Tag Archives: Chris Wickham

Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-’Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!


1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

711 and All That (conference report)

Still months and months behind but by now more amused than regretful at my own dislocation from the present, I now bring you a report on a thing that happened in Oxford on 17th June this year, which was a mini-conference in the Institute of Archaeology entitled 711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th year. The organiser, Javier Martínez, who deserves all credit for organising this and letting me slip in having registered late, pointed out that to the best of his knowledge this was the only commemoration of that event worldwide, which seems rather strange, as we were all largely of the opinion that it was quite important. (Was he right? Surely not. Aha, here’s one for starters.) But, who were ‘we’, or rather, ‘they’, since I was only heckling? Well, here’s the program.

711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th anniversary year

Friday 17 June 2011
Lecture Room, Institute of Archaeology (36 Beaumont Street)

  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Arab conquest of Spain”
  • Nicola Clarke, “Caliphs and Conquerors: images of the Marwanids in the Islamic conquest of Spain”
  • Laura Carlson, “Negotiating the Borderlands: Frankish-Iberian relations in the wake of 711″
  • Graham Barrett, “Latin Letters under Arab Rule”
  • Javier Martínez, “Changing Urban Monumentality: Visigoths vs. Umayyads”
  • Erica Buchberger, “Gothic Identity before and after 711″
  • Rob Portass, “Galicia before and after 711″
  • Chris Wickham, “Economy and Trade after 711″
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Response”
  • Javier Martínez, “Conclusions”

You would have to know the Oxford Hispanist establishment (though we do actually have one!) to know, but what we have here, small and perfectly formed which is just as well given that the Lecture Room in Beaumont Street is small and somewhat oppressive is basically two superstars bracketing a party of local research students. Now, some of these guys probably will themselves be superstars in due course and I already have to keep a close eye on Graham Barrett in case he ever starts wondering about Catalonia (local running joke, sorry), but I will confess that I had largely come to see Eduardo Manzano Moreno. He is one of the long string of people who set me to doing, directly or indirectly, what I now do. I know I’ve blamed a lot of people for this but one of them, David Abulafia, set me two of Professor Manzano’s articles when I was studying under him, and then I liked them so much that I came up with a Catalonia-focussed mini-project while studying under another of these people, Rosamond McKitterick, and that became the core of my doctoral proposal, so there you are. The two articles plus his first book more or less said everything you could usefully say at that time about the Christian-Muslim frontier, and I quickly found there was little to add to them, but it started me off.1 So I’ve always wanted to meet him, and apart from the fact that he insists all his old work is rubbish and outdated—which as you can see doesn’t stop me citing it—it was an absolute pleasure. He broke down the questions of 711 into a set of issues, which were roughly as follows:

  1. The Arab conquest of Spain is not the weird one—we have lots of parallels where a rapid military assault knocks over a failing political order, including the Arab conquests in the Middle East—but it’s not like the immediately-preceding Arab conquest of Africa, where resistance is stiffer and collapse much slower.
  2. Although later stories of it make it a chance venture that got really really lucky, it plainly wasn’t: the attacks were coordinated, they had mints set up striking hybrid coin within weeks, governors appointed and generally an infrastructure plan was ready to roll.
  3. The armies of conquest were organised on tribal lines but they were not established thus, other things like lineages or territories were more important. (Here he clashed explicitly with Pierre Guichard‘s work on this, and there was a lot of scepticism about this point in questions.2)
  4. The conquest is usually seen as ‘pactual’, but the pacts have two very different outcomes: some local aristocracies are integrated into an Arabic one, but others are left in place for a while, until the ninth-century rebellions that effectively end their limited independence. Al-Andalus was not, in other words, a unified hierarchical polity until surprisingly long after its formation.
  5. Relatedly, that is when most of the writing about the conquest comes from, when its results were being remodelled. That shouldn’t surprise us, really, but it is something that is often not thought about.
  6. The continuity versus rupture debate is impossible to answer from a position equipped with hindsight; we need to think instead about when change comes and how people react in the circumstances of the day, not as if someone was working towards a goal of a new caliphate already in 715. 711 is the biggest of many points of change that eventually lead to that point.

This was an odd presentation in as much as it seemed to be an attempt to start six separate arguments rather than substantiate one. In fact, that’s exactly what it was, and Chris Wickham joined in happily at the end, with various hecklers asking ‘stimulating’ questions when agreement seemed too near. Between the two, however, we had Nicola Clarke, picking up in a way on point five of Manzano’s paper with reference to the way that the portrayal of the actual conquerors, Mūsā ibn Nusayr and Tarīq ibn Zayīd, changed in historical writing from the quasi-independents they probably were to loyal or disloyal servants of the Umayyad Caliphs, in sources of course written under Umayyad rule in Spain. We had Laura Carlson, flying some tentative kites about diplomatic contacts between Carolingians and Arab rulers in Spain, and reminding us that from an eighth-century Frankish perspective the Arabs were not the only problem people on that border, and that the centre was not necessarily the point they need to negotiate with.3 We had Graham Barrett, being as interesting as ever and this time about the few bits of evidence for Latin document-writing under Arab rule, all three of them, two of which relate to Catalonia so obviously I had to discourage him in questions, but I didn’t know about the third, which is from Portugal.4 And we had Javier Martínez taking a brief moment in the spotlight, or at least the projector glare, talking about the change from polis to madina, as Hugh Kennedy put it long ago, as perpetrated upon the Visigothic attempt to shore up Roman building traditions and even spread them between the fifth and eighth centuries, seeing between the two sets of projects a difference in audiences, from the civic public to the governing élites; this was a very subtle paper and full of impressive illustration that actually made up part of the argument.5 Then we got Erica Buchberger, talking about the political value of the Gothic ethnicity in Spain and arguing more or less that, despite the name of the chronicler Ibn al-Qutīya (`son of the Gothic woman’), politically it was the Visigoths that killed Gothicness and that only where Toledo had had least impact, i. e. the far north, did this seem like what the identity of the fallen kingdom had been. And we got Rob Portass, addressing the supposed isolation of Galicia and arguing that it was in fact more isolated from its neighbours by both geography and politics than from the old and new centres of power further south, but that the Arabs didn’t really ever try to integrate it because the perceived worth of doing so was so low.


Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), obverse Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), reverse

Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), with Arabic obverse and Latin reverse

And then there was Chris Wickham, who talked about ceramic distributions and where the gaps in our knowledge of economic change in this period are: in so doing he argued as strongly as he does in Framing of the Early Middle Ages for an Iberian peninsula broken into regions where things happen almost disconnectedly, so that the far north could carry on making and using fine pottery long after the economy along the west coast of what’s now Spain had broken down to the most basic regional level, that the area where the Muslims centred their government was somehow better connected to Mediterranean trade even when they did so and revived complexity quicker but didn’t necessarily spread this till much later, and various other things.6 In the course of this he offhandedly denied that al-Andalus had a functioning tax system, however, and here he met some opposition, not least from Professor Manzano but from others too; the position eventually reached was that tax, too, was probably regional and may only have worked in the west. (I have notes here that paraphrase the argument as, “WICKHAM: It’s not much of a tax system. MANZANO: Yes it is!” We were nearly at that level, but all good-humouredly, it was good fun to watch.) In his response Professor Manzano repeatedly stressed that it was the ninth century that we needed to watch, when cities that had collapsed revived (though not all of the same ones!), when tax is spread more thoroughly, when rule is tightened and enclaves closed down. 711 is only the start of a long process, and we jump to the parts of Andalusi history that we can see clearly much too easily; in fact, as Javier Martínez said in summing up, despite its reputation as a polity of tolerance, enlightenment and scholarship, al-Andalus emerges almost fully-formed from something quite like a Dark Age as far as our knowledge is concerned, and that Dark Age includes 711 and its aftermath, rather than ending with it.7


1. E. Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading 1994), pp. 83-96; Manzano, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); idem, “The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, eighth to twelfth centuries” in Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 32-52. The extensive coverage and erudition of those didn’t stop me adding my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127, of course, and if I could squeeze in there may yet be more room, but I cannot at the moment see where it is.

2. Guichard’s work most famously encapsulated in his Al-Andalus: estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente, Archivum 53 (Barcelona 1976), transl. as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977), but he has kept busy since then.

3. It is very strange that really very little has been published on this since F. W. Buckler’s Harun al-Rashid and Charles the Great (Cambridge MA 1931), but because he is an old friend I must at least mention Thomas Kitchen’s “The Muslim World in Western European Diplomacy from the Rise of Islam to the death of Louis the Pious” (unpublished M. Phil. thesis, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge 2004), which last I heard was still under review somewhere or other but which is the kind of careful work we would want done on this.

4. Both the Catalan ones, oddly, have been discussed separately by Roger Collins, one in his “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), VI, with text and translation in the original (and maybe in the reprint), and the other in his “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism, XVI, with facsimile in the original if I remember correctly.

5. The Kennedy article his “From Polis to Madina: urban change in late Antique and Early Islamic Syria” in Past and Present no. 106 (Oxford 1985), pp. 3-27, repr. in Colin Chant & David Goodman (edd.), Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology (London 1999), pp. 94-98 and in Kennedy, The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East, Variorum Collected Studies 860 (Aldershot 2006), I.

6. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 488-495, 656-665 & 741-758.

7. And then we all went to the pub and gossiped nineteen to the dozen, but none of that needs reporting here really. Encouraging, though!

Peasant group identities: the now-legendary Catalan edge case

Sometimes the best way to realise what you think is to hear or read a view from someone that presents you with difficulties. Once you’ve worked out what the difficulties are, you know more about what you think. (This is like the internal monologue version of the way to get an answer out of Usenet.1) This is another thing that has happened to me as a result of continuing on with Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages.

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Put shortly, ideas of agency are very strong in my work. I’ve worked on authority and power pretty much as long as I’ve been researching but one of the things that comes along with that is the idea that the people who have this property can act in ways that change things. (There are probably good and obvious Freudian reasons for why I have a fascination with the ability to change things, but let’s not go there on this blog. Suffice to say that this is a political fascination now, even if it wasn’t to start with; the state of UK politics has made it incredibly appealing as an idea.) This kind of historical agency is actually not as much of a given as it seems: a deterministic enough view of historical events might make it seem as if it’s hard for even those in power to change the direction of societies sometimes, and various social theories that involve large-scale dialectical processes, most obviously Marxism I suppose, would seem to give humans little choice in their affairs.

My work tends to argue against this. Two books into my hypothetical future career is a proper study of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, a man who lived at a time when big social forces seem to have been burgeoning.2 He wasn’t going to change the fact that the economy was booming, that the frontier was being settled, that al-Mansur had turned the Caliphal armies of al-Andalus onto all the principalities of Northern Spain (not with Borrell’s war record, anyway) or a great number of other things, but the ways he chose to meet the demands of his time meant that the lives of the people he ruled worked out slightly differently than they might otherwise have done so (with better-educated judges, for example, and a more trustworthy coinage, or if you prefer a negative emphasis, with far more of their relatives captive in Córdoba and a much greater likelihood of an independently-minded castellan ruling their local roost).3 He was not a typical aristocrat.

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400

Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona, Osona (945-993) and Urgell (947-993), as pictured in the Rotlle genealògic del Monestir de Poblet, c. 1400, ironically therefore as a typical aristocrat (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now Chris is quite big on the historical importance of aristocrats (“I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognize their importance”, he has written4) but they do tend to appear in his work as a homogenous class, all interested similarly in being and staying wealthy and powerful by whatever means necessary. This is hard to argue with, because people who weren’t so interested didn’t stay in that position versus people who did. Nice, considerate, light-handed aristocrats are hard to evidence. There was Gerald of Aurillac, of course, but if even half of what Odo of Cluny records about this lay saint is true to life, he was so very odd that he represents nothing except the possibilities of acting abnormally (though that is a real iceberg of a point, with huge hidden depths, to which I continually gravitate). I think, however, that Borrell II shows that there is more to aristocratic action than simply a single class ambition; some aristocrats worked to their ends differently from others, and indeed against each other.5

The fact that the third book I’d like to write next would make this point more fully probably has probably arisen in part from the increasing amount of debate I’ve had with Chris over the years. As a result of it, I would like to stress more that people’s differences had historically significant results. Chris knows this, too, of course, as his comparisons of different sorts of landowner in Framing, especially the Apions in the Oxyrynchos region of Egypt versus the slightly later Dioskoros of Aphroditō, makes clear, but to him, it seems to me from reading, they are important because they represent examples of a wider phenomenon, and therefore their differences exemplify disparity in scale of wealth and in their political times, whereas I am much more interested in the ways in which aristocrats deviated from pattern by choice.6 (This of course makes Chris much more able to write 820-page-long syntheses of the development of the entire Western world for four hundred years than I will ever be; he may be more able to do this than anyone, after all. But I persist in the belief that individual agency needs its part in historical explanation too, however much it may vie with generalisation.)

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

Catalan peasants at work, from the Biblia de Ripoll

All this, albeit less worked out, is an argument I have actually had with Chris, and as you may have noticed from the above I’ve more or less agreed to differ. But what about peasants? This is what has brought it freshly to mind. You would think, initially, that with peasants such generalisations are much more justifiable. Firstly, there were vastly more early medieval peasants than early medieval aristocrats, so the individual dissenter from a phenomenon stands out much less and is statistically less significant. Also, the peasant just has less agency than the aristocrat. How many people’s lives can a peasant affect, without (or even with) going on a homebrew-induced billhook killing spree? Not as many as even the most minor person with power, one might argue, and this is probably true. And yet it seems to me that – perhaps precisely because it matters less to grand arguments? – Chris gives a lot more space to peasant choices than he does to aristocratic ones. In the section of the book where he constructs a fictional Anglo-Saxon village society (‘Malling’), to make up for the lack of adequate records from a single place that can balance his case studies from elsewhere, the rise of one patron family and the fall of another, more established one, are explained solely in terms of their political choices and ability.7 Of course these are not real instances, but that doesn’t make their theoretical importance the less striking. And of course, behind them are a raft of choices about which patron family to associate with on the part of their followers.

