Tag Archives: gender history

Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter

We seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gathering of the intermittent organisation known as Historians of Medieval Iberia. The main reason this had occurred was the presence in the UK of a man much cited here, Professor Jeffrey Bowman, visiting Exeter, because of which Professor Simon Barton thereof had wanted to organise a day symposium, and so being called we variously went. Due to the uselessnesses of First Great Western trains, I was only just in time for the first paper, but in time I was, and the running order was as follows, in pairs of papers.

  • Jeffrey A. Bowman, “Lordship and Gender in Medieval Catalonia”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Per multa curricula ex parte destructa: membership of a Church community in Catalonia c. 1000″
  • Robert Portass, “Doing Business: was there a land market in tenth-century Galicia?”
  • Teresa Tinsley, “Hernando de Baeza and the End of Multicultural Iberia”
  • Graham Barrett, “Beyond the Mozarabic Migration: frontier society in early medieval Spain”
  • Simon Barton, “The Image of Aristocracy in Christian Iberia, c. 1000-c. 1300: towards a new history”

Professor Bowman’s paper is now out as an article, but some brief account may be of interest anyway.1 The way it worked was to do what I love doing, standing Catalonia up as a better-evidenced counter-example to a broader theory, in this case that of Georges Duby that female lordship as early as the tenth century was an incredibly rare occurrence seen as a pale imitation of masculinity. To do this involved setting up some kind of definition of lordship, which Professor Barton suggested should at least include fighting, doing justice, controlling castles, diplomacy and ‘special projects’. Women with military rôles are not unknown in the Catalan records (wait for a future post here, as I think the phenomenon goes down lower than Professor Bowman had time to look), countesses in the eleventh century at least certainly presided over courts alone, a good few held castles in fief (or by other arrangements2), we have various Arabic testimonies to the countesses of Barcelona being conduits for diplomatic communication and under ‘special projects’, if we mean things like land clearance, Abbess Emma is an obvious example.3

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

Seal of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, a woman who would not give up government till there was no choice, in the Museu Diocesà de Girona

So that case looks pretty much made: in this area, for that definition of lordship (and it does occur to me now that it is a very tenth-century-and-later one because of the inclusion of castles, though one could still say the same of Dhuoda I guess), it’s hard to see anything odd about female participation in lordship here and we should stop thinking it odd. And I suppose I’d agree with that, and not necessarily just here (another future post) but there does still seem to me to be a difference, in the Languedoc at least where the ninth century gives enough to compare with, between the rôles in and frequency with which women appear in charters, especially as far as their titles go, to suggest that even if this situation wasn’t odd, it might still be new. It did, however, last: Professor Bowman was keen to stress in questions that those who have looked for a shift towards a lineage system here have found it hard to locate over any timeframe much shorter than a century.4

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

As for me, little enough needs saying there: in the throes of another project entirely and with no time to come up with two papers so close to each other from it, I’d offered the latest version of the now-legendary Sant Pere de Casserres paper; I ran through where the place is, what the sources are, why there’s a problem with the narrative of its foundation and what the actual story might be that would fit it; Graham Barrett suggested some modifications to my Latin and then the questions were all for Professor Bowman, which is fine as he was building a much bigger thesis. One of my problems with the Casserres paper is working out what larger point it makes; the other, of course, is non-responsive archives, but that’s a bigger problem than just here…

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The monastery of San Salvador de Celanova in its modern form

The second session put two rather less-connected papers together. Rob was out to demonstrate peasant access to the land market in his corner of early medieval Spain, which has often been overlooked because the dominant Spanish historiography interested in peasants has been more interested in how they resisted power than how they cooperated with it.5 This Marxist perspective needs rethinking, argued Rob, not least because many of these peasants did not live in the Marxist ‘peasant mode’, but operated in both vertical and horizontal networks of power and assistance. Even when those networks led to the monastery of Celanova, whence most of Rob’s material, it was not always to peasant disadvantage to cut a deal with the monks, whose rents were limited, and the land that was then sold to them had often come from other peasants previously. The problem here is of course the definition of peasant, but I think I would agree that whatever we call the free smallholders here they could happily do business with each other, and do so with an eye to their own benefit.6

The Alhambra palace in Granada

The Alhambra palace in Granada, now very keen to be widely known as a World Heritage site

Miss Tinsley’s paper came from a completely different place, sixteenth-century Granada, where one Hernando de Baeza, a Christian interpreter for the last lords of the Muslim state there, was writing a history of recent events. This man is almost exactly the author a multicultural twenty-first century reading of events at the end of Muslim rule in Spain wants: his sources included Africans and women, he spoke all the necessary languages and about the only minority group he doesn’t mention is Jews, but the work was only published in the nineteenth century, from two incomplete manuscripts and is consequently confused and disordered in structure, which with its anecdotal style has left it out of most serious historiography. There is now, however, a recently-discovered complete manuscript to work from (which a Mexican archbishop had made in 1550 to help with converting native Americans!) and this offers more details with which the author’s life can be filled out. He seems to have been an ambassador to the papal court for Queen Isabella, briefly papal chamberlain and a protector of Jews, but whom King Ferdinand however booted out of his offices and whose parents had been burnt by the Inquisition! He seems to have written his history in Rome, a disenchanted man. He may therefore have been attempting something like a dream past of late medieval inclusion, before intolerance and persecution wrecked everything for him and his family. Again, just what we might wish but correspondingly slippery to deal with! This all sounded tremendous fun and I hope Miss Tinsley can make the man’s name better-known, although it transpired in questions that she is dealing with a recalcitrant editor of the manuscript who is being very careful what details he lets her have. That sounded dreadfully familiar, alas…

