Tag Archives: computing in the humanities

Picturing Abbess Emma’s associations

Really long-time readers of this blog will maybe remember a debate that got going on this blog in June 2008, apropos of a paper in the Journal of Neurocomputing that was using medieval charter information to showcase visualisation of social networks data.1 I was initially sceptical but talking to two of the authors got me much more interested and I subsequently talked one of them into delivering a paper in the final Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session at Leeds, a paper that we did want to publish but which sadly in the end could not be included in the final publication.2 That’s still a shame as there was good stuff to think with there, but of course what any historian dealing with dense social data is going to want to know about such software and techniques is, ‘how will it help me with my stuff?’ And since answering that question usually involves a lot of data entry, it has tended to rest there.

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm" from Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

There is also the question of how much a “Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm” like this from Boulet et al., “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis”, fig. 1, can tell you by itself, which is why of course in that article they then spend a lot of time breaking it down

For my area of interest, this was changed in mid-2012 as the indefatigable Joan Vilaseca of the Cathalaunia website began to investigate applying such techniques to the database he maintains there, which includes quite a lot of the documents from which I ply my trade. Magistra et Mater, who was getting interested in the possibilities of these things around then too, wrote some initial thoughts about what Joan and others were doing at hers in December 2012, and I had already made a stub note to talk about it in October of that year but, well, it’s been queued ever since. There is still plenty to say, though!

The thing that particularly caught my interest was that Joan put up a post on his blog in which he produced a list of the best-connected people in his database, the ones who appear with the most other people, and once the kings who appear in dating clauses and their notaries were filtered out, pretty much top of the list was Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll. Since there is perhaps no-one in the world who cares more about Abbess Emma than me,3 this seemed like a really good type-case with which to answer the quesion: does this kind of analysis actually tell us very much that we didn’t already know? And, weirdly, I think that my conclusion is that for me it’s perhaps most valuable for emphasising what we don’t.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

To talk about this it’s necessary to get you the reader clear about exactly what Joan has actually done here, of course. As simply as I can put it, what we have above is a graph built in the following way. In Joan’s database Emma appears in 50 documents and in those 50 documents she occurs with an awful lot of people. Looking for only the most meaningful, Joan excluded from the count all persons with whom Emma turned up only once, which is a lot given that she orchestrated the Vall de Sant Joan hearing in which about 500 people swore testimony for her and then there’s still 48 more documents with her in. That still leaves 112 people with whom she is recorded associating more than once, in fact the total of associations still in the count is 1292. Many of these people also relate to each other and what you have above is a computer-aided display of all those links, with Emma at the centre and everyone else pulled out to where you can see the links. But you can already see from the way that some of the links are made with thicker bands of darker colour that some of these people dominate the sample much more than others. So, who are these people? Well, if you load up the SVG version of this graph on Joan’s blog you can just click straight through to his database records, which is marvellous, but in short the top five are two priests called Gentiles and Guisad, and then three laymen, namely Reinoard, Guimarà and Tudiscle.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version), with Gentiles’s signature lower left centre

This all sounds more or less sensible to me: though I think only Gentiles and Reinoard, maybe Tudiscle, would have been in a top five I’d guessed, I can see why they’re all here. Gentiles was something like the chief scribe of Sant Joan: he appears in Emma’s first appearance as an adult, he went on appearing some six to ten years after her death, and in that time an awful lot of the documents of the abbey carried his scribal signature, even though as Federico Udina pointed out when he edited these documents, they’re not all in the same hand. This presumably means that he had subordinates signing stuff off for him and that his name was important enough that it still had to be there.4 Guisad was another frequent scribe for the abbey, apparently older, and he also appeared on the panel of a couple of the hearings in which Emma pursused people for her rights over their land.5 Reinoard was headman of one of the settlements in the Vall de Sant Joan and worked as court enforcer for Emma once as well as appearing in court when she called them, he was a collaborator of hers whom I’ve discussed elsewhere.6 Tudiscle and Guimarà present a more interesting case: these are two of the landowners whom Emma took to court, but in both cases those episodes were part of a longer relationship with the abbey which had here broken down. I’ve written about these two as well precisely because I think that in Tudiscle’s case the hearing was part of mending that relationship, as his importance seems not to have suffered subsequently, whereas Guimarà seems subsequently not to have worked with the abbess and in fact seems to have managed to shift quite a lot of property once donated to the nunnery onto Emma’s little brother, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, as part of Sunyer’s campaign to clip his sister’s independently-ruled abbey’s wings.7 But before that he had worked for Emma, and these people certainly make good people to study if you want to understand how Emma worked, which is of course why I did.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database, sorted by modularity

The same relationships now displayed according to their modularity, that is, by the size of the groups internal to the data

So, the first answer to the great question about whether this tells me anything looks like ‘no'; I had already found these people by older methods. But I’m arguably not the target here: the thing is that those methods were very like what Joan’s programming all but automates. I went through the documents, made note of the names who recurred most, assembled profiles of their appearances and decided who were the people I could tell the story with. Joan’s database and graphing together mean that I could, if I was starting again, do in about ten minutes the same exercise that took me weeks when I actually did it. I could do (and may do) the same thing now with Count-Marquis Guifré II Borrell, Sunyer’s predecessor and brother, for whom I haven’t done the same kind of background data-crunching, with far less trouble than I was anticipating. So in terms of research facilitation for others, this is a huge step forward even if it doesn’t help me. I can in fact only tell how much use it is precisely because I’d done it already by another means! (Whether Joan had to put fewer hours in to make it happen than I did for my research is another question of course…)

All the same, as I said above, what it now makes me think is how imperfect our data sometimes is for the kind of questions we might like to ask. If, on first principles, we asked ourselves who the principal contacts of an early medieval abbess was, we would probably presume that the main ones were her nuns. So indeed they may have been here, but as I’ve observed in a supposedly-forthcoming paper, while Emma was in charge of Sant Joan we know the names of only two other nuns, and those are only seen as they join the nunnery, we’ve no idea what Emma’s relations with them were like.8 If we then allowed ourselves to remember that this abbess was a count’s daughter, we might then think about her family as an important second string. But Emma hardly shows up with her family, and when she does it needs very careful reading: I think she only occurs alive and in person with brother Sunyer in the Vall de Sant Joan hearing where she was in theory taking him to court, for example.9 (She also turns up as a neighbour of land he was transferring twice, but of course she wasn’t actually there for that, though it gives us another reason to suppose they had other dealings.10) Also on the defending end on that occasion was their probably-elder brother Miró, Count of Cerdanya, who in his will named Emma one of his executors and had her called ‘my most dear sister'; I think she occurs with him once otherwise.11 She got Radulf to consecrate a church with her once, I think that’s it though.12 We can more or less see from this that this set of siblings were close collaborators even if not always very willing ones but the quantity of occurrences doesn’t really reflect what we can guess the importance of those relationships would have been.

The memorial stone for Abbess Emma in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Abbess Emma’s memorial in the medieval church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The information we get from this, therefore, is not wrong but it is partial. Emma probably did see Gentiles and talk with him most days of her adult life. It’s not clear whether Guisad was also a priest of the abbey but if so, he also would have been a regular feature of her days. She placed a lot of reliance on Reinoard, and that relationship was probably important to both of them in raising Reinoard above his fellows and showing those fellows how Emma could reward her collaborators. Tudiscle and Guimarà, at least at first, were more of that sort of person and even if the relationships probably didn’t mean as much to Emma as that with brother Miró did, for example, they’re historically very interesting and anyone working on Emma would be well served by being pointed towards them. But there is also quiet and missing data that must have made up a great deal more of her life, and that we can’t really reconstruct. It’s not by any means the fault of this technology that it can’t bring that to our notice: it obviously can’t give us back information we didn’t put in. But that also means that the technology is no more than one of the tools we have to use to understand that information in its context, some of which context is simply what isn’t there.13


1. Romain Boulet, Bertrand Jouse, Fabrice Rossi & Nathalie Villa, “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis” in Journal of Neurocomputing Vol. 71 (Amsterdam 2008), pp. 1579-1573.

2. What final publication, you ask? Why, Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013). You could buy it here if you wanted!

3. See J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

4. Ibid. pp. 29-30; see Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205 for the argument.

5. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 59 n. 162.

6. Ibid. pp. 39, 41-42.

7. Ibid. pp. 52-53 (Tudiscle), 53-57 (Guimarà) & 64-65 (Sunyer’s pressure on the nunnery).

8. J. Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, to appear in a Festschrift for Rosamond McKitterick first planned in 2010.

9. The hearing is best printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 119 & 120, though the palæographic notes of Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 38, are still very useful.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 103, 105 & 155. There are a few other cases where she and Sunyer both turn up as neighbours, but not of the same properties, so I don’t think that really counts here.

11. The will is only printed in Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), 2 vols. I pp. 88-90. In Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 57 Miró presided over a hearing where Emma was the plaintiff, but she was represented by a mandatory and not present herself.

12. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 73. The two also occur as common neighbours in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 155 & 419, but again that only tells us that they probably met at some other point.

