Tag Archives: Early Christianity

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

Ancient numismatic irreverence

I have very little time to write just now, and about eight blog posts existing only as titles and skeletons held together with a few sinewy links. In the meantime, you can have this. A couple of things have passed over my scanner at work lately that made me want to tell someone about them, and even though they’re not remotely medieval I fear you, dear readers, are that someone… From the ridiculous to the sublime, first off let me show you this.

Bronze of Smyrna, 75X76 AD, for Emperors Titus and Domitian by Marcus Vettianus Bolanos, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1381-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1381-R

Bronze of Smyrna, 75X76 AD, for Emperors Titus and Domitian by Marcus Vettianus Bolanos

It’s not terribly pretty now, I know, but this is in fact the single most GLAM ancient coin type there is. To the average numismatic expert, yes, it’s just a piece of bronze small change from Smyrna struck under Vespasian in the name of his sons, in 75-76 AD. But it’s the moneyer that makes the difference, for his name is on the coin, and it was Marcus Vettianus Bolanos. MARC BOLAN. Truly, this guy was the metal guru.

But seriously folks. Here are some more nondescript bits of bronze.

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 29 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R
Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 29 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 30 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 30 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Now, what these are is coins of two of the types that were issued as your basic small change in Judæa under Pontius Pilate. The upper one’s from 29 AD, the lower from 30 AD, just before a certain Saviour of us all started his ministry, at least as long as one accepts him as historical. These aren’t the thirty pieces of silver, which presumably would have been regular denarii from some of the big mints nearby, but the average bronze small change of the day-to-day. What this means is that, if you’d had a shop in Nazareth, for example, and one of the window-frames had gone rotten, and you’d called in a carpenter to fix it, and Joseph & Son had been nearest or cheapest or whatever, these are the coins with which you’d have paid Jesus for fixing your window. I’m just saying.

(All images copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and not to be reproduced without permission. The actual coins belong to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who have for some years kindly allowed the Samuel Savage Lewis Collection to be deposited in the Museum.)

Bandits and witches in Asturias: what do enemy priests get called, again?

I am, as the sidebar may still report by the time this post actually goes up, still slogging through Barbero and Vigil’s Formación del Feudalismo for the Aprisio paper that is hopefully also not any longer mentioned there. I have expressed myself on how heavy going this book is before, and I am torn between urging that its considerable importance makes it compulsory reading for any scholar of early medieval Christian Spain (and even non-Christian Spain, though there maybe only one chapter), and the unshakeable feeling that, if it was so set, the field would be reduced by about ninety per cent as most people gave up the will to study. That all said, and it’s nice to have it off my chest, I’ve just found something interesting. See this little nugget:

Another notice relevant to the era of Ramiro I makes manifest the great difficulties that this monarch endured in consolidating himself on the throne. These difficulties were of orders both political and, more markedly, social. Ramiro I deployed great energy against all his adversaries, members of the nobility who disputed the throne with him. The Albeldense informs us that this king found himself confronting various latrones whom we may consider as peasants in rebellion, that is to say, something similar to that which took place in the reign of Aurelio, and, combined with them, there were also persecuted wizards who were condemned to the fire; these magicians would have been practitioners of the indigenous non-Christian rites and whose roots are to be sought in the ancient organisation of society.1

In some ways this is typical for Barbero and Vigil—you can already see in my fairly close translation perhaps that this is not the most mellifluous prose ever committed to the page—but in others it is not. Most of this book is very careful much-chewed-over consideration of the evidence, but there are certain preconceptions that they had which meant that occasionally they saw something that fitted and it got straight through without critique. I’m afraid this was one such curveball. Some background first of all.

