Tag Archives: Guy Halsall

Leeds 2011 report two at last

Sorry! Publication deadlines, as you saw, then admissions interviews (about which I have seriously mixed feelings and may eventually write), then the wedding of a good friend and erstwhile medievalist, at which apart from, y’know, attending the marriage (hic præsens et testis fui!), I learnt a lot about Cassiodorus that will come in useful next term. And then, for various reasons, I’ve wanted to take a good deal of care with this post. But now here it is, my mandated Leeds report, part the two, covering the events of the 12th July 2011.

508. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, III – Romans and barbarians

Since, as recounted two posts ago, I’d realised on turning up in this strand that not only did it have a set of titles long enough to be a monograph series by some German academy, but also that it was where the excitement was likely to be for its duration, I was back in the Mortain Link Room at nine in the morning to see more. That went as follows:

  • Alex Woolf, “From Civitas to Kingdom? Romanitas in the British provinces and beyond”.
  • Alex here raised with his customary sharpness of perception some important questions, not the least of which is what period were the “sub-Roman” British interested in imitating? The Roman buildings of Roman Britain were largely pre-third-century, for example. Does that mean that if someone was continuing to live like a fifth-century Romano-British noble, we would see him in his material leavings as British not Roman? Was public building and sculpture really the mark of Romanitas for these people, as it has been for some modern scholars? (Was it instead stone monumental inscriptions, basically only preserved from outwith the area of Roman government?) Alex also made the excellent point that the Old English wealh, usually translated as `foreigner’, was however not used of foreigners like the Vikings, the Gaels, Syrians, and so on, and that we might therefore do well to think of it as being linguistic, and applying to Romance-speakers only. How far Romance actually describes the language of lowland post-Roman Britain would be one of those questions where fewer people than usual would follow Alex’s arguments, I suspect, but the difference still wants an explanation.1 Lots to think about here.

  • James Fraser, “Thoughts on the Roman and Native Discoveries of Pictishness”
  • The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    This paper came very close to my areas of British interest, as you will understand when I say that James started by critiquing the idea that the Picts were a single people for whom a material culture identity might be detected. In this sense, as he observed, the classic volume The Problem of the Picts has itself become the problem.2 Thereafter the paper became more of a historiographical survey of whom it is that the Picts’ identity has mattered to and how, but there were still some similarly live points, such as the observation that the word Brittones and its derivatives, originally Latin, appears to have been borrowed into the insular vernaculars only after a distinction had arisen between Britones and Picti; James can be found on record saying that probably the only difference between these groups was being inside or outside the frontier of the Roman Empire, which makes for linguistic difficulties as we’ve lately been seeing, but whether or not you buy that, he here has something that appears to need an explanation.3 James finally suggested that Pictishness was really a late construct used by state-building kings to meld a nation of disparate groups of peoples only lately differentiated from a generalised British identity, into a political unity opposed to English or Brittonic or indeed maybe Gaelic, stressing `barbarian’ cultural practices that were identifiable as such in Roman terms, like tattooing, like inscribing stones but not with Latin, and like deriving one’s origins from the Scythians, a reference that only makes sense in a Roman cultural complex.

    I found all this pretty powerful, as you might expect from things I’ve said in the past, and asked in questions whom he thought the agents of this new cultural formation might be; he blamed the Church, which I think makes some kind of sense if we can see the Church as a tool of kings in this area. Before that however the session had been completed by…

  • Fraser Hunter, “Breaking Down the Wall: Rome and North Britain in the late Roman period”
  • This was perhaps the least provocative paper of the three but that was not least because it was by far the best-evidenced, and left much less room for debate: Hunter showed simply that Roman luxury goods got beyond the wall into the lowland zone, and that after these goods stopped coming local cultural innovation attempted to make up the gap, which we kind of know, but that inside the walls a similar transition is happening from Roman soldier’s goods, money and gear to stuff that we would recognise as warband material. Rome, while it was active in the North of Britain, created haves and have-nots, but after it went only some of these people’s centres could keep some kind of supremacy going by continuing to import Romanitas. Thus, Dumbarton Rock and Edinburgh kept going, Birdoswald and others failed, and so the new political landscape was formed.

