are no authorities any more, but it was still a sweeping address that reached people at several levels.

The Riley Auditorium in the Gillespie Centre, Clare College, Cambridge

The Riley Auditorium in the Gillespie Centre, where the Symposium was held

Particular note should also go to: April Ledbetter’s paper, which was one of the braver pieces of academic presentation I’ve seen; to Simon Byrne’s albeit mainly because if I’d seen his paper before I’d written this post the post would have been far far more useful; Peter Riley for sheer passion; Jared James Eddy for having correctly gauged the audience and pitched a historical paper with a heavy bio-medical angle to it; me, I think, for managing to keep to a ten-minute slot when presenting material about which I have before gone on for an hour; and Scott Newman for the line, “Now, you may be thinking that’s an unusually good-looking genome, and you’d be right because it’s mine.” Also, his paper was the one that I was most struck by, because firstly he had some very clear graphs of the messed-up spliced and interspliced genome of a breast cancer cell, which brought home to me what I had not before realised, that in many terms cancer is actually a different organism from its host, and secondly because he seemed excitingly close to having pinned down at least one cause of breast cancer. But it was all interesting and it was great to take part on at least notionally equal terms. Now some of these people are saving lives and some of them are trying to end wars or build laboratories for the ages, and even among the humanities some are trying to change the way we read books and poems enjoyed by millions, so I’ve no illusion about the actual importance of a project I don’t have the backing to do against all this, but all the same, it makes one feel like a scholar to stand up and join in the discourse like this.

Seminary LXII: from these hilltops we can see for centuries

Here is a much-delayed seminar report for you. On 9th March, already, Damián Fernández of NYU came to speak to the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar. Since his topic was “Hilltop Settlement and Economic Change in Late-Antique Northern Iberia”, which isn’t Byzantine at all, it’s not entirely clear to me why that was, but it was of obvious interest to me (you’ve heard me mention hilltops here before, right?) and there are people in Cambridge I only see at the Byzantine seminar, so I happened along.

The basic question Fernández was setting out to answer came out of a couple of quotes from Hydatius’s Chronicle, of which one goes like this:

The Sueves under King Hermeric pillaged the central areas of Gallæcia, but when some of their men were slaughtered and others captured by the people who remained in possession of the more secure fortified sites [castella tutiora], they restored the peace treaty.1

The question that comes out of this is, what exactly were these castella? This treads lightly into some very tangled questions, about the degree of Romanisation in the north of Spain—Fernández thinks that recent work that has found seals, ceramics, buildings, walls to towns and so on demonstrates that it was more considerable than hard-line ethno-continuity theories would accept, but I know there are those reading who would say that this is what the authorities of the area want archæologists to find.2 However, what Fernández was mainly attacking was a historiography in which the period after the arrival of the barbarians in Spain and before the eventual attempted extension of the consolidated Visigothic kingdom into the north is a time in which all that the locals could do was, quite literally, run to the hills. As Fernández pointed out, however, a lot of the hilltop forts they supposedly found seem to have been there under the Romans, Gijón for example being a third- or fourth-century foundation (which was still going for the Muslims to try and run Asturias from when they arrived, of course). Some are more ancient than that, even, but are refurbished during the Roman period (castro ventosa, seen below). I suppose the question then becomes, is that Roman occupation or local resistance to the Romans? It’s all very well to say that Roman material culture indicates this area was part of the Empire, but we know from the Scots and German borders that the peoples on the outside of the limes are very often keen buyers of Roman gear, and even happy to join the army (and serve in far-away places) without that necessarily meaning that they’re now cives romani.3

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Current state of Castro Ventosa, near Bierzo