You can see, I’m sure, how that scales up easily to aristocrats, and quite a lot of the explanations of the way politics worked in the Carolingian Empire with which I’m most comfortable rely on the aristocrats themselves needing help in getting potential followers to make such choices.8 But there are other ways in which peasant decisions make political differences, even short of revolt, and this is especially clear with Catalonia, or any other society with an open frontier. Now is not the time to get into a massive debate with the ghost of Pierre Bonnassie and the thankfully very-much-alive Gaspar Feliu i Montfort about exactly how true the former’s picture of Catalonia as a zone of mainly-independent free peasants, presumably governing their own labour in much the way that Chris suggests was more possible in his period than later,9 but it is important to note that the reason for that contention, however true it may be, is usually that there was an open frontier, where authority was thin, settlement encouraged (as we shall see in two posts’ time) and opportunity available to make a fresh start. While that remained true, it has been argued (and not just by Bonnassie10), the Catalan peasant could never be entirely oppressed, because he or she might always escape. Such settlement, after all, clearly did happen, even if Gaspar Feliu thinks that it was mainly driven by lords even so.11 It is of course a large-scale social phenomenon, sure, but it is made of a whole patchwork of individual decisions. This is not just because I’m sure (and have written) that not every settler had upped sticks far away, bought all the livestock they could afford and moved on out hoping to make a new life far away—I think many of them were much more local, often ‘field-next-door’ local12—but because whatever was going on here and whatever choices were being made, they obviously weren’t made by the peasantry as a class. If the whole peasantry had wanted to move to the frontier the interior would have become denuded of labour. This didn’t happen, so some people obviously chose to stay put and take it. We could argue about different economic circumstances, but again it would be hard to show that local societies lost a whole socio-economic layer of themselves, and I think I’ve shown that such choices could vary widely even within families out here.13 (I doubt that’s exclusive to ‘out here’ but ‘out here’ is where I can show it.) Such choices, furthermore, varied a lot in methods: save up, sell up, or get support? If so from whom? Does making a new independent start preclude doing so under new lordship? and so on.

Land for sale in Vallfogona del Ripollès

Land awaiting settlement in a Catalan valley, 2011

So this is the edge case, where a class fragments and a general answer has to take into account a lot of individuals making very difficult choices (and some rich proprietors making rather easier ones, of course). But from this edge I can see the space for more such people. I don’t want to accuse myself of being specially ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘individualist’ here. (After all, what can be more individualist than arguing that almost every other Marxist is wrong?) But I am made freshly conscious by Chris’s magisterial treatment of whole societies in their entire layers, however varied the layers may have been and however much societies differed between each other, that my historiography does not build from class down but from individuals up, and does so because I still want the individuals to be the ones who make the differences.


1. I realise that those old enough to even know what Usenet is/was won’t need the explanation, but the method probably has a more Hellenistic name given how Socratic it almost seems: it is, of course, to ask a question that presupposes something wrong or gets its facts wrong, on the basis that you are more likely to provoke a reaction from someone who can put you right if they can also tell you you’re wrong. On Usenet, classically, this worked far better than simply asking for help.

2. There weirdly isn’t one yet, beyond the standard nineteenth-century reference, Prosper de Bofarull y de Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), I pp. 139-196, though there is also Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “Dos comtes de Barcelona germans, Miró i Borrell” in Marie Grau & Olivier Poisson (edd.), Études roussillonnaises offertes à Pierre Ponsich. Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’histoire de l’art du Roussillon et de la Cerdagne (Perpignan 1987), pp. 145-162, but that isn’t very much. There is also a certain amount of stuff by Michel Zimmermann, which is as ever very clever and, I think, also wrong in detail. Till I get the book together, thus, I can best refer you to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 141-166.

3. On all this the best guide remains Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, though cf. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Societat i econòmia” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 81-115. Specifically, on al-Mansur you could now see Philippe Sénac, Al-Mansûr : le fleau de l’an mil (Paris 2006), on the judges Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 81-99 and on the coinage J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217-243; on the 985 sack of Barcelona you should now see G. Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here in PDF, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008. On feudalism, well, give me time

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 19-31, quote at p. 30.

5. I’ve already essayed something along these lines in what I hope will be my next-but-one paper, J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming), pp. 000-00, but it could obviously be done more broadly than that.

6. C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 242-250 & 411-419.

7. Ibid., pp. 428-434.

8. That comfort comes most obviously from Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

9. Bonnassie: esp. his Catalogne, II pp. 781-829, handily translated by Jean Birrell as “The Noble and the Ignoble: a new nobility and a new servitude in Catalonia at the end of the eleventh century” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 196-242; Feliu in his “La pagesia catalana abans de la feudalització” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1994), pp. 19-41 (no, seriously, do, this is a really important article); Chris, classically in “Problems of comparing rural societies in early medieval western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in his Land and power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

10. E. g. also by Josep María Salrach i Marés in El procés de feudalització (segles III–XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987) and Paul Freedman in The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge 1991).

11. Feliu, “Societat i econòmia” & “Pagesia”, and the various works (which include the latter at pp. 93-110) in his first collected papers, La llarga nit feudal: Mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2010).

12. J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342.

13. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 57-66.

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. 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. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Big books, high praise and tiny queries

(Written substantially offline on the East Coast main line between Edinburgh and Newcastle, 23rd May 2011.)

My current job is quite luxurious, there’s no point in denying it (and you know, I don’t exactly mind). One of these luxuries is somewhat enforced, however, which is: time to read. This is a luxury, no mistake, because I sorely missed it in the previous job, where I could only spare the time to read up for my own papers; now I can read more, but, on the other hand what I have to read is now also dictated not just by what I’m working on but by what I’m teaching, where I really do have good reasons to get current quickly because I have to tell other people to read it. So, since arrival, I have been attacking this problem.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Quite a lot of the books I have got through have been really quite large. I don’t mean so much the multi-authored exhibition catalogues and conference proceedings the Continental scholarship, especially, generates, like Jordi Camps’s edited Cataluña en la época carolingia that’s been in my sidebar, well, possibly since I started the blog—and every now and then I take in another of its informative little papers—but single-author syntheses. Among these there are two I thought it was fairly urgent for me to get a hang of, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007) and John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005). The reason for the latter will be obvious: my idea of the scholarship of the man I’m standing in for was a decade behind the times and since then he’d written something that was now on every reading list in the subject. Guy’s book, meanwhile, I’d bought on a whim in the CUP bookshop a few years before, probably after hearing him present somewhere but maybe just on the basis of what I knew of his work, which is now of course much easier to know about, and because of a sneaking suspicion that it probably should be on a lot of reading lists, and it just took me a while to make it urgent: sorry, Guy! But Guy’s book is 616 pages long, and John’s 624 (gloss, heavy), so this was a bit daunting; I knew when I picked these things up that I would be living with them closely for a while. (There’s also another very obvious extremely large book of wide-ranging comparative focus that has defeated scholars as least as bibliovoric as me, temporarily I’m sure, which I am now taking on properly rather than just reading via the index, and that invites comparisons in what follows, but if they occur at all they will have, in justice, to wait till I’ve taken it all in.1)

