Tag Archives: Church

Seminars CXLII & CXLIII : tracing text transmission by means old and new

I am back from my international appearance, and fell immediately into a nest of twisting deadlines, most of which I have now beaten and so I resume the slightly foolhardy attempt to get caught up on my seminar reports. Let’s start with 23rd May 2012 (hopefully I won’t actually get a full year behind) when Professor Jo Story spoke to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York”. This was an excellently clear and clever paper that went into the messy question of when exactly York became the second archbishopric of the English. There’s a lot of difficult detail here and Bede, our most important source for it all, was unfortunately up to his neck, it seems, in an attempt to find dubious precedent for the promotion of Bishop Egbert, recipient of that there letter, to the archiepiscopal dignity in 735. The precedent should have been Bishop Paulinus, to whom the pallium that marks the archiepiscopal dignity out from a more usual metropolitan bishop’s was sent by the Pope Honorius I of Professor Story’s title in 634. Unfortunately, by then he had been kicked out of his see at York and his patron king Edwin murdered by King Penda of Mercia, so the precedent is not what you would call ideal. The question then arises what was going on in 735, and here the fact that the new archbishop of Canterbury, Nothelm, had earlier also been responsible for much of the archival research in Rome on which Bede relied, and which would have presumably turned up the relevant papal letters, was probably significant. Also significant, as Alan Thacker pointed out in questions, is that Nothelm may have been from Mercia, to which Roy Flechner then joined the fact that initially, of course, the southern metropolitan was supposed to be based at now-Mercian London, not Kentish Canterbury… There’s room for quite a lot of shifting of ground here and Professor Story certainly gave us good reason to suppose that Bede’s sheet isn’t quite as clean of misrepresentation as once used to be thought. I won’t say more for the very good reason that the paper is now published in English Historical Review so you may be able to see the argument for yourself, but it was fun to hear in advance.1

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

A close-to-contemporary manuscript image of Hraban Maur, he being the young one (from Wikimedia Commons)

Then a week later there was a paper that I was sure Magistra had covered but in fact I can’t see that she has, so I better had. This was Dr Clare Woods of Duke University speaking with the title, “Ninth-Century Networks: books, (gifts), scholarly exchange”. This was a very interesting report on an ongoing attempt to turn network analysis to the service of the study of transmission of manuscripts, specifically manuscripts of the sermons of Hraban Maur, Abbot of Fulda. We do already sort of do this via stemma diagrams, which are a kind of network, but this doesn’t tell us what manuscripts were being used for, if at all, what they are copied with, where they physically are, where they were actually made, and so on, and Dr Woods was interested in seeing just how much of that one could represent and network. The paper was thus a kind of walk-through of methods she’d tried, starting with the most basic (sticking them all on Google Maps with different colour pointers like this), which opens up possibilities of comparison between works and might tell us about where a master’s pupils wound up, moving through putting routes to manuscript movements using tools like Stanford University’s marvellous ORBIS, because after all these things moved with people and those people must have taken routes, and so on. From this kind of location-centric, rather than author-centric or text-centric, networking, we get some idea of what areas were interested in an author’s work, where he was big news and where he was no news, and perhaps some hints of the people to whom he was news. The next step would be GIS, and there is the problem looming that many people who use GIS have found, that in an effort to find the most relevant factor one winds up mapping so much that nothing is distinguishable from it… There are methods to deal with this, though, and we can hope for some interesting things from Dr Woods’s work if I’m any judge.