13. Cf. Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Georg Vogeler & Antonella Ambrosiani (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302.

Leeds 2012 Report 1

I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between giving a bald itinerary of papers seen I can barely remember or else reconstructing the whole thing at length from my notes. But the only way to find out what transpires is to try, so here goes.

Entrance to Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, adorned with banner for the 2012 International Medieval Congress

The soon-to-be-late and lamented Bodington Hall, entrance thereto

As is by now traditional, I got through breakfast slightly too late to make it to the main room in which the keynote lectures were held and had the weird experience of arriving on the already-full video relay room to see no-one there I knew, which takes some doing at Leeds usually. Luckily this was a misleading omen. The actual lectures, meanwhile, were more or less perceptible if slightly blue-tinged on the video, and were as follows.

1. Keynote Lectures 2012

  • Sverre Bagge, “Changing the Rules of the Game: when did regicide go out of fashion and why?”
    As an early medievalist, I had not realised that no European king was killed by his successor or replacements between 1282 and 1792. That does seem to want some explanation, and Professor Bagge made dynastic legitimacy a part of it, a factor of stability, but other explanations were harder to come by, and there was some difficulty with the sovereign paradox, the problem that the king makes the law and is thereby able to choose if it applies to him.1 Certainly, there is something special about kingship, but why it should only have acquired full force then was not really resolved.
  • Nicole Bériou, “Just Follow Christ and the Gospels? Monastic Rules and Christian Rules in the 13th Century”
    This lecture opened up for us a twelfth-century debate about the worth of monastic rules; in an era when individual concern for one’s own salvation could be put before other’s views of what your soul required for its health, some put the view that the Gospels were the only ‘rule’ that counted. This was not how monastic life had traditionally been envisaged, of course, indeed it rather questioned the necessity or utility of that life for oneself, and such theorists thus started seeing other vocations as monk-like, and society itself as the monastery, which then meant that things like marriage could be seen as requiring Rules too! None of this was ever what you’d call widespread, as we were told it, but it’s interesting to see such thinking in the high era of papal monarchy, which could be imagined as more or less stamping down such autonomous theologising.

Then after that, and after coffee, it was charter time.

133. Nulli… si quis & Co.: sanctiones, corroborationes and penal forms in medieval charters

The number of people who can get excited about a whole session on what set of repeated words scribes used to threaten those who infringed on transactions is probably limited, but no-one would be fooled that I am not among them, and indeed I was not the only one here to hear these:

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “Rules in the document: Carolingian corroborations”
    Few people have seen as many early medieval charters as Professor Mersiowsky, in fact I might go so far as to guess that no-one has, and that means he’s seen a lot of charter issuers signing off by way of confirmation. He took us through the earliest Carolingian monarchs’ chosen ways of doing this, largely with crosses or monograms that he thought were in fact done in the monarchs’ own hands until the time of Charles the Bald (840-877) but whose accompanying phrases suggest older referents, perhaps Byzantine or late Roman. The transition from that is the great gap in the evidence that swallows all conjectures, of course, but it was interesting to see rules being set by these kings of correctio in still another way.
  • Sébastien Barret, “The sanctiones of the Cluniac charters of the 10th-11th centuries”
    Sébastien looked for rules slightly further up his documents, in the penalty clauses already mentioned of the charters of St-Pierre de Cluny in Burgundy, now of course searchable, and found that certain words almost only appear in those clauses, such as, “componat“, ‘let him compensate with’, and indeed more surprisingly “Si quis…”, ‘If anyone…’, though this was something I would also shortly find in my own work, I have to say.2 It was not uniform practice in these clauses: innovation and especially elaboration was possible, even if exact grammar and sense were not, always. Nonetheless, something had to do this job recognisably in these documents, and we may here be crossing the difference between what computers can recognise and what the people of the time could.
  • Arnold Otto, “Nulli… Si Quis and their Copycats: penal forms in later medieval charters”
    The trouble with later medieval charters is that the vernaculars get in and changes everything, so Dr Otto was sensible and went for numbers instead, looking the size of penalties in the penalty clauses of Emperor Charles IV. These, again, varied within fairly regular patterns; though their effect was more deterrent than real, even for a king like Charles, that deterrent was still worth ramping up on special occasions it seems!
  • In questions there was much asked about how many stages these documents were written in and whether penalties were ever carried out, but my notes don’t suggest any patterns emerged from that, not least because we probably only spoke up if we thought we had a difference to add. But then it was lunch and a canter across to Weetwood Hall for some archaeology.

204. Rules for Early Medieval Grave-Goods? Implications for the World of the Living from the World of the Dead

    Set phrases in documents, dead bodies, let no-one say I don’t know where the fun is in medieval studies… This session was introduced by Roland Steinacher, who wanted to remind us all that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I actually passed law allowing the recovery of treasure from graves for the benefit of the state, and then we moved on to the papers.

  • Marion Sorg, “Are Brooches Personal Possessions of the Deceased?: An Empiric Investigation Based on Analyzing Age-Relatedness of Brooches”
    This was a question about an assumption, one that could be more general than just with brooches, that the goods in a grave belonged to the deceased. With brooches in the early Middle Ages it’s even a specific assumption that a woman would own a set of brooches that were almost her identity kit, and keep them all her life, which if it were true would mean that they had an age similar to that of the skeletons with which they are found. Enter the evidence, gathered from 27 cemeteries in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where only about 11·5% of individuals had brooches anyway, but where all age groups could have new brooches but worn brooches were certainly most commonly found with older individuals. This provoked Dr Sorg to wonder whether there might be several stages of a woman’s life where she would acquire such brooches, but I have to say that to me the figures she was presenting seemed to show more or less the same levels of wear in all age groups, so that these intervals would be suspiciously evenly spaced at about 20 years. I asked if we might be looking at object lifespans rather than people’s, I must have been reading something… There’s more work needed to identify what’s active here, I think.
  • Mirjam Kars, “Invisible Rules: the study of grave goods in the context of privately organized intergenerational transmission in families”
    What would mess up such paradigms of course is heirlooms, goods being passed to new owners, and that was the subject of this paper. Women in early medieval cemeteries seem to be buried with fewer goods as they age, suggesting a dispersal of their early kit to younger relatives or friends, which Dr Kars linked with group identification signification. She found very little that wouldn’t be circulated, which itself was interesting given what such analyses show in other cultures; her theory was coming from gift exchange stuff but I wonder now what commodities theory would do for her view.3
  • Stephanie Zintl, “Things to be Taken from the Dead: a case study on reopened graves”
    This paper was about grave-robbing, except that as the speaker said, that’s how we might see it but it’s not clear that the early medieval populations of Francia or Kent did, because it was pretty widespread. She asserted that half of the 600 graves she’d checked had at some point before excavation been reopened, early on as she figured, although this turned out to be on the basis of the very few with several eras of goods in, what is not what you’d call a perfect measure. That half was, however, substantially the ones containing goods, not those without, suggesting firstly that robbery was not the motive and secondly that those opening them could tell which was which still, implying some kind of marker above the surface. The reburiers must have firstly wanted to change the graves somehow and secondly presumably have known that the same would likely happen to theirs. This provoked a lot of discussion and you can see why, a very interesting set of questions despite the methodological difficulties.

325. Post Mortem Problems: Saints, Sinners, and Popular Piety

    Having done murder, confinement, threats and burial what could be left but zombies? I have a space to fill, after all.4

  • Stephen Gordon, “Practical Innovation, Local Belief, and the Containment of the Troublesome Dead”
    This was a study of some of the many English stories about dead bodies found walking, which the speaker suggested might get more common once the idea of Purgatory lengthened the chronology of death rather. Maybe so, but it’s certainly a common thing before that too, even when we have so few sources!5
  • Brian Reynolds, “Dodging Damnation: The Virgin’s Advocacy in Medieval Theology and Popular Piety”
    This paper looked at the development of the idea that Mary will basically be calming Jesus down at the Last Judgement and urging forgiveness of those who appealed to her in life. This placed the real action 1200-1500, but did make the point, probably widely realised, that because Mary was supposedly assumed into Heaven, there are no relics of her body, meaning that her cult is easier to diffuse widely, which I suppose is true.
  • Isabel Moreira, “Hector of Marseilles is Purged: political rehabilitation and guilt by association in the 7th-century Passion of Leudegar of Autun
    If you were a churchman of seventh-century France, as we’ve observed here indeed, you were probably deeply involved in government; escape from worldly cares was basically impossible, and this means that those who would write lives of saints in that era had to be imaginative about their interactions with laymen of less exalted characters. The patrician Hector of Marseilles was such a layman, a rebel against the king with whom St Leudegar got mixed up, and this paper argued that Leudegar’s biographer tried to get round this by giving him a martyr’s death that should have purged any sin, with imagery of being tested in the fire like gold, and so on, an idea that might possibly have been applied to others of the Merovingian-era nobility who lived messy lives with horrible ends.

