Tag Archives: church archæology

Gallery

Genève médiévale I: beneath the cathedral

This gallery contains 26 photos.

Firstly I should apologise for the longer-than-usual interval preceding this post; as you will see, it needed photos, and unfortunately my processing of photos is also backlogged…. Anyway, the background to this is that last year I had reason to … Continue reading

Seminar CXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.


1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.

Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below


1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926″, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927″, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928″, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929″, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31″, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932″, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933″, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934″, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937″, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938″, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954″ in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955″ in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7″, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964″ in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993″, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979″, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

Gallery

Nice pictures if you can get them

This gallery contains 13 photos.

After the flit to Cambridge in summer 2013 just mentioned, our next destination was the South of France! Lucky for some, you may say, and especially so for us as by reason of payback for favours and efforts on behalf … Continue reading

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

The title is true of the present and the past, for I continue very busy even now that term has stopped. We will not speak of job applications, but even without that and purely domestic affairs, over the last week I have:

What I have not done is written blog, as you have noticed and may also now understand. So, let me change that by giving an unfairly rapid account of four Oxford seminars from last May, connected by nothing more than their location and my interest but perhaps also yours!

Scylla and Charybdis

On the 7th May 2012, the speaker at the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was Dr Paul Oldfield, now of Manchester, and his title was: “A Bridge to Salvation or Entrance to the Underworld? Southern Italy and International Pilgrimage”. This picked up and played with the facts that as pilgrimage to the Holy Land grew more and more important from roughly 1000 onwards, Italy became equally crucial to it as a point of embarkation for those going by sea, which was most people going, but that this enlarged transient population also bred an alternative economy of banditry and ransoming. Pilgrimage was of course supposed to involve suffering, though maybe not quite like that, and this seems to have bred stories that also greatly exaggerated its natural dangers, especially concentrated around the very busy and notoriously tricky Straits of Messina but also, for example, Vesuvius (3 known eruptions 1000-1200) and Etna (probably rather more). Classical literature that plays with these places as gateways to the bowels of the Earth was well-known to the kind of people who would write about these things. The result was, argued Dr Oldfield, that one might wind up unexpectedly meeting one’s Maker en route (and dying on pilgrimage was reckoned a pretty good way to go, in terms of one’s likely destination) but some of the things that might kill you were gates to Hell, at least as they were talked about, making Southern Italy an uncertain and liminal zone that reflected the status, decontextualised, uprooted and vagrant, of those among whom these stories circulated. This was all good fun and of course anything involving Italy always has splendid pictures, here especially of the pilgrim-favoured church San Nicola di Bari, so here it is for you below.

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

Next, on the 9th, Paul Harvey, emeritus of Durham I understand, came to the Medieval Social and Economic Seminar to talk to the title, “How to Manage Your Landed Estate in the Eleventh Century”. That sounded as if it should interest me, so along I went. Professor Harvey was looking for the kind of problems that manorial surveys indicate big English landowners were meeting before the end of the twelfth century, and observed several in them some considerable difficulty with actually defining demesne in terms of how its labour or revenues were organised differently from anywhere else. He wound up arguing that in England demesne land was really a late eleventh-century invention, and that the surveys’ expectations were all quite new. On the other hand, that doesn’t appear to have been a time of great change in land organisation or settlement nucleation, or so says Professor Harvey, and what might really have been happening is simply that the choice between direct extraction and leasing was made on the basis of what was convenient given the existing settlement patterns, but that the surveys themselves might be changing things by defining more closely who was responsible for what renders. In either case, using them as windows on earlier land use is probably dodgy! This mainly seemed to meet with people’s approval but it seemed to me that this must, if it’s happening, also be the point at which the Anglo-Saxon hide ceased to be a useful land-measure, as it was based on a standard yield. Land that could produce that yield was a hide; if yield went up, the hide got smaller. You can’t easily measure land like that, especially if you’re trying to change the obligations of a hide. When I raised this Ros Faith pointed out that Domesday Book uses plough-teams anyway, so I suppose it was kind of an obvious point, but I was glad to have thought it out anyway.