One interesting question that came up was how to publish this kind of work. If you look at the example above, one of Matt Gabriele’s coming out of the background work on his book on the legend of Charlemagne, you see the beginnings of the problem, which is that the data is dynamic. Lots of what we were being shown in this paper was animated, extra spots appearing on a map, ideally things being added or taken away according to the presenter’s whim. With Matt’s test diagram you could just about publish it as a series of maps to compare with each other, but for something like Dr Woods was doing you’d rapidly head towards a paper that was forty or fifty slides and almost no descriptive text between them apart from a bewildering set of cross-references. The obvious form would seem to be an interactive website but as Dr Woods observed, we have yet to work out how to count such things as peer-reviewed publication (though getting interested and qualified people to spend an hour playing with it would be easy enough, you’d think…). I gamely suggested electronic journal publication with an embedded Flash game, but though I’d love to see it (and I bet somewhere like The Heroic Age would love to host it) I still suspect it’ll be a while before it’s the new form… Wendy Davies raised worries about a species of the Grierson Objection, whether books moving as gifts were behaving the same as books moving as goods, but as Susan Reynolds pointed out, one would only be able to distinguish these cases by first of all mapping the survival, so… Another problem raised by Alice Rio was that the manuscripts might not be moving permanently, but just long enough to be copied; we see that possibility in the letters of Lupus of Ferrières, for example, though with him we mainly see it in theory as Lupus protests that he is going to send the book back, just, like Augustine and chastity, not yet.2 Thus this wound up being one of those best but frightening of IHR Seminars, where the assembled great and good of the field are so piqued with interest by your project that they start trying to work out how they would have done it. I’m not sure how it feels to be the speaker in those circumstances but it’s always slightly awe-striking to see a lot of very agile brains all focused on a single objective for a while like that. Papers and discussions like this are why I always think it worth going, basically…


1. J. Story, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York” in English Historical Review Vol. 127 (Oxford 2012), pp. 783-818.

2. The standard translation of his letters, Graydon Regenos (trans.), The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966) is not the easiest book in the world to get hold of, but if you can, you’ll see it is a bit of a theme…

Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus.

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.

Bishops and metropolitans in Catalonia (also, the Carolingian conquest thereof)

You, the keen reader, by now know that I argue that Catalonia in the ninth and tenth centuries can justly be called Carolingian. It occurs to me to wonder how much you could possibly know of how that comes about. It’s essential background for being perplexed about what I’m currently perplexed about, and not for the first time. Let me set it up.

The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins

The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins, from Wikitravel, copyright renounced

Spain, as I guess is not news to you, was conquered by the armies of Islam in 711, or at least, the conquest began with the defeat of the Visigothic king Roderick that year by the Berber leader Tariq, whose rock (jabal) Gibraltar (Jabal al-Tariq) is. The North-East took longer to fall: already in rebellion against Roderick, it set up its own king, Achila and he resisted till 714, when he is supposed, I don’t know on what evidence, to have reached terms with the Muslims, leaving his son Witiza II to hold on till 718 beyond the Pyrenees. Both these kings are known to us only from their coinage, so don’t say numismatists never tell you anything. But anyway. Tarragona, the erstwhile capital of the region, held out when it was attacked and was therefore bloodily sacked in 712, other cities thereafter reaching terms; Tarragona remained a ruin for the next four centuries, proving that the others were long-term correct to surrender.

A bronze triens of King Achila of the Visigoths

A bronze triens of King Achila of the Visigoths

But Catalonia was not Muslim for long. Muslim attacks through Aquitaine, as well as the Frankish desire to bring Aquitaine properly under rule and renew the regnum Francorum once held by the Merovingians, provoked Frankish aggression into the old Visigothic province of Septimania (the bit at the southern tip of l’Héxagone) and this in turn led the frontier princes of the Muslim state, whose allegiance to the centre was ever questionable, to look interestedly at Charlemagne when contemplating rebellion. In 778, famously, Charlemagne was induced to bring an army south into Spain by the promises of the walis of Saragossa and Barcelona to hand their cities over to him if he came to aid their latest secession. He did, but they didn’t, and on the way back across the Pyrenees Charlemagne’s army was hit by the Basques in an ambush, in revenge for his sacking of their capital Pamplona on the way in, and the seneschal Roland died with the vanguard trying to fend them off. In later years someone wrote a song about this that you may have heard mentioned.