So that was the first day of Leeds 2012 for me, and that seems worth the writing, both for me and hopefully for you; I guess I’ll do the rest in their turn…

N. B.: alternative coverage of some of these sessions by Magistra et Mater also exists


1. Addressed repeatedly by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, inter alia, all more or less in the same words, but it’s worth reading one of the occurrences.

2. J. Jarrett, “Comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in J. Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Brepols forthcoming), pp. 000-00.

3. That largely because since then I finally read Arjan Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), which is really interesting and will generate a future blog post.

4. The most relevant reflection of that place’s nature being John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560. Why have I never thought before about the significance of putting a piece about the unquiet dead in a memorial volume? I’m pretty sure John didn’t mean any of the things that might be implied by that…

5. Much of the early material gathered either in Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, or Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.

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…

Name in print IX & X

While I wait for information to reach me that will enable the next in our very delayed series of seminar reports, it’s about time I returned to the blog’s primary purpose, that being of course to publicise me and my work. 26th March—yes, I’m as badly behind with the personal stuff as the seminar reports—was a big day for publication-related milestones. I sent off the second submission version of what will now become Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, editors me and the inestimable Allan Scott McKinley; I received notice that Paul Freedman, no less, had reviewed my Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010 in Catholic Historical Review,1 and then when I got to my pigeonhole in college I found this in it!

Cover of volume 1 issue 2 of The Mediæval Journal

This is issue 2 of volume 1 of St Andrews’s new medieval flagship, The Mediaeval Journal, and I’m pleased to say that the first twenty-one pages of it contain my “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III”, a revised and improved version of my 2010 paper from the Leeds International Medieval Congress.2 That allows me to do my usual count of statistics and say: 3 drafts total, of which only 2 for actual publication; Brepols, who publish TMJ, have excellent copy-editors in whose hands I’m pleased now to have Problems and Possibilities, though I still wish the third round of changes they asked for had actually been input but hey; and, all-importantly, time from first submission to publication, 18 months, which is just about a quarter below average, so I’m pleased with it—I think it’s a good article, too, but it was also easy to get through the process of publishing it.

First page of Jarrett, `Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III`

Larger version linked through

Cover of Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture

Then, of course, it’s been so long I’ve taken to mention that that meanwhile, still more has emerged from the pipeline, though this is a piece with a rather long history and my first ever piece of published co-writing. It originated in an international project that involved the Fitzwilliam Museum when I was still working there, and whose findings I was invited to take to a conference in Vienna in 2008 that I mentioned here, but so late that I couldn’t get into the conference proceedings, which were of the sort that get published simultaneously with the conference.3 Subsequently I saw a suitable-looking call for papers on the Heroic Age blog, thanks guys, and was lucky enough to have the paper accepted. Somewhere in there we all had to admit that what I was primarily doing here was writing up other people’s research in reasonably accessible English and so the people who’d done the actual work got their names added, they being Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, of a number more who might have been named if they’d chosen, and the result, finally, is a chapter called “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in that above handsome blue-cloth volume, which is entitled Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and was heroically edited by Brent H. Nelson and Melissa Terras, who have been commendably good-humoured about a print process that has, well, taken long enough to make most digital work outdated.4 (Improvements to Google Image Search have certainly taken some of the zing out of ours, and the fact that the website on which all the project’s downloads were uploaded has now gone and its EU domain been camped by an insurance scammer is also something that time has wrought in defiance of what I actually cited, but what this means is of course that now this paper is about the only way you can find this stuff out…) Statistics here are: 5 drafts, I’m no longer sure how, and two sets of revisions, and time from first submission to publication, well, 3 years 8 months, no easy way to get round that. Still, it’s there, making my CV a weirder place, and it’s in the volume with some really exciting stuff, too, which it’s great to be included amongst. So, there we are, my name continues to be in print and there’s more a-coming, and by the time that emerges, maybe I’ll be announcing things on time again! Or, maybe not…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (Woodbridge 2010), reviewed by Paul Freedman in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 98 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 93-94, DOI:10.1353/cat.2012.0074.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediæval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout 2012 for 2011), pp. 1-22, DOI:10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda & Johann Stockinger (eds), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism. Proceedings of the 2nd EVA 2008 Vienna Conference, Vienna, August 25-28, 2008, books@ocg.at 238 (Vienna 2008).

4. Jonathan Jarrett, Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489. No, neither of the books about digitization are online, what would the point in that be, I don’t understand, world-wide what? etc….

Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England

I’m sorry, did I say ‘the next week‘? Apparently I meant ‘the next month’. Wow, that’s never happened to the blog before, I do apologise. I have, for what it’s worth, been trying to secure the short-term future of my sanity and balance by actually seeing some bands, the medium-term future of history at my college by marking admissions tests and the long-term future of your humble blogger by offering myself as employee to people, and of course if anything comes of that you will hear in due course. But in the meantime, this is the only evening at home I shall have for a while even now so I should put some blog up, and that blog should be seminar reports. Given how immensely behind I am with these, I will skip one that I’ve no useful expertise with, Robert Hoyland speaking to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research on 7th March 2012 to the title, “Theophilus of Edessa and the Historiography of the 7th-8th-Century Near East”—sorry, Byzantinists and early Islamists—because although it had certain detective elements to it as Professor Hoyland was on the trail of a lost source, I knew almost none of the names involved and don’t read any of the languages and I have no means of evaluating how significant what he was saying was. Cool stemma diagram though! If you’re eager to know more I can revisit it, but otherwise I’ll move on to stuff I do have opinions about, those being my erstwhile colleague Emma Cavell, addressing the Late Medieval Seminar at the I. H. R. on the 9th March with the title, “Did Women Cause The Fall of Native Wales?” and Stephen Baxter, Chris Lewis and Duncan Probert addressing the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there on the 14th March with the title, “Profile of a Doomed Élite: the structure of English landed society in 1066″.

View of Clun Castle

Clun Castle: capital of intrigue circa 1281!

Emma’s area of expertise is the March of Wales in the time of the Norman kings of England, and the Marcher lords who made their fortunes there, and even more specifically, the women in the Marcher lords’ families.1 What she had for us on this occasion was that, while becoming yet more expert on these people, she’d come across a number of letters to such women, Maud de Braose wife of Roger Mortimer (the first one) particularly, from local lords on the other side of the frontier, and what these letters were reporting was nothing less than military intelligence about the composition and motions of the army of Prince Llewellyn of Wales. This comes from a time in 1281 when Roger was out on campaign on that frontier because Llewellyn had just fortified it. Maud, meanwhile, was at Clun Castle and apparently running the command post, this information presumably going back out to Roger and the lords getting information back and so on. Unlike my period, we only have the letters in here, whereas I’m more used to having letters out, but nonetheless there she was at the centre of a fifth-column spy ring and she wasn’t the only one; Howys leStrange (good name madam!) is apparently reported commanding the defence of Welshpool when Llewellyn attacked, and the text that tells us this also tells us that while she was doing that she took care to hide all the documents in the castle. Yeah, I’ll bet! That is a relatively rare mention of such activity in the chronicles of the time, but the letters make it clear that there is more to tell. Emma has been working this up since, including details of a juicy family conspiracy between these groups, and I believe it’s now in some kind of print process, so you may be able to find out more soon!

Now, I thought this was pretty exciting myself, spies, spymistresses, treacherous compacts made on battlefields between mutually-cautious relatives and the last-but-one flash of Welsh independence briefly burning bright in the pan, but Emma got quite a grilling from Judith Bennett, no less, about the role her title had given the women and whether it was fair, and whether this evidence told us anything the Paston Letters don’t, and various others likewise sang up saying such behaviour wasn’t unusual in their area. I’ve had these questions (the ‘it’s not unusual’ sort) myself and I’m never sure what they’re supposed to achieve other than perhaps to imply that the questioner’s area of expertise is somehow more developed than the speaker’s.2 Well, great, but the paper isn’t about that area, so, can we talk about what was actually said perhaps? Anyway, you will see from my description that I thought it was good stuff and maybe you also think it sounds like that too.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

Then the next week I was back in the same building to hear about a different native population being subjugated by the Norman yoke (MAYBE), slightly earlier, as Stephen Baxter and his team told us about the first results from the Profile of a Doomed Elite project that he is running at King’s College London. What they are trying to do is to properly, scientifically, electronically and most of all accurately count, identify, locate and describe the landholders of England in 1066 and work out what had happened to them in 1086 via the magic window of Domesday Book. This has, of course, been attempted before, but never so thoroughly, and in work that Stephen described as “riddled with mistakes” and “methodologically flawed”.3 There is a lot to do here, and it’s not easy: starting estimates are 27,000 pieces of property assigned to 1200 different personal names, only a very few of whom have titles and very many of whom might therefore be people with the same names. I am very familiar with that problem, as of course are they from the PASE Domesday project that Stephen also ran, and the digital solutions they were working out here were consequently of a lot of interest to me.4 They involve combining maps and tables of data, frequencies of names, their predecessors on the estates, their wealth and using all this stuff to arrive, not at solid identifications, but at confidence measures for possible identifications. I like this a lot because it avoids the two common problems with prosopographical databases where identification is uncertain, of either the database format forcing the user to decide where someone belongs before they have the full picture of the database completed, thus not actually allowing that database to help with the identification, or else that format not giving a way of assessing or making links at all, so that the identification always has to be done real-time by eye, and therefore not necessarily with consistency.5 Better still, it does not resolve this problem by having the computer do black-box identifications whose basis isn’t flexible. When our data is as variable as the Domesday data, pretending that we won’t sometimes get garbage out when we put it in is just unrealistic. This solution lets one measure how garbagey each result is, and as Stephen explained it’s solid enough to start doing statistics with, because adequate statistical methods can factor in things like confidence and make them part of the measurements. This should allow them to ask questions like: how long is the tail of small free independent English landholders left after the big guys whom we know lose out? how much of English wealth is actually peasant-held? How does the Church compare, how do women do compared to men? (A preliminary take at that last from 1066 suggests, apparently, that ninety per cent of lay wealth then was held by men and half the rest by Queen Edith! Lucky her?)

