Tag Archives: Cambridge

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.

Seminary LXI: notables of the field and their Renaissances

Dave Brock of Hawkwind playing at the Cambridge Junction, December 2009

So, the last post recorded a paper that I was pleased to have made the time to hear. The same is less easy to say of this one. How can I put it? I like old rock bands. Now you can divide old rock bands into four groups, if you obsess enough about such things: those who despite having been going more or less continuously for years are still inventive and productive (Gong, most obviously for me; Hawkwind, to a lesser extent); those who have been going more or less continuously for a long time doing the same thing over and over (Status Quo, ZZ Top) among whom a subset have lost, to death, personality conflicts or reality, their creative cores and should stop for the sake of their once-good name (I will name only Thin Lizzy here, in either of their current touring incarnations). Then there are those who have lately reformed, and either can still cut it (Electric Prunes, Omnia Opera) or who really can’t but presumably needed the money (Blue Cheer…). Every time I risk a gig by some such venerable name, I wonder which of these it’s going to be, but one has to go because there may never be another chance (and every gig is unique anyway).1

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

I am less used to applying this scheme to academics, not least because they very rarely return to the field after time off, but it was in my mind after this paper, which was on the same day as the previous one. Long-memoried readers will recall, perhaps, that early in the life of this blog I blogged a book of interviews with various notables of the so-called New History.2 One of the interviewees was anthropologist and social historian Jack Goody, whom I had already noticed has recently put a new book out called Renaissances: the one or the many?,3 and another was Peter Burke, so when I discovered that Professor Goody, who has a local emeritus chair but is nonetheless rarely in these parts, was speaking about his new book at CRASSH and that Professor Burke was responding, I thought it would be interesting to go and see what that was like.

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Professor Goody had, he told us, been in a quandary about this paper. He didn’t really want to just give a talk about the book, so had written another, then been persuaded that people probably wanted to hear about the book so glumly opted for the original after all, which he had then left at home, leaving him only some notes for the other one and his own considerable learning to produce an actual talk more or less on the fly. This he did while sucking on something, cough sweets or similar, throughout, so that it was often rather hard to tell what he was saying even once he had made up his mind. The basic argument, I think, was that the term ‘Renaissance’ involves an awareness of what is past so that it can be revived (however faulty that awareness might be), and that this involves records and therefore literacy, which is one of Professor Goody’s oldest concerns. An interesting sidetrack here took us off to China, where as he observed a pictographic script has allowed an empire of many languages to remain united for centuries, for various values of unity, because even when its inhabitants can’t understand each other speaking they can write their speech down in the same script. It’s a point, though not one germane to the title. Oral societies, he argued, have perpetually to reimagine their past whereas literate ones are constrained by what is recorded, especially if it’s Holy Writ (though it seems to me that even Holy Writ is reinterpreted for each generation). With that given, he produced several examples of societies in which an effloresence of learning comes out of a recovery of old ideas: Sung China with Confucianism, ‘Abbasid Islam with its incorporation of the Classics, or even nineteenth-century Bengal with Sanskrit and Vedic literature (so he argued). The crucial element, he finished by arguing, is the openness of religion to innovation in the respective societies; it can enforce stasis in order to protect the status quo, or in the right frame of reform and renewal it can encourage progress by similarly advocating a return to the roots. The true benchmark of such a renaissance, therefore, is not literary output but scientific progress. (The technology of communication is also a factor—for example, the ‘Abbasid revolution was made far easier by access to paper, so much cheaper than parchment—but less significantly.)