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860

Then came Graham Barrett, who was speaking on those curious populations in the frontier Christian polities of tenth-century Spain whose personal names were Arabic, about whom I’ve spoken myself once or twice, including at an earlier Historians of Medieval Iberia gathering, pre-blog. As that suggests, I had given up trying to get my work on this published before Graham had arrived in England to start his Ph. D., but also in the room was Professor Richard Hitchcock, who was fairly sparing about the absence of his more successful work from the presentation…7 I found it hard to rate this paper neutrally, anyway, it was much too close to my own fruitless sidetracks of yore. Graham’s take on things is always original, however, and he knows the documents far better than me, so there were new thoughts available. In particular he raised the possibility that lots of the relevant documents might be forged, although why one would then put Arabic names into them (and the same names over quite an area, I’d note) is hard to explain.8 He also correctly pointed out that migration of southerners was not necessary to explain these names and that they themselves were not evidence of ethnicity or even cultural affiliation,9 but that they might usefully be mapped against other markers of that, if any could be agreed. There’s definitely a project here, but I suspect that in fact neither of us will be the ones who do it as we both have easier things to attempt…

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Brass plate bearing the arms of the Lara family

Lastly our host, Simon Barton, asked whether the approximate synthesis to which historians of North-Western Europe seem now to have come about the medieval aristocracy applies in the Midi.10 Most study of the Spanish nobility has been of families, rather than of a class, but Simon argued that a class identity can be seen in formation after about 1050, with a hierarchy of aristocratic rank, heraldry and literature all developing to emphasise it. He suggested that these markers were developing not so much as spontaneous expression of ideals but as tests that helped mark people off from their imitators, which exposes the ideals in play to us in negative. This was a good wrap-up to a good day that refreshed a realisation for us that even if it’s thinly spread and uncertain of duration, nonetheless there is still a medieval Iberian scholarship in the UK and we’re all active parts of it; it’s never a bad time to be reassured that one has colleagues!


1. Jeffrey A. Bowman “Countesses in court: elite women, creativity,
and power in northern Iberia, 900–1200″ in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 6 (London 2014), pp. 54-70, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2014.883084.

2. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 83-85.

3. Idem, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

4. Cited here was Theodore Evergates, “Nobles and Knights in Twelfth-Century France” in Thomas N. Bisson (ed.), Cultures of Power: lordship, status and porcess in twelfth-century Europe (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 11-35; Georges Duby, “Women and Power”, ibid. pp. 69-85, provided the basic counter-type here.

5. Classically, Reyna Pastor de Tognery, Movimientos, resistencias y luchas campesinas en Castilla y León: siglos X-XIV (Madrid 1980).

6. R. Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanaca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here, contains some aspects of this paper.

7. R. Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), building on his “Arabic proper names in the Becerro de Celanova” in David Hook & Barrie Taylor (edd.), Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: Historical and Literary Essays Presented to L. P. Harvey, Kings College London Medieval Studies 3 (London 1990), pp. 111-126; references to my presentations can be found on my webpages here.

8. One example would be the apparent court notable Abolfetha ibn December (good name huh?), who certainly does appear in the forged Santos García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), doc. no. 22, but also in the less dubious José María Mínguez Fernández (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Monasterio de Sahagún (siglos IX y X) (León 1976), doc. no. 19 and Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952) (León 1987), doc. no. 68; at that rate, it begins to look as if the reason for putting his name in a forgery would be because it was known to belong to the period being aimed at, which is to say that at least up to three separate forgers thought he was a real historical person.

9. As also argued in Victoria Aguilar, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes 15 (1994), pp. 351-363 esp. at p. 363 and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI), ibid. pp. 465-72 with English abstract p. 472; they collect the Leonese evidence in Aguilar & Rodríguez, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media Vol. 6 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

10. E. g. (cited) David Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (London 1992) or Constance Brittain Bouchard, “Those of my blood”: Constructing noble families in medieval Francia (Philadelphia 2001), to which cf. S. Barton, The aristocracy in twelfth century León and Castile (Cambridge 1997).