After Stephen had talked us through that in taut and dynamic style, Duncan and Chris filled in some texture. Duncan talked about the greater accuracy of micro-studies in this method because of small landholders pretty certainly not holding anywhere else so we see all their stuff; but most of a nation’s worth of micro-studies and a big enough computer of course equals one very detailed macro-study, so it will all add up. Chris, on the other hand, focused on the big identifiable people, not least Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury, who now emerges as the third largest landholder in England tempus rex Eadwardi (I presume after Earl Harold and the king?), and actually least, weirdly, Harold’s sister Gunnhild, although she was a professed nun apparently living on her own estates; nonetheless, they were only 30 hides, which makes her the smallest landholder the team can place in a secure family connection. Chris also showed us Danes settled in Wessex (described as such), mixed-name families, northern king’s thegns taking service with Norman earls and many other possibilities. I’m sure some of these have been spotted before, probably largely by Ann Williams, but of course they’re going to catch all that are reasonably catchable through this project and there seems no question that that will give them new things to say about how Normans became Anglo-Normans, how English dealt with or were dealt with by Normans and how that varied from place to place. There were questions, all the same, including a marvellously Heisenbergian one by Susan Reynolds pointing out that since the king’s commissioners themselves didn’t know the answers they were soliciting from the jurors at the inquests that made up the Domesday data, the enquiry was itself presumably changing the data; but, there wasn’t anything that the team didn’t have some means of testing for and trapping via the statistical analyses. It can’t be rock-solid accurate, of course, it just can’t, because of factors like Susan’s but also because of the variable data quality and so on, and also of course because of the large chunks of England not included in Domesday Book, but it might be as close as we can get…


1. For example the widows, as studied in Emma Cavell, “Aristocratic widows and the medieval Welsh frontier: The Shropshire evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 57-82.

2. One would like, generously, to suppose that it was to offer scope for Tom Jones filks, but if so no-one grasped that nettle.

3. I guess that by this was implied Robin Fleming’s Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991), not least because esteemed commentator Levi warned us some time ago that Stephen makes criticisms of this work in his The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2007) but I don’t know if Stephen would also have meant Ann Williams’s The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge 1995).

4. Cf. Chris Lewis, “Joining the Dots: a methodology for identifying the English in Domesday Book” in Katherine Keats-Rohan (ed.), Family Trees and the Roots of Politics. The prosopography of Britain and France from the tenth to the twelfth century (Woodbridge 1997), pp. 69-87; Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), p. 19.

5. I have actually spoken in public about this, at the Digital Diplomatics conference in Naples that I blogged some time ago, and my paper there, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” is, I believe, still under review for possible publication at this time, though it’s possible that it’s in press and no-one’s told me. Now I’ve said this, proofs will probably arrive in my INBOX just as I head out of town this week…

Conferring in Naples, IV and final: clarity, confusion, coffee and photos

The delay in posting is kind of past apology so for once I won’t bother and will just crack on. Despite the sociability of the previous evening, mentioned two posts ago, I was back in the ring on the morning of Saturday 1st October 2011, although it did take me slightly longer to get there because for its final day the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference was in this unassuming little building…

Castel Nuovo, Naples

Castel Nuovo, Naples

And there’ll be more photos of that towards the end of the post, but for now let me just stick with the conference chamber…

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria

… and the view from it…

View from the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

View from the conference room

… all of which made it quite surprising, in some ways, that any of our attentions were directed inside. This was perhaps especially an issue because we started half an hour late for various reasons and then Dr Renata De Lorenzo spoke for ten unscheduled minutes about the hosting body, sending things still further off schedule, but we rallied. And there were good reasons for doing so; the sessions unrolled as follows, with links to abstracts under the titles as before.

Digital Research

  • Michael Hänchen, “Die Erschließung, Formalisierung und Auswertungsmöglichkeit digitaler Urkundencorpora mittels einer Datenbank”, was a start-to-finish summary in masterly order of a digitisation project using the documents of two particular monasteries, Aldersbach and Fürstenzell. What I liked about this was the clearly-theorised approach: somehow in twenty minutes Herr Hänchen managed to explain exactly why they’d built things the way they had, and you could easily use his slides as a how-to for your own monastic archive. What I was less keen on was the expression of trends from a relatively tiny sample, percentages from 38 and 22 documents, and although some of the things he was finding were interesting, with that kind of sample it’s very hard to say if the peaks and troughs of the evidence’s distribution actually show anything.
  • Martin Roland, “Illuminierte Urkunden im digitalen Zeitalter – Mapregeln und Chancen”, was unusual in this company in being an art-historical paper about the relatively few but spectacular illuminated charters from Central Europe, comparisons between which have now become usefully possible because of digitization, but only just, because these are so diverse and so widely-spread that their mark-up varies considerably, meaning that the digitization has in some cases hidden like from like. This demands, felt Dr Roland, a classification endeavour to bring things more properly together. I want to note that he was the only presenter who used a handout as well as slides, which says something either for the digitalization of the conference or else for his determination to stick with traditional methods alongside new ones. His slides, however, were absolutely the best of the conference, so do have a look.
  • Anaïs Wion, “Éditer vs. analyser? L’exemple du projet Ethiopian Manuscript Archives”, took us much further afield than most of other other papers; she has been working with, or sometimes apparently at odds with, the Ethiopian government to digitise the numerous community archives that exist in the country. Much of this material is medieval, running from fourth to twelfth centuries, and the bulk of that is royal, but it has not been studied because those times and cultures are very far away from any modern Ethiopian political consciousness, but some of it is more modern and even some of the historical stuff exists only in oral form, as traditions supposedly handed down, which takes some fitting into a diplomatic schema! Digitization seems the obvious answer because the corpus is very dispersed, but Dr Wion raised the question of whether, once it was all transcribed, marked up and otherwise filed and sorted, it actually still needs editing? There is a question there. I would expect, in a parallel situation, that a big fat book of the country’s heritage would be a nice thing to have achieved, but whether it would be any more use than the database Dr Wion has already achieved might indeed be questioned…

There was then coffee, which by now will not surprise you, but this time the south vs. north thing described before hit really hard; the coffee was all gone before some of us had even left the conference room, and the only good thing about that at all was that it was easier to get people back in there, as long as they weren’t queueing for the single bathroom behind a staffed counter that was all that was available. I’m sure that the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria is a noble institution, and there is no doubt that their premises are medievalist heaven, but I cannot entirely recommend them as a place to hold a conference. Anyway, we continued…

  • Serena Falleta, “Dalla carta al bit. L’edizione digitale del cartulario di Santa Maria Nova di Monreale”, was one of those papers that I think had misjudged its audience, being considerably more basic in what I could pull out of the Italian than this audience really needed, which is a pity because I have been otherwise led to believe that the Monreale documentation is crazy interesting and I would have happily tried to understand more about what was in it and less about why encoding charters isn’t as simple as we might think, which let’s face it, we knew.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics”, was of course probably no better, you’d be asking the wrong guy to tell you really, but what it was supposed to do was stress that sometimes, you don’t want the computer to make the decisions or find the links, because they can only be decided subjectively, and the correct division between computerised interpretation and human interpretation is precisely on that line of what is certain and what is unprovable. This is especially true in the area of trying to find certain persons in a database, for example; when you have fifteen occurrences of people called Miró with no surname in any given sample (I exaggerate, but not by as much as I might be) it’s hard to be sure how many of them are the same guy, so what you want is for the database always to tell you those fifteen are there, and do whatever you may think valid about identifying them elsewhere; the data should not be made to tell you more than it did initially. Of course, a data schema shouldn’t allow that kind of thing anyway, but anyone who’s digitised a large corpus of information from non-digital sources will tell you that you make split-second decisions about what something is every other minute; really, we need to keep those outside so that they can if necessary be revised if we’re making databases that will ever need to be revisited, by ourselves or by others.