Anyway, it is argued that this must have left some people in Catalonia in a difficult position vis-à-vis the Muslim rulers, at least if they’d joined Charlemagne’s army or, I don’t know, put out “Franci veniunt, Agareni ite domum” posters or something. Certainly there seems now to have started a significant wave of emigration from the area into ‘safe’ Septimania, and in 785 the cities of Urgell and Girona, we know not under what control, handed themselves over to Charlemagne. So at least say the Royal Frankish Annals, and as the campaigns go on they are joined by the works of Thegan, the Astronomer and Ermold the Black.1 This and the immigrants drew the Carolingians back into the area, and Louis the Pious, at this time King of Aquitaine, and his right-hand man Duke Guilhem of Toulouse, campaigned more or less annually thereafter to secure it, refortifying large swathes of frontier on old Iberian sites or empty Visigothic cities, and in 801 managing to take Barcelona. They held Tarragona briefly, but found it worthless, and couldn’t get either Tortosa or Huesca beyond it despite numerous attempts, so the old province of the Tarraconensis remained partly-Muslim. What is now old Catalonia, Catalunya Vella, is more or less what the Franks took. This is also why Catalan is a different language from Castilian Spanish, much more like French, Provençal or indeed Latin.

Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals, photo from the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana

Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals, photo from the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana

The importance of this for what I’m writing about is that Tarragona, empty and Muslim-held, had been the area’s metropolitan see. Without it, the Catalan bishoprics (two of which were suppressed anyway and their territories divided) were placed under Frankish Narbonne. Now, thanks to the patient work of a man called Don Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals for many years, Catalonia is not thought to have had much of a national identity this early.2 The area was split between many counts, until the tenth century was repeatedly sunk into civil war between them, did not (and does not) have a single language and was sprinkled with immigrants from both sides of the border. Don Ramon had to work against a justly patriotic school which wanted to assert Catalan identity in the swamping Spanishness (Catalunya no es Espanya!) of the kind of unifying historiography seen, for example, in the statues in my post on Madrid, and he had to do it largely during a period when Franco was trying to put all that back again, but he did more or less succeed, and these days it is usually felt to be the 985 sack of Barcelona that shocked Catalonia into realising that it was on its own and furthermore therefore of its own.3 But when you read about the Church, specifically, this work seems to be forgotten in the wake of three stories that won’t die about attempts to renew the metropolitanate of Tarragona and break away from the Frankish Church.

There is no question that the lordship of Narbonne over the bishops across the mountains from it weighed more heavily than royal rule did, but I’ve still never bought this secession idea. Furthermore, Don Ramon only bought it for one of the three, but nonetheless the trio is repeated again and again in stock histories by contributors who should know better.4 I actually have a paper under work about this, have had for years, and I hope still to get it out some day so I won’t go into too much detail, but, some idea. The three episodes are these. In 886, when Bishop Ingobert of Urgell fell ill, the chapter seem to have uncanonically appointed a replacement called Esclúa. Ingobert got better but Esclúa didn’t retire; instead he collaborated in the appointment of a new bishop of Girona, Ermemir, despite Archbishop Theodard of Narbonne having chosen one Servedéu, and in the appointment of Bishop Adulf to an entirely new see at Pallars. A Narbonne source also says that Esclúa claimed he could do this because he’d named himself Archbishop of Tarragona and several other bishops had gone along with it. Because, however, he had the backing only of the less powerful of the March’s two main counts, Archbishop Theodard was able to enlist the support of the other. He and the count, none other than Guifré the Hairy, went and got King Odo, whom Guifré had not recognised until now, to withdraw his support and empower them to reimpose order. Esclúa and Ermemir, says the Narbonne source, were degraded in council in 890. Well, this has been disproved for thirty years. The Narbonne source, indeed, and the fake papal Bull it includes, have been declaimed as forged since 1933, and Esclúa went on appearing as bishop until his death in 924, even though Ingobert was apparently restored; there also seems to have been some power-sharing at Girona, though Ermemir disappeared much quicker. So that’s rubbish and the episode looks like local factionalising, not secession.5