A supposed Catholic Queen of the Arabs

I don’t hang about the late antique sources as much as perhaps I should, given some of what I have taught and hope to teach again, but there are of course only so many hours in the day. This means that stories from quite well-known sources can catch me by complete surprise when I read stuff by people who do hang out there, and a while back one such that I was surprised I’d never seen anywhere else wandered before me, courtesy of a paper by one David Grafton.1 This tracks medieval and indeed later identifications of Arabs and, by false implication, Muslims, to the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Grafton believes this is a fourth-century conflation of the Biblical story placing Ishmael’s exile in about the right part of the world with the general picture of the peoples there as barbarians and generally beyond the pale of civilisation. That seems to stack up to me, but in the course of it he refers to an early mention of the Arabs, or at least one of the tribes of Arabia (whom all writers concerned are happy to call Saracens2), who in 373 appear to have revolted against Rome. A clutch of ecclesiastical historians report on this and consider it most serious, though I note just in passing that Ammianus Marcellinus does not. Does this suggest a particular Christian context, you ask, and I say, indeed it do matey, ‘ave a look at this from Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

About this period the king of the Saracens died, and the peace which had previously existed between that nation and the Romans was dissolved. Mavia, the widow of the late monarch, finding herself at the head of the government, led her troops into Phoenicia and Palestine… the Romans found it necessary to send an embassy to Mavia to solicit peace. It is said that she refused to comply with the request of the embassy, unless consent were given for the ordination of a certain man called Moses, who dwelt in solitude in a neighbouring desert, as bishop over her subjects. On these conditions being announced to the emperor, the chiefs of the army were commanded to seize Moses, and to conduct him to Lucius.3

Now this Lucius was the Bishop of Constantinople, but at this exact time the Roman Empire’s dominant Christian creed was Arianism, and Lucius was an Arian bishop. This immediately caused problems as Moses refused to receive ordination from him:

“Your creed is already well-known to me… and its nature is testified by bishops, priests, and deacons, of whom some have been sent into exile, and others condemned to the mines. It is clear that your sentiments are opposed to the faith of Christ, and to all orthodox doctrines concerning the Godhead.” Having again protested, upon oath, that he would not receive ordination at the hands of Lucius, the Roman rulers conducted him to the bishops who were then in exile. After receiving ordination from them, he went to exercise the functions of his office among the Saracens. He concluded a peace with the Romans, and converted many of the Saracens to the faith.

Grafton reads this as evidence that there was Christianity among the Arabs, and furthermore that it was Catholic Christianity, and that the revolt can therefore be seen in terms of orthodoxy versus Arianism. I’m absolutely sure that that’s how Sozomen wanted it to be seen, and probably the other historians who record this episode, all of whom seem to be deriving it from Rufinus. I, myself, would be a very great deal happier about it if Ammianus mentioned any such thing, or if Sozomen mentioned the names of the Roman and Phoenician generals Mavia (or Mawiyya, as she is modernly transliterated) is supposed to have defeated in her revolt. As it is, it looks like a story more or less invented, or at least spun, to indicate that everyone knew that Arianism just wasn’t really legitimate even when it ruled Constantinople. I find it hard to imagine the trip off to find the exile bishops so as to settle a troublesome frontier people, don’t you? I would like it a lot more if any non-ecclesiastical source mentioned this woman. But they don’t, as far as I can quickly find out.6

Modern portrayal of Queen Mavia receiving the obeisance of two Roman legionaries

Of course, for perfectly understandable reasons Mavia has become something of a heroine in certain areas of the Internet, and I really do wish that there was some source for her that wasn’t religious polemic so that I was not in the position of spoiling the day of people like the artist responsible for this…

However, this is not the last mention of her and her people (who are known, in the limited historiography on this, as the Tanukh, I don’t know whence since all references I can chase up easily go back to Sozomen). In fact, to my continuing surprise, they turn up at no less a place than Constantinople, defending it against the Goths in 378 after the disaster at Adrianople in which Emperor Valens was killed. Sozomen adds only, “In this emergency, a few Saracens, sent by Mavia, were of great service.”5 But this, this time, Ammianus does mention, and he has a lot more to say:

A troop of Saracens (of whose origin and customs I have spoken at length in various places), who are more adapted to stealthy raiding expeditions than to pitched battles, and had recently been summoned to the city, desiring to attack the horde of barbarians of which they had suddenly caught sight, rushed forth boldly from the city to attack them. The contest was long and obstinate, and both sides separated on equal terms. But the oriental troop had the advantage from a strange event, never witnessed before. For one of their number, a man with long hair and naked except for a loin-cloth, uttering hoarse and dismal cries, with drawn dagger rushed into the thick of the Gothic army, and after killing a man applied his lips to his throat and sucked the blood that poured out. The barbarians, terrified by this strange and monstrous sight, after that did not show their usual self-confidence when they attempted any action, but advanced with hesitating steps.6

You can see why Sozomen cut this back a bit: it’s not exactly staunch Catholic conduct. What he also seems to have done, however, or possibly Rufinus did, I haven’t checked, is add the link to Mavia. Ammianus does, as he says, describe the Saracens elsewhere, but it’s in pretty disparaging terms, starting with, “The Saracens, however, whom we never found desirable either as friends or as enemies…” and going on into a series of clichés about their nomadic, horse-riding, milk-drinking habits, their lack of laws and their enthusiastically-consummated short-term marriages that make these people more or less the same as any other set of outer barbarians he might describe.7 He never mentions a queen, however, so my initial position remains sceptical. I meant, before posting this, to have chased the limited historiography down and tried to gather if there’s any reason to believe that Mavia was anything more than a moral tale. Sadly, time did not permit before I left Oxford and the local resources aren’t as useful for it. This means, of course, that there’s still hope, but even if she should in fact have been a fabrication of the church historians, why was it necessary or useful to fabricate a queen? Perhaps you have thoughts…


1. David D. Grafton, “‘The Arabs’ in the Ecclesiastical Historians of the 4th and 5th Centuries: effects on contemporary Christian-Muslim relations” in Hervormde Teologiese Studies Vol. 64 (Pretoria 2008), pp. 177-192.