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

It is possible that I do Professor Goody an injustice with this summary, because he was as I say quite hard to hear properly. I am conscious that I may have filled in gaps in my understanding of his argument myself, so I’m not going to critique, merely report with that caution. Professor Burke, as a friend of Goody’s but one not afraid to argue with him, picked two things to react to: firstly, that Burckhardt’s picture of the Italian Renaissance, which Goody had mentioned, is now deprecated in favour of a continuity from Middle Ages to Industrial Revolution in the context of which the Renaissance has to be placed, and that it is no longer regarded as the single such group of changes even in the Western European context; but secondly, that he felt nonetheless that it was still exceptional in terms of scale, the number of people involved (or, I thought, known to have been involved) and range of disciplines and skills active exceeding those other European ones and even the non-European ones discussed by Goody. This is, he argued, why it remains the great comparator and the concept which is exported to other cultures to be tested against their conceptions of cultural change.

I shall not finish the rock band analogy I’ve started here. Professor Goody is indubitably a rock star in his discipline, and has provoked a great many discussions and arguments, as well as written, as Burke pointed out, on an incredible range of topics. If he genuinely were a seventies rock band I’d be damn impressed he had a new album out at all, and I’d have gone to the gig whatever it was likely to be like, just to say I’d seen him. It’s just that, as I say, the metrics by which I measure those performances are not ones I usually expect to be reminded of in this sphere.

Jethro Tull live in 1998


1. Except, arguably, those by Status Quo. I don’t mean to demean this; they know exactly what their fans want and they provide.

2. Maria Lucía Pallares-Burke (ed.), The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2004).

3. J. Goody, Renaissances: the one or the many? (Cambridge 2010).

Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard Hodges

I need to write something substantive, but I have very very little time at the moment; three papers need finishing before Kalamazoo, and all need reading (which is the hardest thing to find time for, paradoxically). All the same, I am badly behind with reports on things I’ve been to. So, let me renew the seminar reports with something that was actually part of a conference, an event entitled “Crisis, What Crisis? The ‘Long’ Ninth Century” organised at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. The organisation here, and I hope a colleague of mine who was involved in it will forgive me for saying this, was peculiar. Pick a room with space for only forty people in it, do not advertise except by word of mouth and e-mail, only the most minimal internet presence, just in case anyone might, you know, turn up… and then put on this programme:

    8th-9th March 2010

    MONDAY

  • 9.45-10.15 James Barrett “Introduction”
  • 10.15-11.00 Richard Hodges “Charlemagne minus Mohammed”
  • 11.00-11.30 Tea/coffee

  • 11.30-12.15 Nora Berend “The concept of Christendom: A product of crisis?”
  • 12.15-13.00 Søren Sindbæk “Routes for crisis? Early medieval networks and ninth-century ‘relinking’”
  • 13.00-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Dagfinn Skre “The origins of Kaupang’s settlers and traders in the ninth century”
  • 14.45-15.30 Mark Blackburn “Were the Vikings a drain or a stimulus to the ninth-century monetary economy?”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.45 Vaughan Grimes “Isotope analysis and the Norse ‘crisis’: Reconstructing climate, diet and human migration events in the ninth century”
    16.45-17.15 DISCUSSION

    TUESDAY

  • 9.45-10.30 Jesse Byock “Vikings and Iceland in the ninth century: Crisis, what crisis?”
  • 10.30-11.15 Stephen Driscoll “The archaeology of the Scottish political landscape: Viking age transformations
  • 11.15-11.45 Tea/coffee

  • 11.45-12.30 Máire Ní Mhaonaigh “A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Ireland’s Viking Age”
  • 12.30-13.15 Rosamond McKitterick “Representations of crisis in ninth-century Frankia”
  • 13.15-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Gareth Williams “Without the Vikings we would have no Anglo-Saxons: Discuss”
  • 14.45-15.30 Gabor Thomas “Brightness in a time of dark: Metalwork from Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.30 John Hines “The ninth-century Viking raids and the kingdom of Wessex: A cloud with a silver lining”
  • 16.30-17.15 Andrew Reynolds “Measuring the indigenous response to external threat: Defining Wessex in the Viking Age”

I mean, had places not been so limited I would have taken two days off work to go, but they were, and I was slow to ask, so I didn’t get to do that. (Magistra et mater did, or at least did rather more effectively than did I, and has been reporting in what is so far two parts.) However, I did take the chance to sneak in for one paper, because although I’ve written about him here, I’ve never before heard Richard Hodges speak, and he’s been quite important for my thinking. So I begged my way in and the seats didn’t quite fill up so I didn’t feel bad about denying properly registered people their chance to hear. So with all that clear, what was being said?

