Tag Archives: Florin Curta

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part II

Recent events are of course discouraging, but if I could take another lesson from Mark Blackburn it could easily be not to abandon a project just because it is hideously, hideously backlogged, and so here we go back on the Horse of Delayed Reportage. Some musing on the issue has led me to believe that on the first evening of Kalamazoo just gone, I went to the Early Medievalists’ Dinner. I won’t do this again, I think; it seems to be a do where old friends go to see each other, and not to meet new people, and since the old friends I have at Kalamazoo I regularly ‘see’ on the Internet, this was not a useful function for me. I suspect I would have done better getting slightly bent at the wine hours or indeed sleeping. However, sleep I did and on the 13th May rose on time for breakfast and the blogger meet-up, which was smaller than last year’s but more genial, and out of which great plans arose. I think it was also the longest I’ve managed to talk with any of the people there except Another Damned Medievalist, especially the Medieval History Geek and Notorious, Ph. D., which was good as they are both people I’m sure I could talk to for longer if longer there were. In fact, as you can read at his, for the first two sessions of the day the former of those two was actually in the same room as me, and his reports are good, but of course there were mostly other people talking. Anyway, despite Mugshots having lost some of their tea-fu since last year,1 I was after all this much better set up than the previous day for the morning sessions, which in my conference experience went as follows:

Session 201. Cyril and Methodius: new research on the Cyrillo-Methodian mission and its aftermath

I have a soft spot for Saints Cyril and Methodius, partly because of their (Latin) feast-day I admit, which is very handily placed for the chronically single, but also because very few people in this world get to originate alphabets even if those alphabets are misnamed. Be that as it may, here I also learnt some things, from these papers:

  • Maddalena Betti, “The Rise of Sancta ecclesia marabensis: the missionary letters of Pope John VIII (872-882)”, trying to take these documents from the first pope really to take an interest in the Balkans to get at his world-view and the concessions he was forced to make to political interests at home and on the frontier. A savvy man with a difficult job; this was very interesting.
  • Roland Marti, “… quasi in signum unitatis ecclesiae: east and west in the Cyrillo-Methodian heritage”, reminding us that although modern politics have made Catholic versus Orthodox into a battle of East and West and assimilated Cyril and Methodius into the former, the real context of their times was both East and West fighting over, and with, the Middle, which may explain the surprising success of their Third, Slavonic, Way; it didn’t mean that either side had won. Marti also pointed out how much the Slavonic liturgy borrowed from both sides, but this was presumably obscure to the people arguing…
  • Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

    Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

  • David Kalhous, “Interpreting Holy Men: Cyril and Methodius as saints in the earliest tradition and in the later Bohemian hagiography (ninth to fourteenth centuries)”, which was essentially a paper about reception and use of the hagiography of the two saints that I seem to have run out of attention for.
  • The questions here involved Florin Curta asking what evidence we have for the abandonment of the alphabet Cyril actually came up with, Glagolitic, which has puzzled me too in the past given that it persisted in Croatia till the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Martin helpfully told us there is none: all guesses as to when it went out of use are only that. And yet I feel that the manuscripts in St Catherine’s Sinai may have more to tell us here yet…

Then lunch, which I don’t remember at all, and back to it.

Session 255. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe: hoarding

For a brief moment in 2010 I was known for having thoughts about hoards, so I thought this might help me think more about them.

Avar buckle in Szeged Museum believed to depict the Tree of Life

And those Avars did have some shiny treasures (this one's in Szeged Museum, or was)

  • First up was Marcin Wołoszyn with “Avars, Scandinavians, Slavs, and Byzantine Coins: hoard and hoarding in east-central Europe between the sixth and eight centuries” was an attempt at a comparison over some very disparate modern political areas which was thus consciously hampered by national differences in detection, reporting and publication, but which concluded that Byzantine tribute payments to the Bulgars until 626 are very visible in coin finds (as distinct to Danegeld in Scandinavian ones, interestingly—there’s a point for Mark) but that most such finds are grave-goods, not hoards, which instead are common in Sweden where the bulk of preservation is later. This raised questions about what the Avars did with incoming coin if they didn’t bury it; reminted as their own issues? If so where are they? Converted into treasure then looted by Charlemagne’s troops from the Avar Ring? No answers here but before he started we didn’t even have the question.
  • Bartlomiej Szymon Szmoniewksi,3 “Hoards from the Forest and Forest-Steppe Regions of Ukraine: Pandora’s box in the archaeology of the early medieval Eastern Europe”, reporting on a slow move away from identifying particular kinds of ornament found in this area with particular tribes, but not one sufficient to stop a kind of glorification of ancestors going on with the publication of this material (and I will take a risk and say that if you follow David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, many of the reports of Thracian finds in Bulgaria to which he links seem to sing of this even though some years ago digs there would have been all about the Slavs, so, have things really improved?)
  • Florin Curta, “Trade or Taxes? Hoards of Iron Implements and Weapons in Ninth-Century Moravia”, a tightly-packed and speedily-delivered paper with an obvious big question: why did people bury hoards of tools, keys, scrap-iron and so on in the zone of old Moravia (as far as that can be guessed…)? There is lots of this stuff, and also huge hoards of ingots (into the thousands); why? Votive deposits? Tax? (If so, why still buried?) Mercantile currency storage? There are distinct types of ingots, restricted to certain zones, and some that ran interregionally; some are just long bars, some are axe-shaped. Professor Curta reckoned, and fair enough, that these items were being put to various uses and that design for one use did not preclude use for another, but it looks like there is more to do and he intends to start with analysis of the metal to see what the traffic flow from production to deposition is like. It’ll be interesting to hear!
  • In questions Professor Curta also wisely counselled the use of a third comparison zone to add to the two he’d had (essentially Poland and Moravia), as Croatia (again) does things its own way, and denied my suggestion that the objects could actually be serving as currency as they did in Chur (which apparently he had mentioned but I missed), feeling that the distribution is too polarised for it to be commercial. So, I might think, is that of coin finds in Scandinavia, on a statistical scale, but as we have already said, commercial it still seems largely to have been… deposition isn’t use. He knows the evidence better than I do, though, and I would read about this eagerly even if I have to admit I’m wrong.