I don’t mind telling you that after this session was over my head was so full of thoughts that I obtained coffee, or at least the best available facsimile, and tried talking to Alex but had to excuse myself because I needed to try and write something down before everything I was thinking escaped; I couldn’t speak even to Alex in case it overwrote what I was struggling to articulate. After twenty-five minutes I had something like the plan of a paper, restating with extra nuance my thoughts about the regionality of the Pictish kingdom, and was able to put it away confident that some day I could write it (as indeed I subsequently have, though much of that first rush has then turned out to be unsustainable). That was the kind of session this had been for me, the kind that could not be fully contained in my head for the explosion of possibilities. “And I’m not even lying.”

608. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, IV – new narratives in Hispania

Of course I don’t really work on Scotland any more, and if I ever finish that aforesaid paper it will likely be my goodbye to the research area. How convenient for me, then, that Professor Halsall’s excellent contributors also included a number of people interested in the Iberian peninsula!4? They were:

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Fragmentation and Thin Polities: dynamics of the post-Roman Duero plateau”
  • The Duero plateau had been an integrated part of Roman Hispania, not rich but with many villas, but the events of the fifth century turned it into a frontier zone between the Sueves and Visigoths, neither of whom really had much governmental presence there, and as such seems to have localised its identity, with seniores loci mentioned by John of Biclaro and perhaps local coinage being issued. Hillforts grew up, though none have yet been dug so the association is kind of hypothetical. The Visigothic kingdom, when it re-established itself here, seems to have done so not least by giving the local élites rights to tax or withdrawing them, but the lack of towns meant that it was never an integrated part of Toledo’s enterprise. This does not however mean, argued Professor Martín, that it was not part of the state, and he argued that we should recognise this as a kind of `soft hegemony’ that might let us think usefully about how the successor states worked in their own terms, with the kings getting the status that kept them in power and the regions getting the autonomy that stopped them from wanting away from kings. We’ve seen something like this idea expressed here before, I think, so I was right down with this.

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Alfonso Vigil-Escalera, “The Elephant in the Room: new approaches to early medieval cemeteries in Spain”
  • Pretty much everything I know about burial in Visigothic Spain I read either in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations or at Historian on the Edge, so I was keen to hear more from two names I have on several reading lists but have never quite got round to reading.5 The two of them, represented by Dr Vigil-Escalera alone, argued that categories like `Roman’ and `barbarian’ won’t cover this kind of evidence, which has urban `barbarians’, rustic `Romans’ and all kinds of other cross-category burials to accommodate, and that the variation could be explained without recourse to foreign populations, even if those were there; the burial evidence in their eyes neither proves nor disproves immigration. The archaeology instead shows a restlessness that is to be expected from a peninsula in political and economic turmoil. Instead of the stereotypes, they detect in the burial evidence a militarised élite interred in lead coffins, a lower grade of burial with few or no grave goods, and nothing visible beneath. Where there are cemeteries that associate with a settlement, 60-95% of graves are furnished, the figure being lower the later the cemetery runs; by the eighth century (but not till then!) grave furnishing had completely stopped. Beyond these generalisations, however, variation in this mortuary landscape was at the community level, not the level of whole `peoples’, and certainly can’t be broken down as `Roman’ vs. `Germanic’. Therefore, they asked, why blame barbarians?