Contemporary Diplomatics

  • Luciana Duranti, “The Return of Diplomatics as a Forensic Discipline”, was a paper I was looking forward to because Professor Duranti was one of the few people here whose work I had already met; she has had interesting things to say about what counts as an original that I recommend to you.1 Here she was transporting some of these concepts into the digital realm, arguing most notably for a separation between the concepts of reliability, accuracy and authenticity. The latter is especially problematic in a digital sphere where all the information of a digitally-presented document may be being pulled dynamically from a database, in which there is no document per se, just a set of encoded fields which are reassembled on the fly every time a record is invoked. All of this was coming from a very different context, work in digital forensics intended to establish legal authenticity criteria for things like e-mails, database contents, etc., where it becomes vital to know if what it now says was what it said at the relevant time; perhaps not unsurprisingly, it turns out that diplomatic concepts actually make quite good tools for structuring such an enquiry…
  • Antonella Ambrosio & Maura Striano, “Insegnare la diplomatica con le nuove technologie. Uno del percorsi possibili”, I’m afraid, fell on an unreceptive audience where your blogger was concerned. This was partly shortage of caffeine, I think, and partly shortage of food, but also it was that teaching diplomatic is something that seems basically pretty unlikely from a UK perspective, and that my Italian wasn’t good enough to get what might have been relevant to my experience out of the presentation. So I’m afraid my notes for this one only say, “(Comic Sans!)”, which is not the kind of review I ought to be giving people and I apologise.

Lunch was a more equable occasion than the coffee break had been, a buffet served in the very anteroom where the coffee had been extinguished, and all extremely nice, so we settled down for the final strait more cheerfully, even though it was entitled…

Theory

  • Gunter Vasold, “Work in Progress: Editionen als multidimensionale Wissensräume”, was looking at what it means for scholarship and the way we access it that a digital project may never in fact be complete, or that it may be available before that point and then sometimes updated after it. This makes for very complex information flows (as his slides make clearer), especially if different parts of the project pull on shared information that one of them updates without reference to others. In questions I urged that it be kept in mind that old versions would need to be openly archived, or else information from such a project could never safely be cited; we already face this problem with the world-wide web but making it a feature of scholarly editions is going a bit too far in my opinion. Happily this was also the speaker’s opinion so there’s an extra technical complication to consider…
  • Manfred Thaller, “What is an Environment for Charters?”, addressed some of the higher-level questions of the process of digitisation and mark-up, related to how one gets the data out to users in such a way that they can do what they want with it rather than what one had in mind without prejudicing the accuracy and completeness of the results they get. One either reports work of this complexity in bald outline like that or basically transcribes, and I can only now do the former, but the slides and abstract may help you if you want to look into these questions further.
  • Georg Vogeler, “Conclusion”, tried to pull out the themes of the conference, not a small task given the range of papers, but he identified four headings, one of which had three subheadings: that one was the digital preservation of European charter history, within which we had discussed the choice of what to digitise and for what purpose; the respective roles of hand and machine, intuitive versus automatic processing of information; the issues about how far we should smooth data to allow similarity to be evident; and how to store our data in a lasting fashion, which as Georg said, we had not really discussed but is a real issue that deserved mention. The other headings were: sharing of data, the obvious point of all this and yet done by very few people comparatively speaking;2 the different problems of source-rich and source-poor areas, the latter breeding analytical sloppiness because unverifiable but the former inhibiting complexity because of sheer bulk of data to process; and lastly, given the new possibilities and techniques at issue here, are we really still doing diplomatic and how can we teach people the same old stuff? So the closing note was something quite like What Would Bresslau Do, and that is actually very rarely a bad question to ask in medieval studies.3 I will leave it with you.

This still left a little time to look around the castle, however, before it was necessary to head back out into the wider world, and there were a few things worth seeing therein, which I will just briefly display some of…

Once again I absolutely wasn’t taking illicit photos in a museum, naturally. I mean, someone would surely have stopped me. Besides, some views you can’t copyright.

Cruise-liners in Naples harbour with Vesuvius in background

I don't care about perspective, ships should not look bigger than buildings or obscure dormant volcanoes

It turns out that we were only in the lower castle, even once as high on it as we could easily get.

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio in Naples

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio

And finally, once fortified with gelato, back to the hotel, and then away the next morning. I think this may be the only photo I’ve ever taken from an aeroplane window that’s been any use at all so I cannot help but share it with you as a parting shot. Next post but one it’s back to London and Oxford reports at last!

View of the Italian coast from the air

View of the Italian coast from the air


1. For a start, have a look at her “Reliability and Authenticity: the concepts and their implications” in Archivaria Vol. 39 (Ottawa 1995), pp. 5-9, online at http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12063/13035, last modified 15th August 2005 as of 20th August 2008. Now, it might somewhat cruelly be said that here she was doing no more than update and publicise concepts first broached by Pierre Chaplais in, among other places, his “The Origin and Authenticity of the Royal Anglo-Saxon Diploma” in Journal of the Society of Archivists Vol. 3 (London 1965), pp. 48-61, repr. in Felicity Ranger (ed.), Prisca Munimenta: studies in archival and administrative history presented to Dr. A. E. J. Hollaender (London 1973), pp. 28-42, but the thing is, nobody else seems to know that exists and I don’t believe Professor Duranti did either, and so what this basically means is she’s as sharp as Pierre Chaplais was, which is not a small thing to say.

2. Here of course I am among the guilty: sharing my actual data would be of little use to people given how irregularly it is stored, but the format might be some use and might, in some other discipline, be publishable in itself. I want to hold onto it, however, precisely in case it becomes so…

3. For those who might not know, this is a reference to Harry Bresslau, medievalist and editor of the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, who as well as editing many many things for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and indeed writing its first history also wrote, slowly, an eventually three-volume work with a very complicated publication history, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 3 vols (Leipzig 1905-1931 and Berlin 1960; 4th edn, Berlin 1968-1969) that has become the standard textbook on diplomatic for a great many German-reading medievalists and is one of those things you go to and find out that the author already had your idea a century ago and spent three lines on it in the middle of something else he thought was more interesting….

Conferring in Naples, III: a full day’s talking

So, term started, and there was a short hiatus, for most of which this post was in draft. But, it’s actually a little hard to work out how to address the papers given at the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference briefly. I don’t want to go on at the length of the previous post, and ordinarily therefore I’d start by listing the programme, but since it, the abstracts and indeed the slideshows from the papers are all already online, it seems as if you’d already have gone there if you wanted. Still, I can’t think of another structure, and maybe the few things I want to say will spark your interest, so I’m going to use my usual one anyway, but with a cut at the halfway mark because, well, this goes on a bit.

Systems

  • Jeroen Deploige & Guy de Tré, “When Were Medieval Benefactors Generous? Time Modelling in the Development of the Database Diplomatica Belgica
  • Žarko Vujošević, “The Medieval Serbian Chancery: challenge of digital diplomatics”
  • Richard Higgins, “Cataloguing medieval charters: a repository perspective”
  • This first session had been supposed to feature Christian Emil Ore, but he had now been moved to a slot later in the program, and Mr Vujošević moved up to compensate because of a later speaker not being available as planned. The organiser were keen on keeping papers together that could talk to each other. Dr Higgins’s was however, I think, always going to be an outlier: hailing from Durham University Library, which has a charter or two, although his primary concern was as most others’ getting stuff on the web so it could be used, he was trying to do so as part of a much larger project of which very little else was charters, and much of what he said of trying to find data schemes that would do it all struck close to my old experiences. It helped explain to the more hardcore audience, I think, why libraries so rarely seem to do things with charters the way that digital diplomatists might wish. The paper by Deploige and de Tré, meanwhile showed the kind of thing that we should be able to do with large-scale diplomatic corpora—things like, for example, did people give more to the Church when they were rich and there was peace, or when the Black Death was right around the corner?—but was actually more about quite how difficult it is to digitise medieval dates into something computers can actually compare. They had the compromise of a reference date, computer-readable and therefore unhistorically precise for the most part, and a text field always displayed with it showing the range of possible dates, but this is a kludge, I know because I do it myself, it leads to sorting of documents that may be completely awry, and they had a range of improvements they were hoping to try. And Mr Vujošević, meanwhile, spoke almost as a voice in the wilderness, because although Serbian medieval charters are plentiful they are very variably edited, if at all, and much of his work had turned into battles to simply get the texts out of archives and into a single uniformly-featured database. All the speakers were therefore giving work-in-progress reports on fairly intractable technical and archival problems, but I’m not sure this was the theme the organisers had expected to emerge.

Coffee, however, restored our spirits, and I was able to swap stories as well as some useful software tips with Dr Higgins, so the sessions resumed in good order.