There are obvious limits to what I can say about these books: both these (all three of these) scholars’ goodwills are important to me, in so far as I have them I want to keep them and so you would probably expect what follows to be basically praiseworthy, and so indeed it will be (although it has been a pain to phrase because of implicit comparisons – I apologise if any offence remains to be taken, it is not intended) but that’s because I think they are good, I have no need to pretend about this. My adulation will be very slightly tempered below with some tiny points of query, but I think the first thing to make clear is that it was or is worth reading all of these books. I actually enjoyed the reading of Guy’s; I picked it up each time genuinely wanting to know where it would go next, as opposed to simply wanting to know what was in it. It may be that he was conscious that his book was in a series of supposed textbooks, and so wrote deliberately clearly, and if so it pays off, he is admirably lucid and the reading goes quickly. John’s is slower going because there is so much information on every page that one keeps being caught up by footnotes and going, “really? where? <flip flip flip page> Wow that sounds interesting. Hang on, where was I?” (Guy’s is by no means short of information but John has little local details that distract. This may only really affect English readers though.) Also, and this is just my weakness really, Guy’s chapters are shorter and more divided up: beyond a certain amount per lump I do find that my brain creaks trying to hang on to it all, and here Guy is kinder. (I’m conscious that I myself fail on this assessment; sorry about that.)

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Both of these books also offer very big interpretative answers to substantial historical questions. Guy is of course offering an answer to to the great question about the fall of the Roman Empire, and he is far from the only person doing so; the only reason his book isn’t on more reading lists, I would guess, is that most people who set them read Peter Heather’s almost equally large tome that narrowly preceded it into the shops and then felt they had all the answer they needed for the moment. Many will know that Guy and Peter do not agree about many things: Guy is scrupulously polite in his references here, however, indicating disagreement where necessary but never without respect, and certainly the opposition is not silenced but acknowledged and engaged. The big difference between Guy and his opposition for me, and the one that means I prefer Guy’s take, is that for him archæology is crucial. Archæological evidence is given at least equal billing throughout his book and it substantially underpins his argument, which is, basically, that even in economic and military crisis Rome was still a sufficiently potent political force that it warped and changed the cultures at its borders and offered them opportunities of engagement and enrichment that drew them in towards it, while at the same time its military and aristocratic culture was increasingly affected (and I use that word both transitively and intransitively) with supposedly-barbaric overtones. No-one, however, wanted to fell the Empire; they wanted to control it. It was competition between such ambitious members of a military élite that overlapped the Empire’s borders which did the whole thing in.2

In the course of this, Guy raises several important issues about assumptions people make about barbarian identities, not least that they are detectable in burial styles and that they are incompatible with Roman identities. The most interesting examples of counters to these that he provides, for me, are the facts that the Visigoths only started doing furnished burial with grave-goods once they were in Spain, so it can hardly be an imported ethnic practice—he argues that instead it represents, here and in other places, competition and insecurity among élites that Romans as well as others could employ for status display (pp. 342-346 for Spain and more generally at pp. 27-29 and per people thereafter)—and the weird and oddly loyalist imperial dignities claimed by the Moorish rulers of the western edges of Roman Africa, left on their own by the Vandal takeover as ostensibly legitimist rulers who would never again recognise a higher authority (pp. 405-410). I don’t know where else you could go for someone writing in English who makes these populations part of the wider story of Empire.

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing, from Wikimedia Commons

John’s book is also part of several wider debates. Most people are probably familiar with John’s work because of the ‘minster hypothesis’, an argument he started in the 1980s about the organisation of the early Anglo-Saxon Church which now has a Wikipedia entry, and which holds that it was substantially or entirely built round collegiate churches with priests operating out of a shared base ministering to very large mother-parishes, and that there wasn’t really any other kind of Church organisation than that before the tenth and eleventh centuries. This `minster’ category included both gatherings of priests and gatherings of monks; John held and holds (pp. 2-5) that there was no functional difference except in wealth until the age of reform.3 This book represents the deep background that makes such a picture of the Church in early Anglo-Saxon England plausible. (He doesn’t deny the occasional existence of smaller-range churches, especially in zones where the British Church might have survived into Anglo-Saxon control, but doesn’t think them significant.) He has a case, at the very least: it’s impossible to deny that with this much detail thrown behind it, pulled from legislation, place-names, charters, narratives, archæology and topography, and this level of detail means that even if you don’t yourself buy the case, or indeed if you’re actually interested in something else, there’s still stuff in here that’s relevant to you. An example: a highly-touristic friend of mine said, on a visit to mine while I was reading this book, that he’d been in Kidderminster the previous week, which he gathered had “roots in your period”; I dimly remembered having read as much, figured the name was a give-away and was indeed able to check John’s index and show my friend a date of first record (736), the Old English place name (Husmerae) and a picture of the charter where it and the incipient church first occur (Sawyer 89),4 which was nice.

From this book, then, could start dozens and dozens of local history enquiries, and equally many have been incorporated and assimilated into it. There are also, either side of the big argument about the shape of the Church, absolutely fascinating chapters about the conversion (pp. 8-78) and the social function of the parish church (when we have some; pp. 426-504), both a bit more informed by foreign scholarship and indeed social anthropology than the more structural chapters, but because of that all the more engagingly humanistic, showing a lively compassion for the everyday member of a community and an almost combative willingness to consider the unusual and see if it makes more sense with the evidence than arguments of long tradition. What John achieves with these chapters is to demonstrate how flexible, adaptable and individual such traditions might be, and how we might do better to talk in terms of changing religious practice than of converting people. So, whether or not you come for the argument, stay for the people: this book is full of them, and John’s writing is always prepared for them to do something odd or opposite to the usual interpretation of the evidence. It is, really, a very rich volume.

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

It seems almost rude, therefore, to wish that there was even more in it,5 and indeed I would probably have groaned to find it as I was reading, but with it all inside my head in some way, I still want to know what John thinks about some areas he doesn’t have space to cover here. Some of these are questions hanging from his argument, and I actually hope to have his help in tackling them separately later, so I’ll not go into detail now, but they include the significance of Roman sites to the Anglo-Saxon kings—owned but unused?—the possibility of non-church religious foci like standing crosses occupying the small parish rôle, and the actual management of the ministry in a minster landscape. All of these strike me as areas where John’s book indicates that we don’t yet have good answers, and that is another value it has but I wonder if he has answers anyway for which there just wasn’t space here.