Fernández’s answer to this was that this sort of question can’t be addressed from the archæology. The material culture doesn’t differ between areas that may have been outside the frontier and areas everyone is sure were in it; it’s not ethnicity, it’s just poverty. Okay, fair point, but we still don’t know what was going on. One thing that was going on, however, was wall-building, in the third century right through to the early fifth, not because of any particular threat but because walls are a prestigious thing to have round your late Roman settlement. They associate not with decline, but with wealth. He suggested therefore that fortified hilltop settlement (and indeed fortified lowland settlement, of which there is also lots contemporaneously) was not an aberration caused by military, economic or demographic crises but the new mode of settlement for the period, a cultural shift not a strategic one. He saw a state-driven change in the settlement network caused by, well, fashion as much as economy, though that too. This seemed somewhat circular to me, the state encouraging change in settlement morphology because lots of people have changed the morphology of their settlements because the state… I wanted to know whether these sites have rôles as burial centres, as my pet ones from later certainly do, but this didn’t appear to work here: apparently some do and some don’t, and almost none have churches. I don’t think I’d expect churches, actually, I think those would be more local until later, so this didn’t really get me anything.

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

Remains of the walls of the ancient fortification at Viladonga

So, okay, there were a lot of small things here, and some quite big things, where I think alternative theses might be arguable or even preferable, but what I did like about this paper was his overall argument that these castella need to be seen not as crisis symptoms but as part of the same growth that is, at the same time that many of them are being refurbished (or even built, like Muelas below), causing the sprouting of new villas in the lowlands from third right through to sixth and in some cases seventh centuries. (Visigothic Spain was, after all, not apparently short of wealth.) Where the land is good for large-scale agrarian agriculture, you get villas; where it’s better for pastoralism and living on hilltops, you get castella—it’s environmental not military. That makes a lot of sense to me. The other important thing that he stressed is that, unlike the situation with hillforts like Dinas Powys in Britain, these are not aristocratic centres.4 There’s no evidence of resource redistribution, of patronage of craftsmen or of accumulation or special treatment of food animals (such as Alcock found at Dinas Powys); they’re just where people live, villages with walls. That’s so in the south, anyway; in the far north we know (from the slates!) that rents were collected at these places. Here a situation where control over transhumance routes is a source of power becomes more likely, even if the material culture, as said, is no different.

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

The (fifth-century) settlement of Muelas del Pan, near Zamora

So, plenty to chew on, and much that I thought other scholars would have disagreed with, not necessarily correctly but they would have. But my last paragraph of notes reads:

Settlements are a decision taken by social actors: response to soc.-econ. change by e. g. state, moving to a more dynamic organisation of a local kind under a hands-off barbarian k’dom; aristocracies, intensifying local and decentralised econ. Good places to put walls!

and I hope that shows that this is a guy with some big and powerfully explanatory ideas, which I’m sure I’ll meet again and which perhaps the readership might also find useful.


1. R. W. Burgess (ed./transl.), The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana (Oxford 1993), Hydatius cap. 81 rev. D. Fernández.

2. The most relevant reference that the handouts provide seems to be Carmen Fernández-Ochoa [& Ángel Morillo], “Walls in the Urban Landscape of Late Roman Spain: Defense and Imperial Strategy” in Kim Bowes & Michael Kulikowski (edd.), Hispania in Late Antiquity: current perspectives, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 24 (Leiden 2005), pp. 208-340, but Dra Fernández-Ochoa’s webpages would seem to be a good place to find more. That does of course rely on the assumption that she is not, contrary to what some people think, involved in the suppression of pre-Roman evidence from these areas so as to promote, “un pasado romano hipertrofiado por cuestiones políticas”. If you are concerned by that possibility you probably ought to follow the link; I’m not in any position to judge from here.

3. If you want an actual academic reference here rather than links to other blogs, no matter how authoritative they be, I offer you Karl Hauck, “Der Missionsauftrag Christi und das Kaisertum Ludwigs des Frommen” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 275-296, which manages with startling ease to be more relevant to this question than you would imagine from its title.

4. I’ve given all these references before, but because it was a dig worth reading, I’ll do so again: Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.