Buildings of opposition

The church and/or palace of Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo

The next week, speaker to the Medieval History Seminar was Isaac Sastre Diego, developing the work on which he’d presented earlier that year to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar. Here he took a group of Asturian monumental churches, Santa Maria del Naranco (above), San Miguel de Lillo, Santa Cristina de Lena and one or two others, that have distinct royal connections. The first and third have been called palaces, the former by modern historians and the latter in the seventeenth century when it’s first documented, but Isaac argued that they need to be seen as exclusive royal chapels in which perhaps the king himself was officiant, since the two `palaces’ both have altars in but no clear separation of space for the clergy. Isaac saw this as a deliberately new kind of display initiated by King Ramiro I (who is named in an inscription on the altar at Naranco) to deal with the similarly new monumentality of the rule of Emir ‘Abd al-Rahman II in Córdoba, perhaps also the Carolingians and most of all their probable candidate for the throne whom Ramiro had defeated, Nepotian (whom as we know would later be recorded as a lord of wizards). Isaac sees these sites as buildings of opposition, in which an explicit differentiation was made between the new r´gime and its competition both in the past and at the time. Discussion, especially with Rob Portass, brought out the extra dimension that at Oviedo, where the first two of these sites are, they would have been in explicit distinction to the cathedral and royal place of King Alfonso II, which were in the city while these still perch on the hills above. Chris Wickham suggested that San Vicenzo al Volturno might be seen as another such opposition building, which works for me. I had expected not to get much out of this seminar because of the earlier related one and in fact it was really thought-provoking, so I hope it gets published where I can easily find it.

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

Last in this batch, the same place a week later was graced by Professor Rod Thomson, with a paper called, “‘The Dane broke off his continuous drinking bouts, the Norwegian left his diet or raw fish’: William of Malmesbury on the Scandinavians”, which is hard to beat as is much of William’s work, which of course has mostly been edited by Professor Thomson. William was here talking about the Scandinavian response to the Crusades, where he gets unusually ethnographic, but as you see not necessarily without an agenda. As far as William was concerned these nations were still barbarian, and would be that way till they learnt civilisation, however orthodox and devout their Christian beliefs might be. This was a communicable disease, too, barbarians being more resistant to acculturation than those among whom they came to live! Most of the paper was however an exegesis of William’s method of using his sources, which was neither uncritical nor reverent but highly intelligent. There was even a suggestion that William might have had access to some saga material. This raised various intelligent questions, one obvious one being what he thought he was himself in ethnic terms, to which the answer seemed to be `the best of both English and Norman and thus neither’, and another being that of how far his sources and his audiences shaped his attitudes, which there wasn’t really time to resolve. It’s always impressive to hear someone who’s really lived inside a text without turning into an apologist speak about it, though, and Professor Thomson got points for this and also for being almost 100% unlike what I expected him to be like from his writing alone, all of which only goes to show that it’s not just the cover of a book one can’t judge by, both for William and his editor…

Right, that should do for this time; next time, much more than you probably want to read about mills, with footnotes sufficient for anyone who’s been wondering where they’ve been these last two posts! À bientôt!

Take note(s) II: re-examining Sant Pere de Casserres

I feel that I ought to say something about the unlikely PR mess that the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council has got itself into, but I’m not going to, for three reasons, in fact four. Firstly, it is very unclear just what the heck is going on there; secondly, others have already writ what can be writ better, not least Gesta and that famously Edgy Historian, Guy Halsall, and you can follow the links there (which, as here, have usually come from JPG, who clearly has a future as a news analyst at somewhere like Reuters if the Vikings ever run out). Thirdly, and most cowardly of me, the current director of the AHRC is deeply implicated in whatever it is, and is also about to become my boss in some distant sense, so I don’t feel that analysing her current actions and research on the open web will do me any long-term favours. And the fourth reason, the afterthought, is the one I should always remember, the Bede Principle: “it may not yet be known what should be written of these things, until they have reached their end”.1 So instead I’m going to write about my current research, even though the same could be said of that, and the ways in which I do it.

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

Those of you who know my work will realise it involves quite a lot of charters. For my thesis I read, I think, about 3,500 charters in printed editions, though rather fewer in the original. Aware of that latter weakness, when I made the first trip to Catalonia recorded on this blog, I sought out the parchments of Sant Pere de Casserres, which is interesting for what I do because it is a monastery that was founded by a vicecomital family where a castle that had belonged to the counts had stood, and which then became a major lord in its own right, in other words it is textbook privatisation of fiscal power but happening to an area with a church and its community in it making records, and no-one has done much on this place, which moreover still stands.2 There were other exciting aspects, such as the fact that it seems to have been closely entwined with a mother church down the river, also in a defunct castle, which never ceased to have some kind of rights there as far as I can tell, and that the clerics of these two places hardly turn up anywhere else; and the fact that when it was dug early in the century, a palæochristian altar slab covered in graffiti names came up, which has been all but ignored by the subsequent literature on the monastery, which I cannot understand.3 So I wanted to see if the names on the slab were in the charters, and those of you who heard me speak at Leeds in 2009 will know that I think some of them are.4

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) 3

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) 3: the problem charter!