As for Guy’s book, that leaves me with fewer questions, not least I admit because I know his subject in much less detail and so am just readier to accept what look like careful well-founded answers. I do really like his recharacterisation of the ambitions and mores of those implicated in the Empire’s break-up, and I really like his use of archæological evidence as part of that. But, on the Continent I work much later and I don’t have the kind of acquaintance with the material to query someone who so obviously does. It’s only when Guy deals with England, my long-lurking secondary interest, that I have enough of a grasp to wonder if his argument doesn’t get a bit fragile this far away from Rome. I don’t just mean his challenging reinterpretation of Gildas’s chronology, which is set aside in an appendix (pp. 519-526), but, well, really just one thing: quoit brooches. These are made to bear an awful lot of weight in his interpretation of sub-romanitas in southern Britain (pp. 236-237 & 316-319). I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the book where he would allow that one type of dress item holds a fixed archæological significance (in this case, (post-)Roman military organisation) over a hundred and fifty years of change, they are here almost his only evidence for such a survival and I’m not sure I buy it. At the very least, at the end of that period the fact that this was an old type of artefact must have meant its meaning differently to what it did when they had first been current wear among soldiers in the island. Maybe I have him wrong here: I’m sure he will say if so, but to me this implies that we might better think of more disruption to identities and organisation earlier in Britain than he suggests, and I don’t see why it should damage his argument for the rest of Europe at all if Britain, as so often, refuses to fit comfortably in with it.

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

So yes: big books, high praise and tiny queries. But the queries are only tiny, and the books’ impact is much greater than them; I humbly commend these works to the readership. I already own one and am happy about this; I will have to own the other. May there be more whence these came!


1. I ought perhaps to worry about his reading this, which I know he does, and finding out that I haven’t yet properly read his magnum opus, but firstly I’m sure the fact that I cite his earlier work avidly but not this one had been noticed and in any case I’ve by now given up assuming I have any information that he hasn’t already found out. If he didn’t have two eyes I’d be looking for ravens, I tell you.

2. I’m conscious that I’ve rephrased fairly freely here and that I may be emphasising things a bit differently to Guy, but I do want to point out that the fact that I can do this belies the particularly bone-headed Amazon review of this book that maintains that it has no argument. The book’s argument is set out at the beginning, the end and most of the discussion between is directed to it so I can only presume that the reviewer didn’t spot it because they were only prepared to see the argument they already believed.

3. The debate before this can be pursued through J. Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; and D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

4. Blair, Church, pp. 102-103 & fig. 14.

5. And it reminds me infallibly of the first time I ever saw Stuart Airlie presenting a paper, one in which he said while discussing the inadequacy of the treatment of his subject by some recent Sonderforschungquellenschriftarbeit-type monster, “And isn’t that always what you think when a new six-hundred-page German-language monograph bang on your subject area lands on your desk? `Oh, it’s just not big enough!’” This reassures me that I may not be confessing awful scholarly inadequacy by occasionally enjoying it when a book is short.

Seminars LXXX & LXXXI: two takes on really big changes

Okay, it’s been a while since last post. I’m not going to apologise, this term has just been a lot higher-pressure than last one and many of you know what that’s like. I do regret it, but what profits it you to know that? So I’ll write when I can and here I am doing it. My load is at least slightly lightened by the fact that the first seminar in my to-blog pile, Julia Smith speaking to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar with the title, “Rethinking relics in the medieval west: evidence and approaches c. 700-c. 1200″, which was excellent, has already been excellently written up by Magistra et Mater and so I shall direct you there for that and move on to stuff more local and, at last, less related to dead bodies. Do have a look, though. [Edit: light editing below to close up unfinished sentences, correct typoes and add the final missing footnote, and then one big and obvious edit to patch a mistake in my recollection, with thanks to Mark Handley for querying it!]

Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

Postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne, possibly the second most famous Belgian

Instead, I can offer brief reports on a couple of truly macro-scale papers that I heard in Oxford in the early part of the year, and first of these was the inestimable Dr Mark Whittow, who at rather short notice had to draft himself in to address the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 17th January, and did so with the title, “Pirenne, Mohammed and Bohemond: before Orientalism”. You will immediately observe that this is a title implying a fairly broad sweep of knowledge and a deliberately provoking argument, and so it was. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll do it the hopefully venal injustice of a short summary. Mark asserted that in some fundamental ways the famous Pirenne thesis, originated by the gent on the stamp above and arguing that the ancient world’s economic arrangement persisted long after Rome’s fall and was only really broken up by the Muslim conquests that separated Africa from the Christian territories on the north of the Mediterranean, has now more or less been proven by archæological finds (such as the occupation at the Crypta Balbi in Rome and Pella in Jordan, which stopped receiving imports from across the Mediterranean only in the eighth century), as well as a cursory reading of the letters of the trans-Mediterranean traveller Pope Gregory the Great.1 Whether or not the territories of the West belonged to it in any direct sense, they all belonged to the political context and mental world of the Empire still.

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

(High) medieval map of Jerusalem

After the Muslim conquests, however, the conquered lands were fundamentally reoriented, quite literally, in both commercial and mentality terms, eastwards, and those Christian territories lined up against them were similarly so. But, argued Mark, though the East may have forgotten the West, the West did not forget the East, the source of the Christianity even then making its way among new peoples whose fascination with the Holy Land and knowledge of its ancient state soon far outstripped their knowledge of their much nearer neighbours. Around the Irish Sea, for example, there were works about the Holy Places circulating but no contact, for example, with Spain (at least not since the British diaspora, I might condition).2 Everywhere in the West you could find relics of the Holy Land, bits of it that people had got hold of or brought home. In some ways the East remained the spiritual home of Western Christians, and this fascination was played upon to the ultimate effect when the First Crusade was called, and may explain the massive response to Emperor Alexius’s call for help, [Edit: here's what the above deletion should have said...] a response, we may note, which was far larger for the Holy Land than for similar calls to action in Spain and Italy at earlier points. [You see how this makes more sense. Sorry Mark!] What followed, however, was a rapid disenchantment as the East, in all its manifold divisions, proved less accepting of the West than had been assumed it would and the West found itself not among brothers but among all manner of difference, leading the Crusader kingdoms’ élites to keep themselves Latinately separate from their subjects and Europe to redefine itself against this finally-noticed Other.3

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries

Map of trade routes through the Caucasus and East in the tenth to eleventh centuries (from English Wikipedia)