  • Guy Halsall, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?”
  • In answer to that question came the last paper of the strand by Professor Halsall himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve heard him speak or read him on the Internet, this was the one that really started the war. [Edit: and, indeed, some changes have been made to these paragraphs by request of one of those involved.] The consequences, if not of this actual speech, at least of its subsequent display on the Internet, have been various, unpleasant and generally regrettable, and I don’t want any of them myself. However, I think that what Professor Halsall was doing, which was to demand attention to the way that terms like `barbarians’ and `immigrants’ have been and are now deployed in political discourse, in short, to think who might be listening when we deploy these terms and for what, is something that it’s necessary to discuss. There may be other ways to say what he was saying, though they might be less effective. After all, an old colleague of mine sometimes gloomily observed of his scholarly opponents, “Y’know, you can’t change these guys’ minds, you can only wait until they die,” and obviously that’s not going to do much for public feeling and policy right now, which is where the fight is needed.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron expounding his party's `Big Society` ideology

    Dangerously empty bloviation

    But the issues must not be dropped! Since 2006 I have been on the web proclaiming somewhat casually that when history is used it is almost always misused; glib and untheorised though that was when I wrote it, there is a point there, and it behoves us to keep an eye on what our work may be used for. Some people are more conscious of this than others, as the recent furore over the way that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK appears to have picked up and run with the Conservative party’s campaign slogan in the last UK national elections shows; but this consciousness is usually with the misusers, and we could do with the same awareness from people who aren’t deliberately selling themselves for political funding (although it should be noted that the AHRC have claimed that they weren’t, without responding in any way to pressure to actually alter their agenda). How then do we fight the misuse of history by those with political agendas? Professor Halsall argued in questions that we have to take the fight to popular sources of information, to publish opinion columns, to get on the Internet, to colonise Wikipedia and not to assume that people can’t handle our sophistication. These seem like worthwhile, if taxing, endeavours that would bring us benefit whatever our politics. If the humanities were any good at coordinating our defence this would already have been encouraged in every faculty across the land, as PR for the industry of academia itself, dammit; instead they have successfully set us against each other and this is the result. Party politics, whether left-wing (do we still have one of those?), centrist or comfortable Conservative’s, really don’t signify here: there is no UK political party interested in funding the humanities. But you’ve read me on this before and you’ll read me on it again, so no more here.

The whole strand had been extremely provocative, as you can tell, and events subsequently revealed that it had perhaps been too much so, but I also think that we need to awaken some kind of social awareness about the uses, misuses, impact and importance of history. Everyone in the field must surely agree that that importance currently needs all the acknowledging, emphasising and directing that it can get. The furore over this presentation has unfortunately hidden these issues, which deserved to continue under discussion and not to become so personal as to be swamped in antagonism and threats. I’ll have more to say about this here—probably not very insightful but one should not stay silent—but for the meantime I can only advise you to keep a close eye on Historian on the Edge, for reflection on the social and moral imperatives of our work, whether you agree with him or not. We’d all like to think our work was socially and morally important, I’m sure, so it seems natural to consider how that might work out, doesn’t it?

717. Between Palatium and Civitas: political and symbolic spaces throughout the Middle Ages

Anyway. That was the final session in Professor Halsall’s strand, and things calmed down somewhat after lunch. Since time is short and the backlog long I’m therefore going to tackle the rest of the day in briefer form. I crossed the campus now to Weetwood Hall and there heard these people speak:

  • Martin Gravel, “Built on Expectation and Remembrance: the visitation of kings as the symbolic recognition of palaces in Carolingian West Francia”
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Contestation, Networks, and Places of Power in Grenoble during the Gregorian Reform: Guigues of Albon’s trajectory”
  • Alexandra Beauchamp, “Royal Court and Capitals of the Crown of Aragon in the XIVth century”
  • Originally scheduled for this session had been Josianne Barbier, doyenne of the Frankish fisc, and given how much her work featured in my reading for that dead-stick Kalamazoo paper of a couple of years back, I’d been rather hoping to meet her. Alas it was not to be, but these papers were also interesting, for especially Martin’s, which wanted to look closer at what kings actually do with their palaces beyond turn up, issue charters (not always them of course) and leave. With a few documents of Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer he was able to do this, showing that certain palaces had certain functions and that they weren’t all equivalent. Obvious, perhaps, conceptually, but hard to prove! Martin did so. We subsequently proved to have an almost-inconvenient overlap of interests with regard to the later Carolingians and I’m looking forward to more of his work. Le Coq, meanwhile, I would like to give due honour for using the term “ecclesiamento” to describe the way that Grenoble came to be grouped around the bishop’s properties and interests in his period of study, and Beauchamp’s careful attempt to try and say something about how large the Aragonese court actually was, on a day-to-day basis, from an unpromising source base, was a near-perfect example of how to present a few key interesting things from what was clearly a much larger piece of work.

805. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Different Regions of Europe

I try and go to as much of the relevant archaeological stuff at Leeds as possible, because there’s never very much and I want to encourage it, but also because it’s usually very interesting and full of information I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This time I was also hoping to see and meet Marco Valenti, who is a name that crops up all over what had then been my recent reading, but in this I was disappointed. What we got was:

  • Neil Christie, “Burhs and Defence: assessing the military status of later Saxon burhs
  • Marco Valenti, “Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Italy from the 6th to the 10th Centuries”
  • Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries in Central Europe”
  • You will be observing that Valenti appears still to have been there, but in fact, his paper was read by Professor Christie, a compromise that was certainly better than no paper but didn’t enable the kind of debate it would have been good to have. In short, Christie himself gave the audience a quick introduction to the fortification programme rolled out by the kings of Wessex in their fight back against the Vikings, and asked how much actual use the fortifications, many of which have come to be towns now and may always have been meant to, were. Christie preferred to see them more as exercises in literally building community, while I might prefer to see them as exercises in power demonstration, like Offa’s Dyke; certainly, Asser seems to show us that the relevant communities didn’t necessarily feel it.6 The Valenti paper, next, concentrated on castles in Tuscany, for a long time supposedly part of a major set of social changes just before or in the eleventh century that we know well round here, but by the kind of survey Valenti has been able to demonstrably a much longer-term phenomenon, starting in the ninth century if not before. There has of course been very little digging of such sites but what has been dug has forced this kind of re-evaluation too (as previously reported here indeed). Lastly Hajnalka, whose work I’d met at Kalamazoo the previous year, reintroduced me and introduced everyone else to her extremely interesting élite settlement at Gars Thunau in Austria, which has in its history a ninth-century building programme that seems to be chronologically, but not otherwise, connected to a sea-change in the development of such sites over a wider area, all of which nonetheless show no archaeological connections with each other. There’s something big here which has yet to be identified, clearly; Dawn Hadley asked what and Hajnalka said that the presence of the Church needs to be looked at, but that it will only explain some sites. Nonetheless, paradigms like Martin Carver‘s of a reaction in stone to such new power groups might well help here.7

Now, after this was the blogger meet-up, which was quite odd in the way it worked out. I was late, I forget why but probably not for any good reason, and the Naked Philologist and Magistra were left to coordinate the initial stages without me even though neither knew each other. By the time I arrived, it was busy but not with people I knew, which was good but unexpected. I can now remember only two of these people, Livejournallers rather than deliberate academic bloggers both, so I won’t name them in case they don’t want their personal lives linked to, but it was a pleasure to meet them and others, and I seem to recall that the gathering went on for a long time. I know that by the time I got to the St Andrews reception they’d run out of wine, but I also remember that this had somehow happened far faster than they’d anticipated so it may still have been quite early. In any case, company remained good and chatter plentiful, as afterwards seemed to have been so for a great deal of the conference, and it had been a stirring day.


1. The classic discussion of the term `wealh‘ is M. Faull, “The semantic development of Old English wealh” in Leeds Studies in English Vol. 8 (Leeds 1975), pp. 20-37; Alex’s take on such matters can currently mostly be found in his “Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 115-129, online here, last modified 18th October 2007 as of 10th December 2011, though for the linguistics he largely rests here on Peter Schrijver, “What Britons Spoke Around 400″, ibid. pp. 165-171.

2. Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955).

3. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 785, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 44-49.

4. I probably don’t need to explain the range of circumlocutions I use here to avoid the word `Spain’, or indeed that the paper titles do, but suffice to say that if this seems clumsy to you, the modern country’s name really doesn’t cover what we’re trying to include here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 296-300 & 338-346, but I should add at least J. A. Quirós Castillo and A. Vigil-Escalera Guirado, “Networks of peasant villages between Toledo and Velegia Alabense, North-western Spain (V-X centuries)” in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 33 (Firenze 2006), pp. 79-130 and now Quirós, “Early medieval landscapes in north-west Spain: local powers and communities, fifth-tenth centuries” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 285-311.