2. Grafton discusses this word and its origins, ibid. pp. 178-183, but a more in-depth account to which one is usually referred is John V. Tolan, Saracens (New York City 2002).

3. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VI.38, here quoted from the translation by Edward Walford as The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, comprising a History of the Church, from A. D. 324 to A. D. 440, translated from the Greek: with a memoir of the author. Also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, as epitomised by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (London 1855), online here, where pp. 308-309.

4. The thing that Grafton cites which I should seek out, as it presumably collects this information if it exist, is J. S. Trimingham, “Māwiyya: the first Christian Arab Queen” in The Near East School of Theology Theological Review, Vol 1 (1978), 3-10, though there is also Glenn W. Bowersock, “Mavia, Queen of the Saracens” in W. Eck et al. (edd.), Studien zur antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift F. Vittinghoff (Vienna 1980), pp. 477–495 and indeed apparently more. No-one appears to consider it possible that she was just a story, so maybe I’m too cynical. Benjamin Isaac, “The Eastern Frontier” in Averil Cameron & Peter Garnsey (edd.). The Cambridge Ancient History XIII: the late Empire A.D. 337-425 (Cambridge 1998), pp. 437-460 at pp. 447-448, runs through this episode and confirms (p. 448):

Our sources on the Mavia affair are all ecclesiastical, so that their interests focuses exclusively on the religious aspects of the episode. The history of Mavia has been discussed frequently in the modern literature, and some scepticism expressed as to the reliability of these sources.

He goes on, however, “However, even a minimalist interpretation allows several conclusions” and then basically accepts everything except the scale of the damage, so I am apparently more minimalist than minimalist here…

5. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.1.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestarum, transl. John C. Rolfe as Ammianus Marcellinus: Res Gestarum quae supersunt (New York City 1939-1950), 3 vols, online here with limited corrections by Bill Thayer, XXXI.16.

7. Ibid. XIV.4.

Almodis, by Tracey Warr: a review

A long time ago I wrote a post that tried to tell the story of the specifically-Catalan feudal revolution, in purely political terms: a collapse of governmental initiative, a move towards independence by the frontier magnates dependent on the revenues and status they derived from the border raiding that was no longer being coordinated, and the eventual recovery of power by the young Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I, aided not all by his grandmother the Countess of Girona who was flatly sure he had it all wrong and wouldn’t give up her regency. He was aided not just by the idea of institutionalising a feudal structure in the nobility, but by a controversial wife, Almodis de la Marche, twice married already and this time abducted from her second husband. She doesn’t appear to have regretted this, as she appears with him in many documents and received as nearly as many oaths as he did. In general, she seems, somewhat ironically, to have been exactly the same right hand of comital government that her obstinate grandmother-in-law had once been for her new husband’s grandfather, Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell. The couple eventually forced grandma, in her seventies, to surrender and there must have been a final meeting between the beaten old countess and the controversial young one, which I’ve always imagined would film tremendously. Indeed, I said as much in that post. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would base a novel on the events.

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya

Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his third wife Almodis de la Marche buying the county of Cerdanya, as shown in the Liber Feudorum Maior (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The author of this novel, Dr Tracey Warr, contacted me with a view to organising some kind of book launch talk. I didn’t know how that would work out and decided I’d rather not, but said that I would certainly review the book if she cared to send me one. She did, and I so far haven’t, but in very late 2012 I finally got that far along my to-read shelves and lighted on it. And at last, here is the review.

Cover of Tracey Warr's Almodis: the Peaceweaver

This is, first of all, not a book to be judged by its cover. The woman in a modern top and flamenco dress disappearing into neo-Classical architecture tells you nothing at all about either plot or historical accuracy: the former is imaginatively woven through the known threads of Almodis’s life, which are enough to start with, and the latter is really fairly impressive. Many of the same names feature in Dr Warr’s historical note as do in my footnotes here, and she attempted to work in their words where possible, which sometimes results in slightly unlikely exposition, but exposition that isn’t out of place in the lead character’s mouth, as she is,or becomes, a politician first and foremost. Despite this, as said, the events of her life cry out for, cannot indeed really be explained, without considerable drama and tension:

“Almodis de la Marche was a real person. That she was repudiated, kidnapped and murdered, that she was three times married, had twelve children, played an active role in the government of Toulouse and Barcelona, and was literate, are all documented facts. It was a story that needed writing!” (‘Historical Note’)

Well, it has been well written here. I was initially somewhat deterred by the way in which it’s done, which is first-person present tense internal monologue, usually but not always from Almodis’s perspective. The device of a loyal (but complaining) servant from the North of France gives an outside perspective somewhat like the one that Bernard of Conques gives us on the cult of Saint Faith that I once talked about here, as well as a character more amiable than the countess (who is more admirable than amiable), and when the countess and her servant argue a lot of social information is squeezed through their conversation. It sort of has to be, because Dr Warr is careful enough to avoid her characters going too far towards breaking out into lyrical descriptions of the countryside—these are here but kept more or less under control—so conversation between the characters is vital for conveying contextual information. A lot is done, perhaps inevitably, by making Almodis a devotee of Dhuoda’s, which lets the Carolingian background in through in occasional shafts of light, though as we’ve mentioned here there is at least a Barcelona connection there…