This is of course a powerfully explanatory thesis, and I’m certainly not equipped to critique it all, nor, given how massively helpful Mark has been to me since I arrived, do I really feel like doing so. At the time, this seemed almost insuperably convincing and questions mainly centred on whether Pirenne’s picture could be called right given what we know of the alternative networks developing, in the North Sea and through the Caucasus and Baltic regions, which drain focus from the Mediterranean economy anyway. Chris Wickham also pointed out a long tradition of dismissing the East which predates the First Crusade, visible for example in Western responses to Iconoclasm, which Mark suggested came from the Roman tradition of sneering at the Greeks. It does seem to me, however, that to stand up fully the broader thesis requires that we accept arguments from silence about networks and connections in the West, which someone like Martin Carver might question,4 while at the same time dismissing such arguments in the central Mediterranean in the light of recent finds. New finds might obviously also mess with the picture in the West. Likewise, the quantity of evidence feels important. The ending of Roman grain shipments from Africa to Rome, and then to Constantinople, must have reduced the weight of trade across those routes.5 If the contacts were already attenuating before the Muslim advent, and it was the Muslim conquests that finally caused them to drop off completely, the effects that Mark was arguing for would have been under way before the Muslim conquests and Pirenne’s thesis would be right, perhaps, but lose much of its explanatory value. Michael Bentley did also ask if there was any evidence that would actually disprove a theory so based in a subjective reading of patchy manuscript preservation. This, in as much as it amounted to demanding the proof of a negative, seemed a bit unfair, but the question of falsifiability does still lurk. We may never be able to prove Mark wrong if he decides to run with this, but it will also be very hard to be sure that he’s right. History is fun like that, isn’t it?

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Composite Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions & published Northern Hemisphere reconstructions 200-2000 CE and 1000-2000 CE

Harder to understand, but (if I did) much less disputable was a paper the very next day, 18th January, given by Professor Bruce Campbell to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford under the title, “Population, Disease and Environmental Change in the Fourteenth Century”. This was a paper about the Black Death, except that it was not about the disease itself or its spread, about which indeed there have been lots of recent new discoveries largely covered by Michelle of Heavenfield at her Contagions blog, if you’re interested. Instead, it took in a huge range of climate evidence, taken from all over Europe, and sourced from lake cores, tree rings, stalactite build-up, and all manner of different things to build up a very complicated picture of global climate over the central Middle Ages. This was of course different all round the globe: one of the biggest problems with doing palæoclimatology, as I’ve said here before, is that people generalise from Greenland to Barcelona quite happily when actually Lake Geneva gives you a different story, and so on. Campbell was fully emphasising this variation across the globe, and conditioning almost all his general trends with local or micro-level exceptions. This made it all the more powerful that he was able to emphasise, from all his sorts of evidence, almost all of which you can check out yourself at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Paleoclimatology Data website if you choose, that all over the globe climate was in violent flux over the course of the fourteenth century. It was not simply getting warmer or getting colder, it was all over the shop everywhere, with different overall trends in different places—in Western Europe passing eventually from the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (as I now sort of understand why we have to call it, seeing as ‘warm’ is a bit subjective) to the Little Ice Age—but such serious variation in the period between that big freezes, droughts and, consequently, serious agricultural disruption dominated most of the period 1250-1450. This doesn’t explain the Black Death, at least not directly; the unusual travel of rats is still not understood and it seems unlikely that the archæology will ever be there. What it may well explain, however, is the incredible gravity of the plague’s effects, especially since they came on the back of an under-explored wave of cattle disease which meant that much of the affected area, in East and West, was already running very short on meat and milk, in turn messing with population replacement rates. Everywhere was short of resource and resistance. The results, catastrophe (and a quasi-Malthusian fat time for the survivors, though it was not Malthusian crisis that had thinned things out previously).6

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Obligatory toiling peasants illustration, from about the right period too

This was powerful stuff. I was mainly excited because of the variety of subtle ways in and the massive source of free data with which I might now reconsider the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, and others there were more interested in knowing if they could use this sort of techniques to look at other plagues (and suspicious that it doesn’t seem to work half so well for the Justinianic plague). To this Campbell was keen to emphasise, as he had throughout, that he was looking here at an incredibly complex set of environmental systems, with almost-chaotic looking interrelations. Changes in, for example, the Pacific Ocean’s oscillation, as we are seeing even today, have complex causes and affect climate all over the world, but depending on what else climate is doing in each area, and a dozen or more other factors, the results are very different on the micro-scale. (Failure to appreciate this leads to Daily Express stories ‘disproving’ global warming because of huge snowfall in Britain as the Guardian runs stories about historically-unparalleled droughts in Kenya at about the same time.) For the current debates over climate, only the big trends are truly significant, but for our sort of researches, the local variation is immensely important, and there are some ways here to approach it at the same time as the big trends that make up its background. This applies to more than just climate, as a way of thinking… For the second time in two days I’d been thrown into some really big thoughts about changes affecting the whole world that I study and had to come away thinking myself quite lucky just to be where I am when I am, in this way at least.7


1. Some quick web-digging finds the Crypta Balbi excavations reported in Daniele Manacorda, Crypta Balbi. Archeologia e storia di un paesaggio urbano (Rome 2001) and Gregory’s letters are now all translated in John R. C. Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great (Toronto 2004). I don’t have a reference for Pella.

2. The obvious one is Adomnán of Iona’s De locis sanctis, ed. & transl. Denis Meehan as Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Dublin 1958) though you could if you liked find an older translation online here. Bede like Admonán’s work so much he wrote his own, and you can find that translated online here, transl. A. van der Nat as “Regarding the Holy Places, by the Venerable Bede”, from the edition of Paul Geyer of it as “Bædae Liber de locis sanctis” in idem (ed.), Itinera Hierosolymitana, sæculi IIII-VIII, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiae latinorum XXXVIIII (Vienna 1898).

3. On which a quick study might be Jonathan Phillips, “The Latin East, 1098-1291″ in Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford 1995), pp. 112-140.

4. A suspicion I have mainly on the scale of connections I’ve heard him attribute to monastic centres in Pictland, as for example in his “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St Andrews House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40, but shared by a number of the contributors to Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998).

5. My cite of resort for this remains Chris Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98, and of course that does mean I’m twenty years out of date and new evidence may very well have changed the picture. I know what the answer to this is, of course, and it’s now quite close to the top of the to-read pile but as ever other stuff is more immediately urgent.

6. Professor Campbell’s paper was loaded with references, which he displayed by adding them onto the relevant presentation slide as he wound up each point. This was very stylish but left one little time to copy them down. However, I bet most of them are in what seems to be a related publication, B. M. S. Campbell, “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards, and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi (ed.), Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale, secc. XIII-XVIII. Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Atti della “Quarantunesima Settimana di Studi” 26-30 aprile 2009 (Firenze 2010), pp. 13-32 and online as PDF here. Meanwhile, the damn handy graph I’ve used as illustration is from Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105 and otherwise online unpaginated here.

7. Not, of course, that I’m happy about living in the era where this is a sudden and urgent political concern that the reigning world-system is completely unequipped to tackle. I have a son, after all, I’m not really happy about the world I’m bequeathing to him.

Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna. Always start posts like this with skeletons!

A while back now I blogged a paper that Caroline Goodson had given at the Institute of Historical Research in London about a site in Italy where she was working and where it seemed likely that they had found a room in which two Roman emperors had enjoyed a drink together and one later written about it. Caroline‘s been a friend and/or teacher of mine since I was still doctorising, so when she came to Oxford this term with an update I made sure I was there to hear. She presented it at the Medieval Archaeology seminar on 1st November 2010, and the title was simply “Excavations at Villa Magna”.