That was already nearly two years ago, though, and you could be forgiven for wondering why this isn’t already submitted somewhere. Well, firstly I found out that the original surviving documents I’d looked at and the others, only preserved as copies, that I’d read in print, were not the only ones, that there were in fact about a hundred more of those copies for my period alone.5 That, as you can imagine, made a potential difference because extra evidence unhinges careless generalisations. So I found out where they were, which was in a big book in Vic, and plotted getting out there only to find, shortly afterwards, that the unstoppable force of the Fundació Noguera’s Diplomataris series had rolled over Casserres and that all its documents were now in print, and yea, even free to the web.6 So my unique selling point and first work with unpublished documents was lost, but on the other hand I didn’t have to spend a week in an archive in Vic checking my findings. So I downloaded it, found with a very quick check that the editor had not spotted the things I’d spotted about one of the documents, decided I still had a paper and set to reading it, and that’s where this post really starts. (Yes, sorry, it’s me.)

Sample of my longhand charter notes

Obviously a functional method that a graphologist would regard with equanimity

As we know I take lots of notes. When reading a few thousand charters that makes for a lot of note-taking, and all this information has to be handled. My technique for this has developed in all the wrong ways, which is to say I did not sit down and think it out and then do it the right way from the get-go, I worked with the very limited technology I had and did stupid things with it which I then bodged later. But it starts with notes, longhand abstracts of each charter mentioning things that are interesting (story kernels, as Lovecraft would have called them, or just stuff like a mill in an odd place, payment in gold not silver, bounds that don’t meet, and so on) and who’s involved, enough to come back to should I need to but not so much that I might just as well photocopy the thing or type it out. In these, some things are one-off marvels, and you get to hear about those quite often, but the real work comes in seeing people, places or things that crop up again and again, enough that we can say something safe about who they are and what they were interested in (“land”). So the notes have asterisks, for all these things that are interesting, in the margins, and lines joining recurrences up or arrows and signes de renvoi to other occurrences, and so on. (You see what this looks like above.) To actually do very much with this, however, I then have to type stuff up, firstly so that it’s electronically searchable and secondly to join up different sets of notes. If I had done this right from the start, I would I think have used a Wiki-structure database, page per charter, page per person, page per place and for each of them an entry recording where they turn up or what other entries link here. Some day when I have enough money for a research assistant this will happen. (Meanwhile, Joan Vilaseca is doing it the hard way and will within a few short years actually have the database I ought to have started with! I am continually amazed by this man’s work.) But as I started, I had no database software at all, so I typed each edition’s notes up as Word files and stuck them full of embedded links, the idea being that that way when data changed in one file it would be cascaded to all the others. Yeah, not quite. I mean, it works to a certain extent, but there is so much messy overlap, documents in several different editions, that it’s never perfect and even where it is, finding a new occurrence of a person or place tends to mean that they need updating in every file where they occur. These files are several megabytes each, they take a long time to update, they eat memory, it’s not good. But it’s what I have. So here’s a chunk, you can see what sort of information I’m recording.

53 = Cat. Car. IV 1868: is a regestum of a donation of land in Savassona with some truly impressively garbled names, a neighbour Gundolfínia and a scribe Aliborn chief among them; the land is being given by a woman to her daughter, interestingly.
54, 55, 60, 73, 76, 78, 90 & 116, perhaps among others, all feature the priest Miró, one of Casserres’s hardest-working canons and visible at the church both before and after its conversion to monastery. He is never a monk, in 73 has heirs though they aren’t identified, and buys property in own right in 78; yet his connection with this supposedly Benedictine monastery is inescapable.
54 & 78 both feature land at la Guàrdiola de Roda.
54, 78 & 140 all feature land on the strata francisca, or so the regesta that preserve this information seem to mean.
54 is a sale to the priest Miró of what seems to be most of a settlement, albeit only two pieces of land and a vine, given its bounds on others rather than people’s properties; nicely positioned on the strata francisca and its own road (presumably to Roda?); sold for only 16 solidi.
55, 56, 62, 64, 67, 80 & 114 all feature a Casserres and Roda landholder by the name of Vives, almost always as neighbour (he witnesses 56, where he is also a neighbour—but then we have so few witnesses recorded—and donates in 114).

Now this is not rigorous, because its principal data capture tool is my brain, which makes mistakes. I knew this, so I was quite keen on adding databases to the mix as soon as I could. A piece of contract work for Professor Wendy Davies, all hail, left me with a good design that I customised for my own use.7 But this was within the last two years of my thesis, both part-time, and I didn’t have time or the will to type up all the charters I’d used for the project into it. Instead, I used it solely for the final chapter, the chunk on Count-Marquis Borrell II of whom you must by now all be bored (although I’m not, be warned). I typed up all documents in which he was mentioned, as atomised names and dates and so on in their appropriate fields. Running various complicated queries over that sample produced names I hadn’t noticed were recurring, whom I then went and looked for in my notes, moving thus from comitally-connected documents to regionally-connected ones, and for how that works out, you can see the book.8 And when new projects came up, I added more sections, and those you can also find lurking behind other parts of the book.9