Given the restrictions of the style, though, this sort of revelation is handled very well. My only eventual problem with the narrative technique was the way that the present-tense narration tends to collapse chronology; it’s just as well that each chapter is headed with place and date, as I frequently had to check back on finding that we seemed to have jumped quite a few years. By the end of the novel, in fact, the jumps get very large indeed, so that Almodis’s life and death in Barcelona get very little space after the drama of getting her there, leaving her effect on the government and the civil war in Catalonia almost untreated, perhaps because we’ve already seen her at work in these ways in Toulouse. Just for that reason, though, I’d like to have seen what difference there was in Barcelona, and Catalonia getting more narrative time generally. So I was a bit deflated by the end, which doesn’t leave Almodis’s murder explained very well (though of course she stops narrating at that point and obviously hadn’t seen it coming, so it’s hard to do more in a story told this way). All the same, I read to the end very avidly despite my initial reservations. I can’t allow for the effect of me being familiar with the characters in a way, and being delighted with how they were imagined, but I finished the book in two late-night sittings because I didn’t want to stop reading, and was pleasantly surprised by the way that the story wasn’t told as I expected it. None of the scenes I’d imagined as part of it were present in this version except the confrontation with grandmother Ermessenda and even that didn’t play out as I’d always figured it would. Yet as far as reimagining historical figures’ lives and loves go, I’m now more convinced by Dr Warr’s version than I am by my old one, so hopefully it’s as interesting also to someone who doesn’t think they know what’s coming.

Depiction of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona and Countess Almodis de la Marche from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Ramon Berenguer I and Almodis again, in happier times than her final ones. High five! Again, from the Liber Feudorum Maior via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Warr makes Almodis into an extraordinary but plausible character and most of the supporting characters are also very well-drawn, although even though our narratrix is a woman in a man’s world, the men are often somewhat less developed as characters. Churchmen, especially, get little depth, and one of the things I did find implausible was how little truck Almodis seemed to have with worship. More could have been done with that, if it was deliberate. Again, this is partly technique: Almodis works through women first and foremost, and her family next, and the Church last of all, and that makes sense in the story’s terms. If there’s a deeper historical agenda here it is to make the eleventh-century Midi clear as a world where women could and did hold the reins of power, even if only as far as the men in their family let them. One of the things that’s clear about her era, however, is that while widows were best placed to wield political power really, many men in power did rely on their wives to help them with it, and Almodis and her grandmother-in-law are as said the best examples I can think of of that working in practice.

That the lack of Church was the thing I found most implausible, however, means that not only did that agenda not dominate things enough to bother me, but that Dr Warr got away with an episode in which some of her characters wind up embroiled in a battle while disguised as monks, so for that alone I would recommend this book, but there is more to be said for it besides. It doesn’t pull its historical punches, it delivers a fair few unexpected twists, the writing can be affectedly beautiful but the emotional content is delivered raw and ungarnished and the period and country of the narrative are given enough space to remove any doubts one might have that their struggles have purpose. So, don’t be misled by the cover; this is a serious entertainment…

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

Cover of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

I am now, nearly, finished reading Michel Zimmermann’s huge book Écrire et lire en Catalogne that has given me so much difficulty along with its information, only the bibliography and appendices (themselves two hundred pages) to go.1 One of the problems with understanding what is going on with this work is its pedigree. It is a version, little revised, he says at the outset, of his thèse d’état, a huge-scale thing akin to a German Habilitationsschrift that doesn’t really exist in the UK or US systems and doesn’t, any longer, in France either. Firstly, this means that a lot of it dates from a long time ago and when one comes across references to ideas published ‘recemment’ in 1978, one begins to wonder how much it was updated to reflect Zimmermann the learned professor as per 2002 rather than Zimmermann the young scholar as per 1982.2 Furthermore, these beasts could easily be the fruits of a decade’s work and then here he is updating it in the 2000s, so there’s prospect for quite a lot of change of opinions and knowledge even between its chapters. This may explain a thing I found in the last chapter which I didn’t expect, either from the material or the writer, and which for balance I thought I had to mention here.

The last chapter, a mere slip of a thing at 140 pages, is about what people learned in Catalonia and how, ninth to thirteenth centuries. This work gave rise to several other articles for its author in the eighties and if you put them back in somehow this would be a respectable little book by itself, and a useful one. It ineluctably duplicates some of the rest of the book as well, though not as much as the previous chapter, almost all of which is already present in the first volume somewhere.3 Here the author worked harder to eliminate what was redundant, and the citation is also more thorough and it generally reads more easily. I don’t know whether this makes it earlier or later in the book’s process, but it’s pleasant. There is, anyway, a substantial section on cathedral schools and teachers and one of the first things this does is to analyse the titles that are used of teachers in the documents. Caput scolae is the one we see most of, as below, ‘headmaster’ almost, but behind that (and I would say, largely later) we also see scholastici (advanced students?) and grammatici, and the surprising thing is that among that latter group there are two women.4

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297

A gift by the Archpriest Ermemir to Riculf, caput scolae of the cathedral of Vic, named on the first line (Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297, with my fingers at the corner