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Well, it is probably simplest for me to summarise Magistra’s report and then add my own few penn’orth. We took a tour of European development via the sites Richard has mainly worked on, which might cause one to worry about sampling, but Hodges’s big thing has always been to make his sites part of something much larger, and he’s had some splendid sites to do it with. So we started with emporia, right back to Dark Age Economics, and Hodges’s current feeling that these proto-urban trading settlements are already in decline before the Viking Age, though the North Sea networks into which they fit are apparently doing well enough for Scandinavian sites like Kaupang and Hedeby to be building in the ninth century, even though at points west this settlement form was over by the mid-eighth. They also appear to hang on in the Adriatic, however, where Hodges speaks from the authority of San Vincenzo al Volturno in Italy, pictured above where a monastic settlement into which massive Carolingian patronage is briefly poured and which acquires a substantial rural hinterland naturally becomes a local entrepôt, and Butrint in Albania, where urban decay was fairly pronounced between the sixth and ninth century but which then picks up a bit. This is a different local network, and the local variations are significant, but not enough to wipe out the similarity; yes, in the North Sea there are Vikings, but in the Adriatic a good few sites are wiped out in Saracen raids in 881, which is part of why Venice gets a head start thereafter. In general, as Magistra has it:

Overall, Hodges was arguing for two phases of trade. At the start of the ninth century there’s trade of prestige goods – including Chinese jade found at San Vincenzo. By the end of the ninth there’s been a shift away from this small-scale presige [sic] trading to larger scale trade and the beginnings of real sustainability. This was also reflected in more stratified buildings in C9 AS England, the multiplication of Frankish silos (for grain storage) and the development of fortified small manors in Italy. Hodges saw this large-scale economy developing from the 840s onwards and powered by the Vikings and Arabs.

Well, this all works pretty well for me, because the idea that there is a low-level economic solidification in the ninth century prior to the taxi run for the later take-off in the tenth century, fits with what I see in my material, an intensification of settlement and exchange, so you might expect me to quarrel with little except a bizarre defence Hodges made of hedge fund managers as being necessary for the economy like the Vikings, which I have all kinds of problems with which needn’t be explored here. And I did like his warning that archæology shouldn’t be expected to show negatives: we have very little evidence of activity in Venice in this period, but we know full well from other sources it was getting going.1 I also rather like his assessment of the size of the population at San Vincenzo by how many beds you could physically have fitted into the dormitory. I mean, the monks probably slept on the floor if they were proper reformed Benedictines, but the number is probably about right (110 maximum, which is considerably below some estimates, including that of the abbey’s own chronicle—I suspect lay brothers of some early kind were being included here). And a pointed question about the slave trade elicited Hodges’s opinion that it was marginal until the end of the ninth century, except in the East where both Byzantium and the Caliphate increase demand for slaves hugely as they stabilise; he willingly admitted that Michael McCormick sees things very differently here, but as we have recently discussed, indeed, neither texts nor archæology are particularly good for demonstrating slavery. So, on the whole a well-grounded, if opinionated, tour of a pretty large part of the European economic sphere in a fairly short time, and with some suitably impressive pictures and factoids to remember. I found this one useful and snuck back out with a feeling that I’d used my time wisely.

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint


1. Something I know quite well, from when a particular Cambridge archæologist set me to do a seminar presentation on it during my M. Phil., and then had to admit after I came back to them, panicked, four days later with no data, that they couldn’t find any published archæology on it either, now that they came to look.