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

When I got to the Casserres charters, though, it was plain I wouldn’t have time to do it the old way, and it was also questionable whether I needed to, since I had the PDF on the computer, already searchable. It was also clear that they would have to be databased, all of them, which raised the question of what possible function longhand notes would have in the project. I was very reluctant not to make any, because atomising a document for data entry is not the same as actually reading it and I was afraid I would miss the stories that make these documents so interesting. But the Casserres ones are mainly preserved as abstracts anyway, so few stories, just bewildering obscurity, and in any case as I say there was no time. So I just data-entered the lot, all 145, three a day and more when there was time. (I’m told by an ex-girlfriend that normal people don’t get up and do academic data entry before they’ve breakfasted or dressed. But for what value of normal?10) But that’s only half the work, because you still have to get the data out and usable. That would be another piece of writing, which I think I’ve just promised to do in Italy in September so I’ll omit it here but suffice it to say, I took each charter entry in turn, I ran queries for recurrences on every name in there, and where there were some I typed them up in one of my old-fashioned files, in fact that very one I excerpt above. And then I printed it, so that there were some notes of a kind after all, which somehow makes me feel better. All the same: if this is a sane way to work, I’m a Dutchman, he says resorting to eighteenth-century ethnic slurs, sorry. (Large parts of my ancestry are fairly uncertain, in fact, but there’s no reason to suppose etc.) The fact that it just about seems to produce the results is perhaps the only compensation, and that other than recording the data better I can’t think of a quicker or more rigorous one. What do you think, if any of you made it this far?

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

(Of course all this is not, of itself, a new problem: check the first sentence of this article and see if it doesn’t make you cringe with complicity. Then read on. Hat tip to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria.)


1. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, V.23: “quid de his scribi debeat, quemve habiturum sint finem singula, necdum sciri valeat”, my translation.

2. Okay, there is in fact a reasonable amount of work on the place, which could probably all be found referenced in three of the four latest bits, those being: A. Pladevall i Font, J.-A. Adell i Gisbert, X. Barral i Altet, E. Bracons i Clapes, M. Gustà i Martorell, M. Hoja Cejudo, M. Gracià Salvà i Picó, A. Roig i Delofeu, E. Carbonell i Esteller, J. Vigué i Viñas & R. Rosell i Gibert, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. Vigué (Barcelona 1984), pp. 354-391, updated by J. Pujades i Cavalleria, C. Subiranas i Fàbregas, Pladevall & Adell, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XXVII: visió de sintesí, restauracions i noves troballes, bibliografía, índexs generals, ed. M. L. Ramos Martínez (Barcelona 1998), pp. 201-206, and the third Teresa Soldevila i García, Sant Pere de Casserres: història i llegenda, l’entorn 35 (Vic 1998), which is much the closest to my kind of social analysis. There is also, however, Pladevall, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny en Catalunya (Barcelona 2004), which I am hoping to get hold of at last in the next few days; it’s not widely held even in Spain. With a bit of luck I still have a paper.

3. It’s been extensively written about by itself, in for example P. de Palol, “Las mesas de altar paleocristianas en la Tarraconense” in Ampurias Vol. 19-20 (Empúries 1957-1958), pp. 81-102 at p. 87; S. Alavedra, Les ares d’altar de Sant Pere de Terrassa-Ègara (Terrassa 1979), II pp. 71-74; and in Pladevall et al., “Sant Pere de Casserres”, p. 384. I owe the first two references to Mark Handley, who’s been hugely helpful helping me track this thing through the literature on stones. It is however not mentioned at all in Soldevila’s book and the Pladevall et al. article discusses it only separately.

4. J. Jarrett, “How To Take Over An Archive: Sant Pere de Casserres and its Community”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, I: Pushing the Boundaries‘, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 14th July 2009.

5. Somewhat amazingly, the relevant book, a 1736 manuscript copy of a list of renders and properties made for a fifteenth-century prior of the house, was found in a Tarragona bookseller’s in the 1980s; it is now in the Arxiu Comarcal d’Osona, and Soldevila was thus able to base her book firmly upon it.

6. Irene Llop (ed.), Col·lecció Diplomàtica de Sant Pere de Casserres, Diplomataris 44 (Barcelona 2009).

7. There was an expert whose identity I never discovered in that project somewhere, but since the variant design I came up with delivered the same results quicker for a megabyte less coded back-end, I’m calling it mine.

8. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 140-166.

9. That on Malla and that on l’Esquerda were new work, for which I added all the relevant charters I could find to the database to produce ibid., pp. 73-99.

10. I should perhaps make clear, though, that we were long broken up when she saw me doing this.