The monastery church of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The monastery church of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Between about 941 and 966, the counts of Barcelona were again briefly in charge of Tarragona. (I’ve been told by a reviewer that no historian takes this claim of the Arabic sources seriously, but well, actually many do, it comes from Ibn Hayyan who originally worked from administrative records at Córdoba, and it seems a very unlikely thing for any subsequent editor to insert, because it was soon reversed and does no-one any particular credit.6) Around the beginning of that time, anyway, we are told by a very strange letter in the name of Abbot Cesari of Montserrat that he went to Santiago de Compostela and there got himself ordained by the bishops there as Archbishop of Tarragona. (No-one who has written about this has realised the old see was actually Christian again at the time, as far as I can tell. What the time was is tricky: Cesari, if it genuinely was he, gives a date that should be 940 A. D., but the list of officiating bishops he mentions fits only to 956, if then, and that’s roughly when the title starts appearing in the copies of the Montserrat documents too.) The letter says that when he returned home, none of the Catalan bishops would obey him, so he retired back to the monastery, where we do indeed have records of charters that called him Archbishop. This one’s hard to refute, but what is clear is that wherever he got his title, no-one took it seriously, perhaps because of treaties forcing the return of his see to the Muslims in the 960s.7

The three papal papyri of Pope John XIII to Vic

The three papal papyri of Pope John XIII to Vic

In 970, Count Borrell II of Barcelona took his pet Bishop of Osona, a guy called Ató, and their star pupil Gerbert of Rheims, later to become Pope Sylvester II and even later to be infamously remembered as an Arab-trained magician, to Rome to beseech Pope John XIII. They came home with five papal Bulls (three on papyrus, two on parchment, apparently…) saying firstly that Ató was now Archbishop, Tarragona’s rights being shifted to the see, and secondly that he should take over the administration of the see of Girona where, the pope was horrified to hear, a neophyte had been elected, which was totally illegal. Actually, Ató was murdered inside the year, we never see him act as Archbishop and though his see recorded him as such, Girona when it noted his death called him only Bishop; his successor Fruià went to Rome but only as bishop even though the Bulls said the dignity would be renewed in his successors, and generally, whatever happened here didn’t work out and wasn’t agreed at the time even in Borrell’s own territory (he also ruled Girona). So even if they really did ask the pope, which I have doubted, it didn’t work for long.8

An early modern depiction of Pope John XIII, apparently thinking better of something

So we have three `archbishops’. None of them were universally accepted even in their own patron’s territories, one of them almost certainly never really claimed the dignity, and the Archbishop of Narbonne retains his rôle in the area throughout. It’s really not a nationalist breakaway movement by a whole Church. And all this has been known for many many years, so why do these venerable and otherwise sharp scholars persist in ignoring it? How important can this one myth be when they’ve been willing to discard so many others? Why do I keep reading these stories over and over again like Gospel? I understand nationalism, I do, even if I don’t feel it myself, but this is such a weird manifestation of it…


1. Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), transl. B. Scholz & B. Rogers in eidem, Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21; Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris), MGH SRG LXIV (Hannover 1995); Edmond Faral (ed./transl.), Ermold le Noir: poème sur Louis le Pieux et Épîtres au Roi Pépin (Paris 1932).

2. Most obviously Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els Primers Comtes Catalans, Biografies Catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958; repr. 1980).

3. On the effect of the 985, sack on the area, see Michel Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par al-Mansūr et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1987), pp. 121-218; cf. Paul Freedman, “The Symbolic Implications of the Events of 985-988″ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129.