  • Pierluigi Feliciati, “Descrizione digitale e digitalizzazione di pergamene e sigilli nel contesto di un sistema informativo archivistico nazionale: l’esperienza del SIAS”
  • Francesca Capochiani, Chiara Leoni & Roberto Rosselli Del Turco, “Open Source Tools for Online Publication of Charters”
  • François Bougard, Antonella Ghignoli & Wolfgang Huschner, “Il progetto ‘Italia Regia’ & il suo sistema informatico”
  • The latter two of these papers were given in Italian, or so my notes suggest, whereas the first one, with an Italian title, was presented in English! Figure that one out. Anyway, I don’t speak Italian, and though I was surprised by how much I could muddle out of it by reading the English abstracts at the same time as they spoke, nonetheless I didn’t get much. I will just note that the second paper was actually presented by all three authors, in segments, whereas the last was presented by Ghignoli alone, a pity as I’d like to have met M. Bougard, he does things that interest me. The first paper, although I did understand it, was essentially a verbal poster for this SIAS program, which is slowly chomping through Italy’s national archives and cataloguing them all. Since some 20-25% apparently don’t have indices for their charters at all, some exciting stuff will doubtless come out of this but that wasn’t what the paper was about. The second paper I could follow more or less because it was essentially a how-to guide on publishing such material, a presentation that may have missed its audience here. The third was where my language really just wasn’t up to it and I don’t know if what was being said was a demonstration of a remarkable project or just another one, but the project is a digital database with images of all Italian royal charters, seventh to twentieth centuries, and if you wonder as do I about what the later end of that might even be I guess we can go look

By now we were running some way behind, and there was a brief attempt to cancel the next coffee break, which had already been over-run. This was largely ignored—punctuation for the day, as I had that morning been told—but with some grumbling things were got going with some time clawed back, and we continued.

  • Camille Desenclos & Vincent Jolivet, “Diple, propositions pour la convergence de schémas XML/TEI dédiés à l’édition de sources diplomatiques”
  • Daniel Piñol Alabart, “Proyecto ARQUIBANC. Digitalización de archivos privados catalanes: una herramienta para la investigación”
  • The former of these papers was notable for containing more acronyms and programming languages I think than any other at the conference, but this was partly because it was trying to explain the sheer variety of data schemas in use for charter material out there. By the end of this conference I think it was fairly clear to us all how this was happening: either new researchers don’t realise that there’s a toolset and a set of standards available to them and build their own, or, much more frequently it seemed (but then the former sort largely wouldn’t know about the conference, either…) they are aware of the tools but find them inadequate for their precise enquiry or sample and so modify them for their own purposes. The presenters argued that the widespread use of the TEI standard (explained last post but one) was making this easier for people to do, but that it also made it easier to link things back up again. The other paper, meanwhile, gave me great glee because it had my sort of material in it, documents in happily-familiar scripts and layouts, but what it also alerted me to was that for the period from when records begin in Catalonia to now, as a whole, a full 70% of surviving documentary material (of all kinds) is in private hands. Getting people to let the state digitise it, the point of the ARQUIBANC project, thus presents a number of problems, starting with arrant distrust and moving onto uncatalogued archives and getting scanners into somebody’s attic. Where this has been done, medieval material does come out, as indeed I knew from reading of the Catalunya Carolíngia for Osona and Manresa, where four of the tenth-century documents were revealed precisely by going and knocking on the doors of really old manors, but the size of the project as compared to the resources makes their considerable successes seem puny.

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

Not this document! But documents like it! Hurray!

You will also imagine that I had much to ask Senyor Piñol, in shaky Catalan, afterwards on the subject of private archives, and he was helpful, but before very long we were being shuffled off to lunch, where I ate more pizza margarita than even I would have thought plausible in excellent company and felt pretty good about both these things on returning for the poster session and the last six papers. Continue reading

Leeds 2011 report 3: Catalans, coins, churches and computers

[Edit: hideously mixed-up footnotes now all match up and exist and so on.]

Looking back at it, it does seem rather as if the 2011 International Medieval Congress was fairly intense for your humble blogger. Having been called to the warpath the previous day and then entirely surrounded by people with Livejournals, the third day of the conference, Wednesday 13th July, also provoked me in various directions. I’ll try not to relive too much of the drama, not least because I intend a separate post for one of the episodes, but this is roughly how the day went.

1014. Concepts and Levels of Wealth and Poverty in Medieval Catalonia

It is unusual for Catalan scholars to turn up in England, where Spain is usually represented only by Castilians, and I had read work by two of the speakers in this session and also its organiser, so I was determined to show my face. In fact the group had already discovered my book and thus my existence, so it was all quite well-timed and it seemed like a jolly happy meeting. There were also of course some papers and those went like this:

  • Pere Benito Monclús, “Famines and Poverty in XIIth-XIIIth-century Catalonia”, looking closely at who spent their wealth on feeding the poor in time of famine when the usual Church safety net was stretched too far, concluding that it was the public power last of all.
  • Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Rich Nobility and Poor Nobility in Medieval Catalonia, 10th-12th Centuries”, stressing how little we have actually found out about quite a chunk of the medieval Catalan nobility, and how varied it is; this was not really news to me as such, but it was actually really nice to hear someone talking about my research area as if it mattered all the same.
  • Sandrine Victor, “Salaries and Standards of Living in Catalonia according to the example of Girona at the 15th century”, was doing careful quantitative studies of the demographic distribution of wealth, and had a lot to say about labourers and their accommodation (almost always rented, unlike their masters’ owned houses) in the late medieval city.

The last of these papers was perhaps the only one that was presenting new work as such, work in progress even, whereas Senyors Benito and Rodríguez had both elected to give papers that were kind of introductions to their topic for specialists from other fields. There were quite a lot of these papers at Leeds this year, it seemed to me, and though I would rather see more developed or developing work, I understood why they did; they wouldn’t have known there would be anyone who knew the area there and I’m hardly a whole audience anyway. It was impressive how many languages the questions were in, though: English, French, Castilian and Catalan (one question in German, too, that had to be translated), and the conversation afterwards was, well, extremely informative. But we’ll get to that next post.

1121. Making the World Go Round: coinage, currency, credit, recycling, and finance in medieval Europe, II

I got into this session late somehow, probably because of hunting really bad coffee with Catalans and then realising I needed to be across the campus next, but what I caught was interesting.

  • Gareth Williams, “Was the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England a Queen? A Possible Posthumous Coinage in the Name of Harold II”
  • What was going on here, as far as I could divine after my late entry, was that there seems to have been a very short-lived issue of coins in the name of King Harold II from the royal nunnery of Wilton, almost all known from one hoard that also contains 1067-68 coins of William the Conqueror. Gareth suggested that the responsible party might be Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor’s widow, Harold’s brother, who owned the nunnery, and who didn’t submit to William straight away; that seems to make sense of what we’d otherwise have to assume was counterfeiting so that was pretty cool.1

  • Tom J. T. Williams, “Coins in Context: minting in the borough of Wallingford”
  • This was an interesting combination with the archaeological attention that Neil Christie had given Wallingford the previous day, though possibly only really interesting to numismatists; it did however include the fact that we can use Domesday Book to plot where one of Wallingford’s moneyers, Swærtlinc, actually lived in 1086, and he’d struck for Harold II as well so some English at least did come through, even if at a low level.2 One of the questions raised (by Morn Capper) was whether moneyers were too important to remove or too humble, and we still don’t know, but Mr Williams is I believe aiming to try and answer this for the later period as Rory Naismith tried to answer it for the earlier one, so we shall see I guess!3

  • Henry Fairbairn, “The Value and Metrology of Salt in the late 11th Century”
  • As you know I think the salt trade’s important—I must have read something once4—but I don’t really know how important so this was worth hearing. The units involved in salt-measuring are a bit obscure but by working up from tolls, we came out with figures of approximately 150 g of salt per penny in a world where a pig is 8 pence and a sheep 2 and a half. That makes salt less of a bulk product and more of a luxury than one might have thought and it must have been hard to get very much of it if you were a peasant. So that’s not nothing.

1202. ‘Reading’ the Romanesque Façade

I had wanted to go to this session partly just to see beautiful things and get my Team Romanesque badge metaphorically stamped, but also because Micky Abel whom I met a long time back was supposed to be presenting. In fact, though, she was unable to be there and then I got distracted by books, and so I missed much of the first paper. I have hardly any notes, but it was gorgeous to look at, because it was about the Conques tympanum and we know how that goes, right?

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques, from Wikimedia Commons

  • Kirk Ambrose, “Attunement to the Damned at Conques”, thus argued that the passivity of the victims on the Hell side of the tympanum was actually supposed to frighten the viewer, and
  • Amanda Dotseth, “Framing Humility at San Quirce de Burgos”, took us through a complex system of sculptural ornament that seems to have been dismantled and put back in a different order at some point in its history, but which also may have encoded the monks of the relevant church into the artwork
San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

1301. Digital Anglo-Saxons: charters, people, and script

This was essentially a session advertising the work of the Department of Digital Humanities of King’s College London, still the Centre for Computing in the Humanities when the conference program was printed. The DDH is one of KCL’s expansion zones, and there’s a lot to advertise, so it was something of a shame that Paul Spence, one of the speakers, had been unable to show, not least because that was the charters one. Instead, however, his paper was kind of combined with one of the others. Thus, we got:

  • John Bradley, “Anglo-Saxon People: PASE II – doing prosopography in the digital age”
  • This put the expanded version of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which now (as you may recall) contains all the people in Domesday Book too, into a wider context and emphasised how they had gone for a structure dictated by information, not by sources or persons, which he called a `factoid’ model. This seems like a really useful way to think about treating this kind of data, actually, and I was impressed with the flexibility it seems to have permitted them. Of course, I’d never then actually attempted to make serious use of PASE and having done so for this post now I’m slightly less sure how much use it is to me…5

  • Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”
  • Dr Stokes’s paper was about ASCluster, the umbrella project that tries to manage all the data that the DDH handle in their various Anglo-Saxonist endeavours together. Since they don’t all focus on the same sorts of data, trying to create a way of making them all connect is actually really tricky. You would think that pulling a personal name out of their charters database and also PASE and getting all the information together should be simple enough but the databases weren’t designed together and they aren’t searched in the same way, and so on. I could feel his pain; I remember these kinds of dilemma all too well. By the sound of it they have some challenges still to defeat, though the ability and lateral thinking on the team demonstrated by these two presentations would encourage one to think that they will in fact defeat them.