Statue of Ramiro I of Asturias outside the Palau Reial in Madrid

Statue of Ramiro I of Asturias outside the Palau Reial in Madrid, photo by the author

Ramiro I was King of Asturias between 842 and 850. Some sources say he was son of Bermudo I (789-791) but Barbero and Vigil show good reasons to be suspicious about such claims in the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which is among other things very concerned to show a good long ancestry for its namesake monarch and seems to have pedigrees that no other source retains.2 Also, he lived a long time before succeeding if he was born during Bermudo’s reign, and since Bermudo allegedly abdicated because he was persuaded that his having entered the diaconate a long time before barred him from royal power, it is perhaps less likely that he was having kids after abdicating. So anyway, whoever he was, Ramiro was not unopposed, and he first had to defeat a rival king called Nepotian, supposedly a relative of Alfonso II (791-842) whom they were battling to succeed. Had Ramiro not won, I imagine it would now be clear that Nepotian was the closer kin and therefore rightful heir, but Ramiro defeated and killed him and so it’s Ramiro who got written into the succession. Not that things got easier for him: two years later Vikings made one of their few descents on Spain, though Ramiro was tough enough for them, and in 846 the Muslims captured the southernwards city of León, though it is a very long way from clear that Ramiro actually controlled that area despite Alfonso III’s chronicle’s claims, which are a lot more to do with the fact that he did.3 Anyway, Ramiro was unable to laugh that one off and it stayed lost to Asturias for some time.

Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, previously the royal palace of Asturias, probably built for Ramiro I

Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, previously the royal palace of Asturias, probably built for Ramiro I, image from Wikimedia Commons


Now most of my cynicism about the sources here is straight out of Barbero and Vigil, so you can tell I get on all right with that, but when it looks as if the sources might support some assertions about long continuity and ancient indigenous custom, which was kind of their deus ex machina for Asturian peculiarity, such careful sifting of evidence seems to have gone out of the window and we get things like the paragraph above, where to read it you would think that Ramiro’s opponents raised the earth and woods against him in the forms of their inhabitants. It’s like what the Telmarines must have thought when Narnia came back to life, isn’t it? So, what does the source actually say? Here’s a translation, with the Latin in the footnote:

Ramiro reigned seven. He was a rod of justice. He tore out the eyes of bandits. To wizards he put an end by fire. And the tyrants ranged against him, with amazing speed he overthrew and exterminated. Firstly he overcame Nepotian at the Bridge of Cornellana and thus came to the throne. At the same time the Northmen first came to Asturias. Afterwards of the same Nepotian along with a certain tyrant Aldroito, he blinded the eyes of both of them, and, the victor, killed the proud Piniolo. At Liño he built a church and a palace vaulted with wonderful artistry. There he passed away from this world and rests buried in Oviedo. On the day of the Kalends of February in the Era 888.4

So, er hang on, where’s this unified rural opposition again? I had Nepotian all drawn up with an army of dwarves and hags already, and that just looks like a fairly generic statement of harsh justice meted fairly to me. At the very most it’s a “no-one could kick King Ramiro’s behind! No sir! He kicked theirs! And how!” level of panegyric, not a detailed analysis of his opposition. Unlike in the slave revolt under Aurelio that Barbero and Vigil reference, I don’t see any sign here that there was any genuine peasant uprising in this note; I’m sure Asturias had enough badlands, most notably to the southern edge through which traders might be going to and from Muslim Spain, to keep a fair few bandits going. I don’t think banditry always has to indicate peasant reactions to oppressive rule, I see it more as a reaction to opportunity to make it rich quickly and run away safely, and a border land like there certainly had that.

But what about the wizards? Well, two possibilities spring to mind. Firstly, as Yves Bonnaz whose edition of the Chronicle of Albelda I’m translating there points out in his commentary, regulations against witches and wizards is a good old Visigothic tradition from when the Christianization of Spain was a lot more shaky, and if you’re writing up a good old-fashioned just king in the ninth century, that template probably appeals enough that you invoke it. In that case the chronicler is just trying to say “he enforced law like the kings of old (and thwarted all the causes of social ill mentioned in their laws as I will now list)”. In fact he may be upping the ante, as the Visigoths ‘only’ prescribed 100 lashes and scalping for wizards. Tough times call for tough justice!