6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91:

For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well… to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm. But if, during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the people’s laziness, or else (having been begun too late in a time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet [c. 883] been begun, or else, having been begun late in the day, have not yet been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land or by sea (or, as frequently happens, by both!) then those who had opposed the royal commands were humiliated in meaningless repentance by being reduced to virtual extinction.

This passage doesn’t make me like Asser or Alfred any better, actually.

7. As in for example M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings (London 1998), esp. pp. 52-93.

Leeds 2011 report 1, with bonus apology

I have to start by saying sorry for the long silence here. It’s no shortage of stuff to say, but shortage of time to write. The end of term has been more punishing than it should be, as we gear up for admissions interviews next week as well as trying to get reports done and send everyone off with revision instructions. I drafted this with only one essay left to mark this term and one tutorial to give on it, these now done with great relief and now there’s nothing but hect for a few days and then wondering why nothing is organised for the holiday. (Actually something is, but not all the way.) And as you may have gathered, there’s a paper I’m supposed to have written by now and just had to beg an extension on, albeit from myself and collaborators. Obviously things could be worse; but squeezing in those visits to the library to collect the data I need has resulted in a great many small-hours bedtimes and the pressing need, every time I get as far as the blog editor window, to admit that there just isn’t time today. And this took several goes, too, but it’s done. I am still reporting on Leeds, a mere four months ago, and dammit, I may be briefer than usual but I will do it. So herewith the first day.

The Stables pub, Weetwood Hall, University of Leeds

The Stables pub, location of the occasional pint during the Congress

Actually I think I ought to start with the previous evening, when I arrived back from Lastingham and very shortly afterwards actually met she who is the Naked Philologist, who was more clothed and less immediately philological than advertised but still a splendid person and one whom it has been great to get to know then and subsequently. She was entirely surrounded by fellow female research students, and when I broke away from this gathering, to go find food or something, I got accused by a senior male colleague at the next table of departing “my harem”. My harem? My harem? Damn heteronormativity everywhere. Anyway; not very academic but it got the drinking started in good order and the academia followed next day. As to that, I skipped on the keynote lecture, which I’d already heard a version of one half of when Robin Fleming gave it at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and in the other half of which I wasn’t for some reason very interested (not sure why, as Sam Cohn is always interesting), but if you are, Magistra was there and wrote a blog post about it. Thus, the day started with this.

108. Small Worlds, Wide Horizons: local powers in the early Middle Ages

If there was a theme to this Leeds for me, other than always being among friends new and old, which I was and which was great, it was “sessions that felt like part of the Texts and Identities strand but weren’t”. Instead, this session was the extension, I think, of a conversation between Carine van Rhijn, Wendy Davies and myself at Leeds in 2009 about probably actually having the material to say something about local priests and their role in organising their communities in our respective areas. This was not that work, but it was in the same vein, and the people who were participating had all been in Texts and Identities at some point I think, though two also in my charters sessions of yore, so obviously I had to be there. The running order was:

  • Steffen Patzold, “Priests and Local Power Brokers, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Bernhard Zeller, “Of the Lives of Centenarii and Related Local Powers in Early Medieval Alemannia, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Wendy Davies, “How Local was the Power of the Saio in Northern Iberia around 1000?”