You can tell perhaps that I had mixed feelings about the efforts here. This is not just that I doubt that the money they’re likely to sink into this integration of their projects is going to see a return in terms of use; it’s already possible to search these things separately and compare the results oneself, after all. That isn’t actually their problem: they made a case for doing it, got the support and are setting about it, fine. Lack of use is a problem that a lot of this sort of project is suffering and we will hear more about this in future reports. No, my cynicism came from a much simpler source, which is that I had never at this point nor at many points subsequently managed to get their exciting-looking database of the Anglo-Saxon charters, ASChart, the one that I do have a use for, to work. Once I knew of it, I quickly found that the site would never load, from wherever I tried it, home, office, JANET or commercial internet, never. And I tried it many times, in the months after this session, every time I happened to have reason to check on this post whence I’d linked it in fact; nada. They must have known it didn’t work, because it can’t have been serving any pages, and yet it kept being advertised as a completed project, while actually the only recourse was Sean Miller’s scratch pro bono equivalent. This kind of thing annoys me. The result of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate an already-existing resource should not be that your team gets showered with more money and converted into a full department, especially in a time and at an institution where huge cuts had only a little while before been projected across the whole of the humanities. I don’t want them all fired, of course, quod absit but I would like the system to reward and therefore encourage fulfilment of the things that the money was awarded for. But no-one in power checks up and so there’s no consequence, bar slight embarrassment, if those things don’t work, and the system doesn’t actually incentivise them to improve the situation.

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

I was all set up for this rant when I got round to writing this post, therefore, and so it comes as something of an anti-climax to have to say, er, now that I check, it seems to be fixed. But it does, so I do. If the DDH team are reading, therefore, I’d better say thankyou for putting the effort, the bigger server or whatever in that has made this resource finally available, not least because as far as I can see there was little that required you to do so. So, it’s up, and even if the charters after 900, i. e. most of them, are not yet there and the links through to PASE crash in a sea of Tomcat errors, nonetheless it is better—in fact the Tomcat errors have gone away even while I’ve had this post in draft and those links now work!—and I suppose therefore that we may hope for better still. There are now diplomatic indices, linked from marked-up XML texts, which bodes extremely well for the future when the whole corpus is loaded and is something that I would love, especially just now, to have for the Catalan material (albeit that there is something like six times as much of that and no-one has databased any of it except Joan Vilaseca). This also means that when they get the post-900 material up, the whole thing will actually deliver something that Sean’s site doesn’t already do, though his free-text search is still unique and could be used for some of the same things. Well, anyway, we have two online Anglo-Saxon charter databases now, and yes, I have said before that I wish funding bodies would JFGI when they get an application for such a project, in case it already exists, but these two both have their points and I am running out of reasons to be cross with the DDH so perhaps I’ll try and stop?

ASCharters site screen capture

ASCharters site screen capture

Anyway. That was the last session of the day, and then there was dinner and then finally the dance, which was absolutely tremendous fun even if I did miss `Blue Monday’ but about which little can usefully be said here that hasn’t been said already. So with that I’ll wrap this up and move on to the more Catalano-centric post promised at the beginning there.


1. We know an unusual amount about Edith, which is coordinated and analysed in Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith: queenship and women’s power in eleventh-century England (Cambridge 1997).

2. I’m not quite sure I’ve got this right, because try as I might I can’t get him out of PASE—ironically given the above!—but he comes out of a search of the Fitzwilliam’s Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds no problem, and PASE have that data (I know, I gave it them) so he ought to show up. In fact only three people from Wallingford come out of PASE Domesday at all. I must not be using it right. That can’t be broken as well, surely?6 And even EMC doesn’t show any coins for him from Harold’s reign. I can only guess that the British Museum collections must have some unpublished examples; this could certainly be true.

3. Now available in the shiny new R. Naismith, Money and power in Anglo-Saxon England: the southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series 80 (Cambridge 2011).

4. In fact, what I must have read is John Maddicott’s “Trade, Industry and the Wealth of King Alfred” in Past and Present No. 123 (Oxford 1989), pp. 3-51 (to which cf. the following debate, Ross Balzaretti, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. No. 135 (Oxford 1992), pp. 142-150, Janet Nelson, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. pp. 151-163 and John Maddicott, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred: a reply”, ibid. pp. 164-188), since that’s what I have notes on, but what I probably should have read is Maddicott’s “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

5. See n. 2 above.

6. Afterthought: PASE’s About page says it excludes `incomers’, and this is a Norse name.7 Can that be what’s happened here, that the Danish-named moneyer isn’t being included as English? Because, er, that seems analytically questionable to me…

7. Also, if the DDH team are reading, the About PASE link from the Domesday search interface page goes to the Reference page, not the About page as it does from other screens.

Uniting the uniters: electronic resource corpora and competition

I am now back from Kalamazoo in safety, but very very short of sleep, so if this makes no sense I apologise and may redact later. I will write about Kalamazoo eventually, but the short version would be that it was great. I wanted to clear some more backlog, though, and I had to do something fairly simple because on the morning of the day I flew back overnight, I had to stay awake until David Ganz had finished delivering his second Lowe Lecture in Palæography, which I went to. So, here’s a thing. A little while ago News for Medievalists did their characteristic content-scrape of an article from a site called Science News Western Australia, which reports on a new initiative being run by the Australian Research Council Network for Early European Research.

Basically, they wanted to build a ‘medieval manuscript commons’ on the web. (I use the past tense because, what you would not realise from News for Medievalists’ 2011 version, this was being reported on in 2009, and the aforenamed Network ceased to be funded in late 2010. So this initiative actually never came to pass and never will, but that actually doesn’t hurt either my point or, it would seem, News for Medievalists’s ethic of business.) The responsible party, one Dr Toby Burrows, had just completed a project to digitise and webify information about medieval manuscripts in Australian collections, a thing called Europa Inventa that does exist and which you can look at, and was reported as explaining:

“What we’re proposing will use semantic web technologies to link up all the information about medieval manuscripts on the many databases and web sites around the world.

“It will be a meta-framework which sits over the top of all the existing data, but is not intended to replace that data,” he says of the service which is likely to be hosted in Europe and be free.

UWA is funding Dr Burrows’ research with a UWA Collaborative Research Award of $8000.

So, I imagine that he was fairly happy even if the project never actually completed. Now, this project might sound a bit vampiric, basically being paid to siphon traffic to your site on the basis of others’ content (much like Medievalists.net, in fact) but I think we can agree it would be useful to have a global repository of this kind of information. It’s almost surprising no-one’s thought of it before, isn’t it? And yes, you’ve guessed no doubt, of course they have and we’ve reported on it here before, Columbia University’s Digital Scriptorium. It seems clear that the Commons one would have rendered the Scriptorium redundant, or vice versa; the aim is the same and they would have competed, however useful either might have been.

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto, highlight of the collection when I visited the website for this post

My point is that we really only need one global service of this kind, and in fact that if there are two then both of them directly attack each other’s raison d’être. And yet we see this repeatedly not just here but in other fields too, and usually funded as here on the alleged basis that no such service exists. For example, you may remember that a long time ago I worked on such a project at the Fitzwilliam Museum about just how we would go about uniting disparate databases of coin information for sharing across the web.1 This was the first wave of semantic web stuff and looked quite powerful, though money to take it further than proof-of-concept has not, I believe, been forthcoming. But very shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone else who’d had the same idea and wanted to do it slightly differently but also, naturally enough, wanted to make use of data that others had already catalogued. That gap is still there, so presumably there’s room for a third of these databases but as we’ve just seen, the fact that something already exists to do one of these jobs doesn’t necessarily preclude others arising, all trying to be the one ring to bind them all. It feels as if the web, with its amazing searchability, on which these endeavours are all intended to sail, ought to prevent this happening; if not earlier, the funding bodies all ought to be capable of operating a FWSE and finding the older projects themselves and then at least asking, “Is this really new?” But since we’ve reported here before on people getting vast awards to allow them basically to reinvent hyperlinking, I suppose I’m not surprised this doesn’t work.