Lastly for this day, I parted ways with my fellow blogger and followed my lately-acquired reviewing interest even further east, with:

Session 320. Gendered Borders and Boundaries

Here I was really just here for the first paper, but the others also proved very interesting, which is always a happy result of stepping out of one’s area.

  • Arnold Lelis, “Gendered Myth-Making on the Pagan Frontier: Peter Dusburg and the Demise of the Galindians”. The Galindians were a Prussian tribe who, according to one of our earliest sources for the area, were gone when the Germans arrived because they had cut the breasts off their women-folk to bring down the population (no, I don’t know either), and that those women had then in vengeance led a neighbouring tribe against their men who’d wiped them out. So, there’s obviously a gendered subtext here, but which one do you pick? What the heck was going on with this story was the subject of the paper: it ideologically clears a wilderness for settlement, and clears it of some fairly ungodly people, but who was Peter actually seeing as villain and who as victim here, men or women? This question involved Amazons (fairly obviously different), medieval images of lactation and removal of saints’ breasts, inevitable Freud and speculation on Salvation and it was all really quite learned if also, ineluctably, impossible to resolve.
  • Nancy Ross, “Gender, Journeys, and gammadia at Ravenna”, was one of those papers you can almost only do with visual materials, where someone points out a well-known thing and then goes, “And here it is again in a surprising but very explanatory context” and all you can do is agree. (Some people do do this with text but it is easier, at least, with pictures.) Here the well-known thing was indecipherable letters that appear on martyrs’ robes in early mural depictions of them, the so-called gammadia. These occur especially in the paintings of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, which unusually features as many women saints as male ones, facing each other across the nave on a mutual procession towards a now-lost end-point, presumably Christ (see image below). This is one of only three sites where women are given gammadia and Ross argued that here, at least, it is a mark of honour for virginity, as very few of the men bear the marks (and those young ones or known virgins) but almost all the women do. Once she’d said this it was difficult to see how it could mean anything else, here, but this sadly doesn’t work so well in other contexts… More to do, but a stunning church, which always helps.
  • Rebeca Castellanos, “Gendering the Moorish Invasion: the legends of the locked palace and the rape of Count Julia’s daughter”. You might have expected that I’d have gone for this too, but I know the stories—if you don’t, this is a fairly early topos about the fall of Visigothic Spain to the Muslims, that King Roderick was a bad king who raped one of his subjects’ daughters and unfortunately he ran the African coastal province so could let the Muslims in for revenge, and also that there was this mysterious locked palace in Toledo that no-one before Roderick had opened and he opened it to find only a chest containing a prediction of the loss of his kingdom. Like the worst chain letter ever in reverse, basically. Castellanos was concentrating on the lack of agency ascribed to the woman and it was an intelligent paper, but, I have just finished reading a clutch of Anglo-Saxon documents where the women aren’t even named in their marriage agreements,4 I guess unthinking misogyny doesn’t surprise me in this era’s literature.
  • Esther Liberman-Cuenca, “Telling Stories, Creating Memories: narratives, gender, and customary law in late medieval Colchester”, pulled together a quite detailed picture of [edit: male] community relations in fifteenth-century Colchester from the voluminous notaries’ recordstown custumaries that survive there; these include a number of judicial privileges that were claimed to go back to the Conquest or time immemorial but of which, inevitably, we have few if any earlier signs. Lots of [edit: male] status hung on character and oaths, though, so in some respects we could certainly find earlier similarities. [I seem to have made unhelpfully institutional notes on this and missed the gender angle, supplied by Ms Liberman-Cuenca in a comment below; thankyou!]
  • I think the first two of these papers got me more excited than the latter two because they involved things I didn’t already know; the fact that the latter two did less of this probably shouldn’t diminish their importance and both were certainly clear and carefully-thought.

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, from Wikimedia Commons

And thereafter we were off the leash again, and this time on the town. Michael Fletcher was determined that he needed to buy me beer and I wasn’t strong enough (or indeed at all likely) to argue, so I wound up at a certain pizza place with him and Richard Scott Nokes (with whom I was able to talk more this year, I’m happy to say, though as an exhibitor he was kind of a sitting target) and various other non-blogging but good people. But these days I don’t get wrecked at conferences because it makes the next day so hard so we were back quite quick scrounging wine off publishers and I think it was Early Medieval Europe served me my last drink of the night. All praise to them, therefore, and this will resume after the post I meant to post last time. Y’know, assuming no-one else dies. Please don’t.


1. “This is gonna be really hot, d’you want me to put some ice in it?”

2. I have no idea what this huge historical site is doing under that domain name but there are, as far as I can see, no links out from it to the main domain so, dammit, I’m linking to it.

3. I’m not sure that I have the spelling correct here, if not and you know better do say and I’ll amend.

4. For example, Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. nos 128 & 130.