Portal of the church at Villamagna

Portal of the church at Villamagna – observe the many different sorts of stonework

They’ve come a long way since 2007, when they had basically uncovered the Roman villa and some confusing floors elsewhere on the site and just begun on the cemetery in front of the Church, from which in the end more than five hundred separate bodies have now come. They’re now therefore able to say, assuming that I can correctly interpret my notes and that I understood right when I wrote them, that the church, which is extremely mixed-up in its surviving fabric as the illustration above makes clear, goes back in some parts to a point somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries and was being modified almost as soon as it was up and running. Similarly over the course of this period, what had been a portico to this villa that had a semi-industrial wine production centre elsewhere on the site briefly became the home to that production—probably using, as it turns out, the same dolia that the team had presumed stolen from the earlier location—but was very soon after emptied out again, after which the roof collapsed. The building was then partially cleared and huts built, inside the still-standing walls. These were in their turn demolished for what seems to have been fortification in the fifth-to-sixth centuries but the area, which stands close to the slowly-filling cemetery, was being used for settlement and burial again by the eighth-to-ninth centuries.

[Edit: the below image changed and various alterations made (and indicated) thanks to input from Dr Goodson herself!]

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

In the tenth century this place became a monastery, and a monastery whose charters have been published.1 This, for me, would be the interesting bit, except that the three founders of the monastery appear to have been Anagni citizens of no great importance, so guessing how they had got hold of this site, which had been an imperial villa and then a papal possession is utterly obscure. (In conversation afterwards with Caroline I decided that what I thought most probable was that these were vassals of the bishop of Anagni, who would probably have got the site from the papacy some time before, but since I have not actually seen the charters or read any of the literature this can only be the most arrant and careless hypothesis.2 Comparing these charters with those of Anagni, if any survive there, might prove interesting, all the same.) On the other hand, while the question of succession and foundation and patronage may be the most interesting bit for me, the excavators and team generally are probably more interested in the site as a whole, where the monastery lasts as a set of structures till about 1400 but which also has several other zones, including a late Antique building they’re identifying as a barracks, a later castle (inevitably) and of course the old villa. The latest report on their excellent website [has even more stuff in it, so, if] you want to know more, therefore, look at the site! Because what they are looking at here is succession, but of a slightly broader sort than the narrow who-controls-the-means-of-production way I would usually think; what we’ve got here is a succession to the ancient world, in which an imperial property becomes something like a modern French château, a fortress, a village, a monastery and then a village again.

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

This change of worlds was also brought out by a question of Lesley Abrams‘s at the very end, about the origins of goods showing up as finds evidence. Caroline said that there was Byzantine and North African material showing up until the seventh century, Sicilian and Constantinopolitan until 700, and thereafter the economy of the site seems to have gone almost completely local, making its own pottery, not even getting goods from Rome, and doesn’t really reconnect until 1296 when the monastery was suppressed. Chris Wickham (also present, unsurprisingly) has written about this kind of change as seen in pottery but an actual site with things you can see on it shows maybe even more clearly how small these places’ worlds, that had been pan-Imperial, quickly got, and how local any kind of power and influence must have been.3 Here, three unknown citizens from Anagni with a land-grant can become bigshots in a site where emperors once drank. It’s not quite the kind of ‘end of civilisation’ that Bryan Ward-Perkins (also present…) has written about, not least because here the buildings went on for a while in various configurations, but it’s a fairly major set of changes that this kind of study lets us put together as part of a bigger story.4


1. Published as, I learn from the project’s website’s full bibliography, C. D. Flascassovitti (ed.), Le Pergamene del Monastero di S. Pietro di Villamagna (976-1237) (Lecce 1994).

2. From that same bibliography I learn that, until this project’s report comes out, the works of reference would be M. De Meo, S. Pietro di Villamagna presso Anagni: una villa romana si trasforma in abbazia, Quaderni di architettura e restauro 2 (Rome 1998) and G. Giammaria (ed.), Villamagna, Monumenti di Anagni 3 (Anagni 1999). The team’s provisional reports can however be found here.

3. Chris’s point of view could be found, among other places, in his “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98.

4. Most obviously B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford 2005).

Seminary LXIX: me telling stories

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20, source of one of the stories

I said below that I had a good reason for missing Gabor Thomas’s paper on Lyminge, at least, and that I would explain what it was. Duly, therefore, it was that I was presenting a paper approximately an hour later at the Oxford Medieval History seminar, and though I now know that in theory I could have made it to both, the possibility didn’t actually occur to me that day and I think this is just as well, really. I was talking to the title, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, and it went fairly well, really.

The title came about through a combination of two factors. For a long long time now I’ve had work in draft about why charters are a tricky source that need reading critically as well as just for data, because the people creating them were not above misrepresenting stuff, leaving important details out and so on and because the form itself encourages such elisions and illusions. I’ve spoken about this before at Leeds briefly, it’s touched on in my thesis, I’ve had many a conversation about it, but one thing I haven’t really explored, except here where I use it as post fodder, is the fact that quite a number of charters actually contain quite lengthy stories to establish the set-up that leads to the transaction that’s being recorded.

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes

The remains of Castellnou de Carcolzes, subject of one of the stories

The second factor was that the seminar convenors are both people who work on themes close to my own, they thought it would be good for my scholarly profile here and, flatteringly, for their seminar or so they said, for me to show up in it as soon as possible, and would that be possible? And I said, more or less, if you want something that contains research, then not till next term, but I can pull you something together out of bits and string sooner; one organiser then said, roughly, “hurrah, bits and string it is then, see you in second week” and I went, “oh what seriously? but now I have to write the thing” and started panicking. So, the actual paper contained two stories from an earlier Leeds paper later sort-of-published as a thesis appendix and here as this blog post, one that I never got round to using because Adam Kosto beat me to it in his excellent (if tactically peculiar) 2005 Speculum article, several about the 985 sack of Barcelona that have been collected by Michel Zimmermann and Gaspar Feliu to name but two, two that you all saw here first in two other blog posts, one that Pierre Bonnassie told in his 1975-6 book that I’m not entirely sure I believe, the classic one that gave me my first (and prize-winning, I might add) paper and which you’ve heard about here endlessly (because I’m sure I haven’t finished yet) and one from a paper given only a few months before here in Oxford that will have been familiar to at least some people in the audience, not least because it had also appeared in the part of this year’s Leeds paper of which that paper was an expansion…1 This is what happens beyond a certain level of academic busyness, I guess, you either learn to say no or you start recycling…

So, in other words, the only new material in this at all was constituted in the facts that I compared Count Guifré the Hairy to Batman, and that in pulling all these things together as examples of a single phenomenon, stories in charters, I was forced not just to ask but also to answer the question of why this happened, and also why it didn’t always happen, and that was something I hadn’t done before. Now, it appears to my considerable later chagrin that the tools I took to answer this question may ultimately have been acquired from Hayden White, via who knows what intermediaries, which would be horribly ironic (and not unparalleled alas).2 I should really know more about where my theory is coming from… But ultimately, my conclusion was as follows:

Some of the tales we’ve seen here apparently had holes in big enough to get an extra arm through, but the requirement was not to convince by argument, but to establish an acceptable version on the basis of which events could now proceed as required. These were after all transaction documents; they existed only because two or more persons had found terms on which they could do business already. Sometimes those terms were usual and the formulas would suffice, though even that is a narrative assertion of a kind, stating that the transaction was normal enough that that was sufficient. When, however, the transaction was evidently not usual, because of having been agreed while chained to a prison wall or glared down by the local viscount, because of being completely fabricated or deliberately incomplete, or because, in the case of Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his cousins, because to get this lot to agree on anything needed something really special, the best strategy was, apparently, to tell a story. These are not micro-histories as we usually understand the term; they are very small macro-histories, frames of collectively agreed reference that enabled new actions.