4. To wit, in Antoni Pladevall, “La organización de la iglesia en Cataluña” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 53-58, transl. as “Church Organization in Carolingian Catalonia” ibid., pp. 444-448; and in Manuel Riu i Riu, “La Organizació eclesiástica” in J. M. Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, tomo VII: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II. Los Nucleos Pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. M. Riu i Riu (Madrid 1999).

5. Robert-Henri Bautier, “La prétendue dissidence de l’épiscopat catalan et le faux concile de « Portus » de 887-890″ in Bulletin philologique et historique (jusqu’à 1610) du Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques 1961 (Paris 1963), pp. 477-498, citing Étienne Griffe, Histoire religieuse des anciens pays de l’Aude. Tome I: des origines chrétiennes à la fin de l’époque carolingienne (Paris 1933), pp. 252-263; cf. J. Morera Sabater, “Un conato de secesión eclesiástica en la Marca Hispánica en el siglo IX” in Anales del Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses Vol. 15 (Girona 1962), pp. 293-315.

6. For example, Philippe Sénac, “Note sur les relations diplomatiques entre les comtes de Barcelone et le califat de Cordoue au Xe siècle” in idem, Histoire et Archéologie des Terres Catalanes au Moyen Âge (Perpignan 1995), pp. 87-101; Albert Benet i Clarà, “Castells, guàrdies i torres de defensa” in Udina, Symposium Internacional, I pp. 393-407, at pp. 386-388 ; and Dolores Bramon (ed.), De Quan Erem o No Musulmans: textos del 713 al 1000. Continuació de l’Obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), pp. 284-286, where the source references.

7. J. M. Martí Bonet, “Las pretensiones metropolitanas de Cesáreo, abad de Santa Cecilia de Montserrat” in Anthologica Annua (Rome 1974), pp. 157-182; cf. R. Martí, “Delà, Cesari i Ató, primers arquebisbes dels comptes-prínceps de Barcelona (951-953/981)” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 67 (Tarragona 1994), pp. 369-386 and indeed J. M. Martí Bonet, “Entre dues obediènces: Roma i Compostela”, ibid. pp. 387-397.

8. Martí, “Delà, Cesari i Ató”; I presented my views as “Archbishop Ató of Vic: ecclesiastical separatism in Carolingian Catalonia”, paper presented at EMERGE 2003 Conference, University of St Andrews, 13th September 2003, but my argument has got a lot more complicated since then.

Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

On Wednesday 17th October, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar was given by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was asking, “The churches of the Picts: when, where and what were they for?” Which is fair enough really. As he said, the simple answer was, ‘during the Pictish period’, ‘in Pictland’, and, ‘for the Picts to worship in’ but actually pinning it down beyond that was tricky. Thomas is very cautious, as anyone in that field has to be to avoid getting stuck into heavy politics and stupid anthropology comparisons, or just being mistaken for a blue-rinse loony. He did however have some new input on the place-names that filled out the picture of the early Scottish Church a bit, which otherwise looks terribly western-focussed and therefore Gaelic. He found good evidence to suppose that a widespread pastoral network existed in genuinely Pictish territory (where we agreed to define Pictish as ‘not Gaelic’, except maybe in Atholl but that’s my own personal bee in the bonnet) before the Gaelic takeover of the ninth century, although some at least of that probably had to be blamed on the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. As a counter to that, however, he also opened up the suggestion that Gaelic was always a privileged language for those in charge of the cult, because writing and Christianity both seem to have been imported in it (except where a rival Anglian import was preferred) and that the Pictish Church may therefore have had little use for Pictish.

By and large, it was a paper full of interesting ideas not pushed too far, and though no-one was very much the wiser at the end in some ways, Thomas is very good at leaving us feeling better about how little we know in this area, because he always has some hopes that we might some day work it out and ideas to follow up.

Happy to answer further questions about this should anyone be interested, but for now that’s as good as you get because I had to move house and prepare a lecture the week I drafted this and my brain is mostly elsewhere…