Memorial stone from the church of Santianes de Pravia, capital of Asturias during the reign of Ramiro (note the <em>interlace</em>)

Memorial stone from the church of Santianes de Pravia, capital of Asturias during the reign of Ramiro (note the interlace)

But the other possibility involves taking the threat slightly more seriously, and this the kings of the time appear to have done. In 856 King Ordoño I issued a charter to the monastery of San Julián de Samos giving them power to punish “blood-letters, bandits that have fled from the monastery and magicians” (“samguimistios, latrones refugas monasterii, magicos”—’blood-letters’ probably isn’t what that first word means but I can’t do any better with it, can you? and if you can, what about those bandits fleeing from the monastery?)5 The fact that this mission is given to a monastery shows how worldly Church power can get but also associates the missions of moral and spiritual order. We are, as Bonnaz points out (and here he has got some Barbero and Vigil on him I think), in an area where pagan practice was probably still widespread: “Crimes, vols, fuite d’esclaves sans doute, pratique de la magie ne sont-ils pas des phénomènes liés à l’instabilité persistante de ce pays?” he asks,6 because of course as we now see demon-worshippers spring up wherever political order gets a bit wobbly don’t they? Or maybe not. I think this tells us more about Dr Bonnaz and his politics than about early medieval Galicia, to be honest. So what this made me think of was, again, the seminar the other day by Celia Chazelle and her suggestion that priests who were a bit ‘local’ in their liturgical practice might be regarded as magicians by strait-laced reformers. I wasn’t too sure about that, but if you’re asking me what a monk calls or a king called priests who were in political opposition to him, and who probably entreated God against you in ways that might well have appealed to local superstitions, well, ‘magician’ or ‘wizard’ would be one answer I could accept, especially given Dr Chazelle’s various instances of the use of the Christian mystery in charms and spells by apparently sincere believers. So maybe this is what we’re looking at. Or maybe it just is staff-bearing wizards standing on mountain tops after all, but I thought that was a more modern idea…

Hat tip to Modern Medieval there, and oh look it’s the footnotes…


1. Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1978), pp. 262-263, translation mine.

2. Ibid., pp. 300-302 and several points thereafter. See also Amancio Isla, “Monarchy and Neogothicism in the Astur Kingdom, 711-910″ in Francia Vol. 26 (Sigmaringen 1999), pp. 41-56.

3. Barbero & Vigil, Formación, pp. 279-285.

4. Y. Bonnaz (ed./transl.), “Chronique d’Albelda” in idem, Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), pp. 10-30 with commentary 67-104, cap. 45. Latin, following Bonnaz’s collation: “Ranimirus regnauit <annis> septem. Virga iustitiae fuit. Latrones oculos euellendo abstulit. Magicis per ignem finem imposuit. Sibique tyrannos mira celeritate subuertit atque exterminauit. Prius Nepotianum ad pontem Narceiae superauit et sic regnum accepit. Eo tempore Nordomanni primi in Asturias uenerunt. Postea idem Nepotianum pariter cum quodam Aldroito tyranno, oculos amborum eiecit, superbumque Piniolum uictor interfecit. In locum Ligno ecclesiasm et palatia arte fornicea mira construxit. Ibique a sæculo recessit et Oueto tumulo requiescit. Sub die kalendas februarias era DCCCLXXXVIII.”

5. Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño (ed.), Diplomática Española del Periodo Astur: estudio de los fuentes documentales del reino de Asturias (718-910) (Oviedo 1949), I p. 271 as cited by Bonnaz, Chroniques, Alb. 45 comm. n. 2.

6. Ibid.

Buried with his sheep before him (this one’s for the smut-minded out there)

Some archaeologists working in Ireland, at Corofin, County Galway, may (or may not) have found an early Christian site there, identified by 65 burials in what could, if generously interpreted, be a vallum, an earth rampart that is traditionally held to mark the limits of a monastic enclosure in Celtic areas. Some might say that, given how difficult it is to actually identify Irish Christian sites in archaeological terms, or any religious site at all for definite really, this is a bit hopeful, but the burials are all supine, extended (except for one) and oriented east-west and so, while even that is not ambiguous, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a Christian cemetery. That isn’t what I wanted to mention. In fact this entry is dedicated to bloggers like Carl Pyrdum and Jennifer Lynn Jordan, the sort of people who can use the phrase “monkey butt-trumpet” and mean it.

You see, the owner of one of the skeletons was buried with a sheep, in what some might call a “compromising position”, as you can see:

compromising Corofin inhumation

The reporting page coyly says that this has led to some “unlikely suppositions”, and well, yes, it would wouldn’t it? But what then would a likely one be? Any suggestions?