This was all really interesting regional comparisons. Steffen had several pieces of evidence that appeared to show Bavarian and Italian cases of local communities effectively appointing their priests, and used this to vary the picture of the sorts of priests we could have found in Carolingian localities, appointed by people, princes or several kinds of power in between. Bernhard was looking at a layer of local officials in the St Gallen charters he knows so well who have titles like “centenarius”, “vicarius” and “centurius”, which as you’ll understand from last post interested me considerably. The last he only sees around Zürich, and they seem to be quite junior, whereas vicars were more serious contenders than anything less than the counts; Bernhard figured that these guys’ small range probably suggested they belonged to localities rather than being put there by the counts. This is not much like what I see but then where I see any of these terms but vicarius it’s where there aren’t really counts, and when they’re about to be the last ones using the word, so this may give me some idea of what an early Carolingian local administration looks like before you take its lid off and bake it for a century or so. Wendy, meanwhile, who as usual explicitly excepted Catalonia from her remarks, was looking at the closest early medieval Spain had to policemen, though a more accurate simile might be court bailiffs; she found saiones working for all sorts of judicial officials, from kings downwards, far from the Gothic origins of the title as armed followers, and all over the north of Spain, confined to areas of no more than 40km2, or at least, not appearing outside those areas using their title. This gave me a lot of context for my own limited observations about saiones in Vallfogona.1 All of this was right up my street, down my alley and in my grills, as it were, so I thought I’d started well.

221. Gift-Giving: gift-giving and objects

I then followed a sense of obligation; I used to work with Rory Naismith, and have somehow never managed to catch one of his papers at Leeds, so now that he was on alongside Stuart Airlie I wasn’t going to miss it. Here, however, Magistra has beaten me to the blogging (not hard) so I shall save some catch-up time by referring you to her post again. The running order, though, was:

  • Irene Barbiera, “Offering Brooches to the Dead: the changing gendered value of a gift between Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”
  • Rory Naismith, “Making the World Go Round? Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900)”
  • Stuart Airlie, “The Star Cloak of Henry II”

The only thing I’ll add to what Magistra says is that I was pleased to see Rory finding a way to respectfully step round Philip Grierson’s venerable article, “Commerce in the Dark Ages”, that I love so much, without losing its essential point, which was that coins are not enough to prove trading links because they can travel in other ways too.2 Now, as Rory pointed out, we have incredible amounts more finds evidence than Grierson did in 1959, so we have to give more space to trade than he did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about the alternatives. Rory then went on to note various coinages and references to coinage that make more sense viewed as gifts than as currency. With the other two papers I think I have nothing to say that Magistra didn’t already so I’ll move on.

308. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman World and its Neighbours in late Antiquity, II – Changing Minds?

This strand looked, from the outside, like another Texts and Identities strand under new colours, though somehow including Guy Halsall, but a closer look revealed that something more challenging was going on; Guy had organised a strand with some real heavy-hitters on to ask serious and sometimes dangerous questions about how we as historians should deal with the supposed barbarian invasions that have for so long been supposed to bring about the end of the Roman Empire in the West, given the loads of work there has been suggesting that this is too simple, or even outright wrong. So either way it was a must-see, and in the first one I made it to I saw this.

  • Walter Pohl, “Ethnicity and its Discontents”
  • This paper was substantially a pained but wry self-defence against what Professor Pohl felt was misrepresentation of his work by Walter Goffart in a recent publication, and misunderstanding of it in exactly the opposite direction by Marco Valenti; he therefore disclaimed belief in stable ethnic groups, the shared common cores of élite traditions proposed by Reinhard Wenskus, the culturally-constructed imaginary communities that extreme dissolutionists hold to (which Professor Pohl would accept if it were allowed that they can be actively created by people), and groups with no self-identification. Instead he argued for groups of persons that felt and acted with common interests, however recently-created, entry to which was to an extent governed by an in-group and recognised by out-groups, as a necessary basis for a self-identification. I understand how this concept is misunderstood; it kinds of slips from one’s hands when you try to press it to explain historical events, but that isn’t, I think, what Professor Pohl holds it for; he holds it as a working account of ethnicity. That is quite an important thing to have, if we can get one…

  • Tommaso Leso, “Shifting Identities and Marriage in Ostrogothic Italy”
  • This drew out the various categories of marriage choice for the women of the Ostrogothic royal family and went through them in detail. This was one of those ones where if you want to know about it, you want to know more than I can tell you, but if it matters and you can’t get in touch with Signor Leso I’m happy to type out my notes in an e-mail.