These records are not quite as unambiguous as one might wish.5 We only have the name of one of them, Guisla grammatica, and the other appears as only homo domna gramatika, which looks as if it must be a scribal error in some direction or other, possibly for Hemmo, Emma; the Greek spelling of ‘gramatika‘ gives me strange memories of a lady I met once in Cambridge but also makes me wonder if the scribe thought the word couldn’t be declined, like Hebrew terms, though in that case why did he only know it in the feminine? Moreover, the first is potentially to be identified with a Guisla who was the wife of one Guillem, and he may be one of the other grammatici around the cathedral of Vic at this time, as they certainly had one of that name. In other words, Zimmermann suggests, she might be a grammaticus‘s wife using the family title, rather than actually having any teaching role herself; the cathedral’s grammarians certainly seem to have passed the title down to their heirs, but those heirs presumably also inherited the teaching? We don’t know for sure. But it’s interesting, and it’s also something that based on other parts of the book I wouldn’t entirely have expected M. le Prof. Z. even to have mentioned. Vic was somewhere with a history of encouraging female learning and study in a small way, and it’s nice to think that might have briefly been institutionalised as lay instruction took off more widely in the mid-eleventh century.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles, Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., II p. 889 notes work published in 1978 by Colette Jeudy as having been made public ‘recemment’. Now, I struggle myself with admitting that the 1980s no longer counts as ‘recent’ (it’s still a horrible memory for me) but I think my working practice now is, don’t call anything recent which didn’t come out during the youngest likely readership’s lifetimes…

3. We do, admittedly, get the third run-through in the book of the inventories of the libraries of Ripoll and Vic, which also appear in the appendices, but here it’s just for books containing scientific material that Gerbert of Aurillac might have been able to see. This includes MS Ripoll 106, which we discussed here a while back; it’s kind of nice to think that he probably also flipped through it. (Though, to him, it would have been ‘recent’…)

4. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, II pp. 870-886 and here esp. pp. 878-881 for what follows.

5. Even in citation, alas: Zimmermann references these documents as Arxiu Capitular de Vic, nos 1052 and 1060, and gives a date for one of them that seems to preclude these numbers being dates, not shelfmarks. They’re not complete shelfmarks, however, says I as one who knows the ACV a little bit, and though the documents may be in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2006-), I haven’t gone and looked, I admit, as for some reason no library in this country has more of it than fascs 1 & 2, even though I know darn well the thing is finished because I got given its plates in an adventure I have yet to tell you about

Leeds 2012 Report 3

Part of me would like to see what I can only really call the abuse for the previous one of these posts as a challenge, and try and make it even duller, but part of me would also have to admit that it could have probably been more exciting, and the rest of me is somewhere between amused and grateful at the extra traffic the link has brought me. None of these feelings are strong enough to overcome my wish to clear my backlog, though, so here’s another one. Please, however, don’t miss the notice of this year’s IMC blogger’s meet-up that I posted just beforehand.

Reims Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 385, fo. 1

Images relevant to Hincmar of Rheims are difficult to find, as I’ve said before, but this has to be the one for this blog, the first page of a manuscript he once owned that includes the various writings used to refute the heretic Bishop Felix of Urgell. Proof that Hincmar cared about Catalonia! It is Reims, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 385.

The third day of the International Medieval Congress 2012 was of course the day of Hincmar of Rheims, and there was no way I was going to get through the whole day without getting sucked in. In fact all the sessions in that strand I went to had people on the floor because the seats were all full, which was kind of usual for sessions on the early Middle Ages in that building but still a good sign for the study of this most verbose of Carolingian churchmen. Magistra has already covered the sessions, however, as might be expected, and so I don’t actually plan to do more with them than say firstly how much fun they were, and secondly that I actually felt rather kindlier disposed to Hincmar afterwards than before, as I now had a better sense of the various pressures he was under as he worked to produce the answers his masters and he wanted. It became a plausible case to me that where Hincmar had views, he more or less stuck to them in his writings, and that where we find him inconsistent were the areas where he didn’t really know what the answer was, and was prepared (in the literal sense) to provide the one that was temporarily politically expedient while he found his way. None of this exempts him at all from the charge of being a two-faced self-important schemer, but at least he seems a more human one now. Anyway, that gives you most of what I might have said about the papers, but I will at least list the ones I went to and tag for their authors and remind you that further details of what they all said can be had at Magistra’s place.

1009. Hincmar’s 9th Century, I: the History of Hincmar

  • Jinty Nelson, “The Bearing of Hincmar’s Life on his Historical Writing”
  • Marie-Celine Isaia, “Hagiography and Rules: Hincmar and his Vita S. Remigii
  • Letha Böhringer, “Hero or Villain? Master Narratives of Hincmar in the 19th or 20th Centuries”
  • This was where my day began, and though each paper was interesting, the last of these seemed to get the most discussion, I think because it touched on what even the non-Hincmarians in the audience do because of discussing historians’ over-involvement and over-identification with their material. There’s a continual tension here of course; we are encouraged to make our work ‘relevant’ and of course we do it in the first place because it means something to us; even if objectivity were possible, it’s not clear that it would make very exciting reading. That doesn’t remove the problem of our subjectivity, however, and I guess all we can do is make it clear why we are interested up front.