I don’t know how much use that is going to have been to anyone else listening, but it will be very useful to me, so one of the things this experience also proves, I guess, is how the best way to find out more about what you know is to explain it to someone, in this case about forty-five people I’d mostly never met before in a place I’m going to be visible for the next two-and-a-bit years. There were some useful questions and comments, to, about the moments monumentalised in these memorials (I exaggerate the alliteration of the original comment only slightly) and the multiple uses of a document at the transaction and, separately, thereafter, and that’s all good stuff. But mainly I’m just startled at how sometimes, I can pull something useful out of almost nothing merely by framing something anew under the pressure of immediacy. Tutorials are really good for this too, I may well be learning more than the students. Anyway, there it goes. And I should tell you the story Bonnassie told, too, because as he read it at least it’s a good one, but that can wait for a further post. Quite enough to do here meanwhile!


1. Phew, referring to, er:
  1. J. Jarrett, “Sales, swindles and sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What To Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, printed in idem, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005), pp. 290-308;
  2. Adam Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, which is odd mainly because in order to make a sound and important point it erects a whacking great straw man that is then destroyed with only the point left standing in the hay-strewn wreckage;
  3. M. Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansûr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’Historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur. Tours, 10-12 juin 1977, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218;
  4. Gaspar Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008;
  5. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127;
  6. J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258;
  7. and idem, “Dilettante or Politician: Count-Bishop Miró of Girona (970-984) and his intellectual cosmos”, paper presented at conference The Clerical Cosmos: ecclesiastical power, culture, and society, c. 900 to c. 1075, Faculty of History, University of Oxford, 4 September 2010 and “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 12 July 2010.

2. I found this out by asking about it on Academia.edu, which would make that seem like quite the resource that it claims to be were it not that, shortly afterwards, I got a message from its founder, saluting me as one of the most prolific contributors in the history research area and asking if I would like to test their new questions feature. I had been on it about two months at this point and was (and am) logging in maybe once a week, but had of course, already tested the new questions feature. I’ve no idea what he was measuring but I faintly wanted to wash after seeing it had been measured.

Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

I am falling behind with blogging generally and with seminars particularly, though I’ve also started falling behind with going to the things so this may yet balance out. I am also in two minds about whether to blog the Oxford Medieval History seminars, as while they’re looking likely to continue being interesting, some of the people presenting are quite junior and at least one of the papers (mine) has been somewhat rapidly-prepared. I think I can safely get away however with talking about the first one of the term, because Chris Wickham has featured here before and knows this, and so when on the 11th October he attracted an audience of eighty people to hear him talk to the title, “The Financing of Roman Politics, 1050-1150″, he probably expected that fact to end up here.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

The tenth- and eleventh-century papal court is famous for two things, really, isn’t it? Gregorian reform and at the other extreme, corruption on a massive scale. Chris was talking about the latter, and trying to take a non-judgmental look at the systems that were operating that left this impression on our sources. Certainly, as he admitted and found many examples to prove, money was vital to political campaigning in Rome and deployed in huge amounts, while candidates for papal office or other high dignity who ran out of money also ran out of backing very quickly. This is clear in the sources and deplored by many across Europe, perhaps most noticeably John of Salisbury, who said as much in a letter to a pope, indeed, Hadrian IV, a fellow Englishman. Hadrian refused to take offence but preferred to point out how much good the money could achieve when correctly directed. It’s tempting just to stop the judgement there, but Chris, as an economic historian, wanted to know how this all actually worked. What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play. The popes were big landowners in Rome and thereabouts but they weren’t big on an international scale; much of what they claimed was also sometimes claimed by the Empire and a great deal of it (as I’d heard from Chris before) was tied up in fairly binding leases to the nobility. On the other hand, their cash income was huge, from pilgrim gifts especially but also the rents from those leases, various other ground-rents in the city, international token payments from far-off monasteries that mounted up all together… This means that money was the primary available form of patronage. None of our sources have a problem with gifts of land in exchange for support, after all, so what’s the problem with cash? Well, it gets spent. Land is permanent, and can’t really be used up, which makes obligations pertaining to it long-term things, but not so with money. This means that people don’t stay bought; also, people don’t stay wealthy, whereas a lot of land keeps you that way rather better. That’s not available in this game, and so the players at the top of the table rotate a lot more. The result is something that our sources feel is corrupt, and which even the participants sometimes did, but which is explicable in its own terms at least, and when there are strong morals in play in our sources of course it’s very necessary to carry out this kind of enquiry.

Interior of St Peter's, Rome

Interior of St Peter's, Rome; must have cost a bit...

Mark Whittow raised in questions an obvious parallel to the court of Constantinople, which also ran on money a great deal and about which Liutprand of Cremona has similar things to say, though only on the embassy when he couldn’t persuade the emperor to include him in the handouts… Other interesting questions were raised about the exchange rate of money for favours—plenty of rulers offer precious goods for support as well, in various places (not least Heorot!) but these are often worth more than what they eventually buy, for the sources at least, a complication that is yet to be explored. It also seemed to Chris that this money did not, except in, well, exceptional cases, serve to recreate this kind of politics at a lower level; there was a super-rich threshold that the popes were, and would-be popes had to be, above, and below that one was too vulnerable to the actions of the super-rich to amass the same sort of patronage clout on a smaller scale. That sounded as if it could also use some testing, to me, but the big system view still makes a lot more sense to me at least than writing the whole thing off as corruption; even if that’s what it was, it was also a working system that needs to be understood as such, and that’s what Chris gave us.

Cambridge to Siena and back, part one

There was also that other conference I wanted to report on… I plan to mainly do this as photoblogging and travelogue, since I made it to so little of the actual conference; that will get a post in the middle, and the third post will be photos of Siena and Florence, but this one is about the journey.

Doors to a building on the Rue du Temple des Filles, Paris

Doors to a building on the Rue du Temple des Filles, Paris

There were some medieval things on this journey, but not many, and these aren’t one. Continue reading