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Less cynically, though, these endeavours can’t be as useful as their founders and funders presumably did all recognise they could be as long as they have competition. I realise that’s not very free-market but these are supposed to be public services, not profit-makers, and so they won’t follow capitalist rules. We really wanted, on the COINS Project, to set it up so that anyone who’d digitised a numismatic collection could dump that data into the central repository we didn’t get to set up and someone, with a bare minimum of crunching code, could suck it in in fields people could find things with consistently. This, like Monasterium.net or other such repositories, required people to be willing to do that. A small digitisation project probably will, but these big umbrella projects presumably can’t or they lose their `market space’. And I’m just not sure this actually helps us, in the long run. Perhaps the answer is just to wait for semantic web stuff to advance far enough that our home computers will be able to identify correct mapping of such data automatically. And meanwhile, as Magistra pointed out a while back in a different context, someone who has such information that they really want to be out there has got to pass it to everyone who’s subsequently going to work on it. But until funding is all international (and until funding committees can do a websearch, perhaps) this separation of endeavours is going to continue to be a problem I fear.


1. Any minute now the paper talking about this project as a whole will be out as Jonathan Jarrett, Achille Felicetti, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Sebastian Zambanini, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe forthcoming), pp. 000-00. Any minute.

Seminar XCIII: in the tracks of the Celtic Tiger

So, where have I got to now? According to my notes, this blog’s content is now up to the 7th March 2011. Not exactly impressive given the date today but let’s carry on, because on that day Dr Aidan O’Sullivan of University College Dublin was presenting to the Oxford Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title “Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlement in Ireland: perspectives from archaeology, history and palaeoecology”, and quite apart from the fact that words with four consecutive vowels in are quite fun in themselves, the paper was also really interesting. The basic situation in which archæology in Ireland finds itself at the moment is that up to the economic collapse of 2007, in the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years, it was an incredible growth field, driven by massive road construction projects (not least the infamous one that never quite wiped out Tara) that piled up incredible amounts of new data, of which however there was very little time to publish any. Now that the profession in Ireland is approximately a fifth of the size it was then, and there’s almost no money left, those who are still in jobs like Dr O’Sullivan are trying to get that data out there, and now even as then his means of doing so is a project called EMAP (Early Medieval Archaeology Project) which is putting it all on the web for free. This is, he said with calculated irony, the only archæological project in Ireland still receiving state funding. It includes a database of 2208 sites, dug anywhen between 1930 and 2004, several published gazetters, 241 detailed site reports and a bibliography of 5,500 items, plus a general synthesis.1 The bibliography and the project reports are all up for free download, as are those of their publications so available, and they even have a blog, which I gather is all the rage these days! So there’s that, just for starters; they are colouring in the grey literature, if you like.

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

However, Dr O’Sullivan hadn’t just come to advertise; he briskly got that out of the way first and then tried to give us a balanced synthesis of how archæological thought in Ireland has changed as a result of all this new data coming on-stream, and since very few other people can have read all this data yet, not least since much of it was commercial project reports rather than anything more widely available, this was more or less straight from the horse’s mouth. It messes with quite a few generalisations about Irish settlement and life in the early Middle Ages, too. For example, it is something of a topos that early medieval Irish settlement was all enclosed, be it in a ringfort or a dún, in so far as there’s a difference between the two; but now we have an awful lot of sites that are not enclosed, far from a majority (you may recall that there are fifty thousand known or assumed ringfort sites in Ireland!) but still enough to count. More categorisation is obviously needed, so it seems worth pointing out that some of these supposed ringforts were actually empty when dug; that is, they were not settlement sites. The major work on these sites proposes a distinction of status between double-walled (bivallate) ones and single-walled ones, and places the known ones in a network of relations based on this, but this has come under fire from Dr O’Sullivan since, increasingly, radio-carbon information shows that not all sites in such networks were occupied at the same time, or even close to it, and so at least the earliest ones cannot be related to the others.2 Those that do exist for a long time—and some sites were in continuous use from sixth to eleventh centuries and beyond—tend to have been very much modified over the course of their existence, so they probably had several rôles over that time. There is, however, a shift towards building rectangular forts after 800, at the edge of their enclosures unlike the central circular ones of 500-800, and the univallate ones begin to disappear over the ninth century in a matching fashion.

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Some of the forts that were rebuilt have been found to have deliberately-incorporated prehistoric material buried under their new floors, which presumably had an apotropaic rôle; Dr O’Sullivan wisely said, “Don’t call it pagan, call it ‘customary'”…. This kind of reference to the past was part of the everyday assemblages of tools and utensils that have also been recovered in perfectly normal places and ways. It also shows up in burial of people, where despite the fact of Ireland’s indubitable conversion to Christianity in the early Middle Ages family cemeteries run right through the period in continuous operation from fifth century to twelfth, in some cases; Dr O’Sullivan suggested that people were buried with their land, or their family, and that this didn’t change because of the change of religion; a comment made by someone I didn’t know at the end pointed out that burial of ancestors was one kind of claim that one could mount to landed property in Irish law, which fits with that. Dr O’Sullivan also mentioned a small but significant number of late graves that contained iron-working deposits, which if he could explain them, I have no notes on it. But one of the good things about this paper was Dr O’Sullivan’s willingness to give space to other explanations than his own or to admit that there wasn’t yet one; he was extremely even-handed.

Skeleton being unearthed at early medieval site at Moneygall, County Offaly

After all, it's been a while since we had any dead bodies on the blog. This one was being unearthed at Moneygall, County Offaly, making it a potential ancestor of Barack Obama *so we are told* (see link)

We are also often told to accept that Ireland, where no money was in use, basically paid for everything and counted anything of importance in cattle. The archæology does indeed show a lot of cattle, but also, even from as early as the fifth century, a lot of arable farming too, even in the fields actually around Tara for example, so this needs to be in our picture of the average Irish farmstead too. By the tenth century cattle was actually a lot less important in the deposits than it had been and mills are more and more commonly found from the same time or even earlier.3

A Kerry cow (historic breed)

A Kerry cow, which is a historic breed though I don't know if it's historic enough. Certainly this one is contemporary!

There is also about the idea that the only things in early medieval Ireland that you could call towns were Church sites, with developed craft production and specialisation, markets, and so on. Now the Church is actually under-represented in this new data, because typically people don’t put roads through church sites. From what we know, however, this complexity is certainly the case for some sites, like Clonmacnoise (pictured above) which shows a street plan and so on, but some, even those where we know craft production was going on like Clonfert which was famous as a bell foundry, were largely empty enclosures. Not every monastery was therefore a town or town-like site; this is important as it means that those that were must be considered the exception not the rule. It is true, though, that even at the end of the period, nucleated settlement had basically yet to arise: no villages yet, and certainly nothing like a town as we’d recognise it elsewhere.4 There were a very few exceptions to this, the famous Viking cities of Dublin and Limerick primarily, and the east side of the country was dragged into their economic gravitation to an extent, but the west remained much as it had been much earlier, and would do till the thirteenth century. It’s obviously not, as Kenneth Jackson once called this period, “a window on the Iron Age”, given that there was a lot of change in the eighth and ninth centuries (and had probably been quite a lot in the third as well), but the lack of being bothered with the big changes of the period that other areas take for granted is worth pondering all the same. As with much else that was said here!5

Aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands

I've used it once, I'll use it again: aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands


1. That synthesis to be Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, T. Kerr and L. Harney, Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2004 (Dublin forthcoming). If you want stuff that’s already out there, the project report that that will be based on is online here.

2. That synthesis being Matthew Stout, The Irish Ringfort (Dublin 2000), with which, shall we say, Dr O’Sullivan respectfully but merrily disagreed. You may find his take in “Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling spaces” in Peritia Vol. 20 (Dublin 2008), pp. 225-256, and even if not (I haven’t checked, I admit), it’ll be interesting. N. B. Oxford readers this is currently on the new periodicals racks in the Bodleian Upper Reserve. Now whose fault is it that we’re two years behind?

3. Here you can see the work of Dr O’Sullivan’s colleague Finbar McCormack, “The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland”, ibid. pp. 210-225. I shall expect to see you all at the rack on Monday.

4. See, for example, Ann Hamlin, “The archaeology of the early Irish churches in the eighth century” in Peritia Vol. 4 (Dublin 1985), pp. 279-299 and Wendy Davies, “Economic change in Early Medieval Ireland: the case for growth” in L’Irlanda e gli Irlandesi nell’alto medioevo, Settimane de Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 57 (Spoleto 2010), pp. 111-134, neither of which have particular dogs in the fight but give good accounts of it.

5. If you are hungry for more, Dr O’Sullivan has lately published a related paper with one T. Nicholl, “Early medieval settlement enclosures in Ireland: dwellings, daily life and social identity” in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 111C (Dublin 2010), pp. 59-90. The Jackson reference is to Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: a window on the Iron Age (Cambridge 1964, repr. Llanerch 1999 & Cambridge 2011). I feel slightly ashamed that my alma mater are still willing to find a market for this but am fortified by Professor Jackson’s truly immortal middle name.