From there, however, I went back to ground, if you see what I mean, and if you don’t you soon will.

1105. Christian Burial: rites and realities

  • Adrián Maldonado, “Iron Age Christianity: early medieval monastic burial in Scotland”
    The title of this paper hit straight at a problem with some of the scholarship on early medieval northern Britain and Ireland, both of which zones are often said to have Iron Age characteristics; the problem is of course that these zones were substantially Christian for much of the early Middle Ages, which doesn’t just change the implied thought-world but also brings a considerable change in the material culture of the areas and what their inhabitants thought of as display and splendour. Burial, where that display was often made manifest in grave-goods that a typical Christian pattern wouldn’t have involved, as it’s usually theorised, illustrates this problem especially sharply. Goods are rare in Scotland, in fact, but Dr Maldonado ran through some of the things that scientific chronology does for other old ideas about change in burial coinciding with Christianization: coincide it does, but not cleanly, with the shift to inhumation rather than cremation afoot well beforehand, and extended supine east-west burial likewise. Some things did change in the sample Dr Maldonado had, however: most interestingly, the sites he had to work tended to only include male burial till c. 650, at about which point some burials (and only some) also seem to have been given markers. Wooden coffins, some, weirdly, padlocked, also arrive in the record over the seventh century. This applies to the Isle of May and to Inchmarnock, both of which are known to have housed monasteries, and of course a similar burial population at Portmahomack was used to clinch the identification of that site as another monastery, but at Whithorn no such pattern was clear. Even in the earlier phases of those other sites, though, `pattern’ would be too strong a word, variation in location, position and even orientation was common, and so he invoked the work of Howard Williams to wonder if the early cosmology here was a sort of mirror of the ascetic idea of managing without the body as much as possible, so that physical remains were judged unimportant compared to the state of one’s soul. As he put it, “Christianity was being invented here”. I did like this paper, as you can probably tell by the coverage I’ve given it, and I enjoyed a chat with Dr Maldonado afterwards, but it was not alone in raising these issues.
  • Courtney Buchanan, “Furnished Burials in Christian Cemeteries: pagan, Christian, or something else?”
    This paper dealt with so-called ‘Viking’ burials in the Christian cemeteries of England in the wake of the Danish settlements, and concluded that they only involved the very top tiers of society, usually featured weaponry and more or less coincided with the distribution of so-called ‘hogback’ monuments, which is also to say, only at the edges of Viking polities. The speaker tentatively theorised this as a means of expressing a new identity in what they called a ‘third space’,1 but I wonder whether the older idea isn’t still viable here, that people whose identity or value system is under threat or erosion by, for example, being on a frontier against other more coherent and better-established identities, wouldn’t seek ways to emphasise their belonging to one side or other in ways that wouldn’t be necessary at the centre of such a zone.2
  • Anne Paton, “Leprosy and Hagiography in Medieval Ireland”
    This paper got the most attention of the three, perhaps understandably given its subject matter. It had a simple aim, a pathfinder survey of archæological evidence for leprosy in medieval Ireland compared to the way it turns up in literary sources, where it usually seems more like psoriasis or chicken-pox, the latter because highly infectious but the former because primarily a disease of the skin with quite drawn-out development of symptoms. The rather grim observation that lepers’ bodies, which can be identified by the damage the disease does to bones, do generally turn up most often in leper cemeteries but are far from all of the bodies there, was only made slightly more comforting by the suggestion that if diagnosis was good enough it might have caught them before the disease got bad enough to leave traces. If so, though, it suggests that something else killed the sufferers pretty sharpish once they got to the hospital. However, as it transpired, very little of this can be made to apply to Ireland, where only two known medieval leper graves have so far been identified, both very late. If this suggests anything, it suggests that lepers in an earlier period were not isolated, and that infection from them was therefore not feared, but only more data will make things any clearer.

Then after that and after lunch, which was slightly more of a challenge than it might have been after such a session, it was back to Hincmar and so I will once again be brief.

1209. Hincmar’s 9th Century, III: Hincmar and Frankish Rulers

  • Elina Screen, “An Unfortunate Necessity? Hincmar’s Relationship with Lothar I (843-55)”
    The thing I took from this with most interest was that even Lothar, so often represented as the villain of the Carolingian civil wars of the 840s, could worry about the possibility of things happening to him and his kingdom because of God’s disfavour. I wish Elina would finish her book on the man, it is badly needed.3
  • Clémentine Bernard-Valette, “‘We are between the hammer and the anvil': Hincmar of Rheims and West Frankish Bishops in Front of Louis, King of Germany, 875″
    What do you do the second time your king’s brother comes to invade your kingdom? Less than you could first time, apparently, if you’re Hincmar…
  • Margaret McCarthy, “Hincmar’s Influence during Louis the Stammerer’s Reign”
    In fact, just generally the 870s were a bit of a downward slide for the old bishop’s influence, it seems, though as Margaret said in questions, it is always possible that he was deliberately stepping back a bit as he was, you know, quite old.
  • If so, however, it was not necessarily down to a waning of his powers, as one of the reasons he is usually supposed still to have been hungry for power is his manual on palace government that followed a few years later, which seems to have his ideal job description in it, and as Pauline Stafford observed in discussion his work in the crisis of 875 promulgates doctrines and thinking that could be seen as the roots of the Peace of God as well as theorising consent to kingship, with the seal of ancient authority on each of his innovations. What panic and urgency can bring out of the tired intellectual, hey? Perhaps that’s how our whole enterprise survives…

1309. Hincmar’s 9th Century, IV: Hincmar and socio-political culture

  • Sylvie Joye, “Family Order and Kingship According to Hincmar”
  • Rachel Stone, “Hincmar and the Nun: Carolingian gender order at the Synod of Douzy, 874″
    This was promoted to us on the basis of featuring a topless nun, which, by implication, it indeed did, but I find that what I’ve marked in my notes rather than that is the quote, “Patriarchy doesn’t need to be coherent to be effective”, which is altogether too true not to be put on the Internet.
  • Christine Kleinjung, “‘To Fight with Words': the case of Hincmar of Laon in the Annals of St-Bertin
    An obvious point, but worth making again because rarely do we see it so clearly: in Hincmar’s jurisdictional battle as metropolitan of Rheims with his nephew of the same name, bishop of Laon, since our only detailed source is the former’s own account, we don’t have the full story. This is presumably not just that Hincmar didn’t want to broadcast the truth, even if he could perceive it impartially which seems unlikely as suggested above, but also that, since he was largely writing the Annals in question for himself by this stage, he didn’t need to; he already knew, so we don’t.
  • Charles West, “Extremely Good Advice: Hincmar’s view of the parish and its priests”
    As will perhaps be clear the ways that priests got involved in their local communities and how other people used them to reach those communities is a keen interest of mine just now, and Charles did what I would do in his shoes by way of getting at some of those issues, took a well-documented microcosm and built up from it, as Hincmar laid down an ancient past and Patristic authority for a parish that in this case was probably of very recent creation, even if he didn’t know that.
  • This turned into an argument in questions between Charles, myself and Geoff Koziol about whether places and communities got put in a parish or might instead have opted into one of a range of available ones, which is part of a wider question about whether territories and jurisdictions were geographically coherent or not in this period, but it also showed that tendency that Hincmar’s thought seems to have had, which is to reimagine the rule on a case-by-case basis. And again, in this sphere too he may not have needed to be coherent to be effective, indeed it’s easy to see how an adaptable way of thinking would work better in local reorganisation when existing local organisations could be so various. Systematization may not always be the answer! Who said Hincmar had nothing to teach us? Well: none of the presenters in this strand, that’s for sure…

However, my Leeds day didn’t end there: against my habit, I went to one of the evening round-tables, and various things will probably explain why when I describe it.

1403. The Staffordshire Hoard: interpretation and display – a Round Table discussion

    In theory this was a Round Table, but actually what happened was a series of people gave short talks and there there wasn’t very much time for questions, so how not to call it a regular session in a much larger room isn’t very clear. The people were Leslie Webster, who explained how the research project had been set up, none of other than Morn Capper explaining what the public contact with the Hoard and the displays had been like, what questions they had and how happily similar those questions seemed to be to what the archæologists want to know—how is it being looked after, what’s in it, who put it there and why, and so on. She also observed a number of interesting but disconnected things: the tools needed to make the Hoard items must have been flipping tiny, many of the objects are quite worn, and more significantly, it is about the furthest north-west of any Anglo-Saxon treasure so far found, so there’s a great any ways it has to be thought of as an outlier. Then Dr Webster spoke again, wondering about ways we might think round the obvious paradox of the hoard, a few apparently religious items among a mass of wargear-fittings, and in the course of this identified the famous lettered strip as part of a cross decoration on something like a house-shrine, which was news to me. They also have a mystery item which she tentatively identified as a fitting from an episcopal headdress modelled on a Jewish high-priest’s depicted in a Wearmouth-Jarrow manuscript, which raises even more interesting questions. Then lastly Alex Woolf spoke, professing ignorance (and also penury) and as usual coming up with gems of insight anyway, seeing the Hoard as a craftsman’s store (including pointing out that it was deposited near Hammerwich…), doubting that it could ever have been deposited secretly, and wondering if the decoration, which is of a loosely-coherent style despite the various ages of the bits, might have been an identifiable branding that had to be taken off things their owner intended to give to someone else. All of that merits consideration, some of it fits with the ideas I myself find more plausible about the hoard, and after it there wasn’t very much time left for discussion…

And then I must have made it to the dance, because I remember talking to people animatedly afterwards, but apparently I didn’t do myself too much damage because my notes for the next morning’s sessions start coherently. So that would be another and final post, which will follow shortly! Feel free to rate this one for tedium in comments…


1. The name checked here was Honi Bhabha, unknown to me at that point but whose The Location of Culture (Abingdon 2004) I should apparently read!

2. My pet cite here is Gloria Anzáldua, Borderlands: the new mestiza (San Francisco 1987) but this again is something I know rather than have read, and the time I have spent flicking through it has led me to wonder what else there might be that did the same work in a way I could borrow more easily. Any suggestions welcomed!

3. Should you be unable to wait, however, I can at least promise you E. Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834-40: charters and authority”, in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout in press), rather sooner!

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…