  • Roland Steinacher, “Response”
  • In the absence of one of the originally-planned papers, Herr Steinacher gave a response, and observed that political correctness makes the necessary argument difficult to have here; these things still really matter to people, and some writers are selling to those people without due care for the facts or opinions of their peers. He named names but I won’t, not here; he was far from the last to do so in these sessions, and I’ll say more about that in the second day’s report.

It’s hard for me to take a position in these debates that are about both the field and the people in it, especially on the open Internet, but you may deduce something if you choose from the fact that now I knew where the action was I stayed in these sessions till they ran out. More on this, therefore, as soon as I can. Presumably I did something in the evening; I remember that whatever it was kept me away from the Early Medieval Europe reception until all their wine had run out, so it must have been good, and probably involved good people and average alcohol. If you were one of the people, I’m sorry four months have blurred you out of my memory of the day but trust me, I remember you out of context…


1. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 42-43.

2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Collected Studies 96 (Aldershot 1979), II.

3. Here my notes suggest he named Guy, but I don’t think this can be right!

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

Theodulf, Goths and Garrisons

There are a number of precepts (that is, in this instance, royal charters) from the Carolingian kings of the Franks to the Spanish March of their empire, Catalonia more or less, that are addressed to or refer to people called Goths. They are often paired with ‘Hispani‘, which appears to refer fairly clearly to people who had come from the Muslim-occupied part of the Iberian peninsula, unfailingly named as Hispania in Latin sources from within and without the area.1 That’s simple enough, but who are the Goths?

Romantic depiction of the sack of Rome by Alaric's Gothic army

How some see the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths. I reckon this is unfair on the Vandals' 455 attempt myself.

By the time that Charles the Bald was praising these people for their loyalty to him during the rebellion of 874-5, there had been a group of people called ‘Goths’ in what we now call Spain for more than four centuries. That is, roughly, sixteen generations, which makes any actual ethnic continuity in a land where the immigrants can never have been more than a tiny minority a challenge to assert or explain, however hard your Traditionskerne might be.2 If it were earlier we might be able to line up those weary opponents, Heather and Halsall, and Peter Heather would presumably tell us that a migrating people really can retain an identity that is more than pure assertion, somehow, and Guy Halsall would probably make a detailed case that might be ultimately brewed down to “for heaven’s sake, they’re an army with a name, that’s all”, but neither of them, I imagine, would want to maintain their irreconcilable views past not just the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism in 589, the abolition of the legal distinction between Goths and Romans in the Visigothic kingdom in circa 650, the Muslim conquest of the peninsula in 711 (and of what would become Catalonia in 714), the Frankish move into once-`Gothic’ Septimania in 759 and finally the conquest of Barcelona in 801.3 Even if someone was calling themselves a Goth at that point, it would be a claim with a very different value to claiming membership of Alaric’s warband. Among those differences would be residence versus immigration, difference of ethnicity from the king rather than sharing it with him, use of the Visigothic Law versus a presumably-Roman military discipline, and we could think of more I’m sure. The values of claiming this status had changed, a lot. So, who were they who so claimed?

Arabic manuscript recording the Pact of Tudmir, by which Murcia was incorporated into al-Andalus

Arabic manuscript recording the Pact of Tudmir, by which Murcia was incorporated into al-Andalus and the Goths left their own law

One suggestion might be that they were the people who lived by the Visigothic Law, a kind of personality-of-the-law argument in reverse, but that fails to explain the differentiation from Hispani, who presumably also did that as the Muslims had protected the Christians’ law in their various pacts of settlement.4 The traditional answer has been that the Goths were the resident, as opposed to immigrant, population of Barcelona and its environs, but this is substantially powered by neo-Gothic agendas imagined into the sources by twentieth-century historians, I feel; there was a lot of interest in managing to claim a Gothic inheritance, and it gets used to explain far too many things.5 There must be a lot of people not covered by that, and why it was sensible or advantageous for the Carolingians to stress what could be seen as a rival identity even as late as Charles the Bald is hard to explain. (And let’s remember that to the Muslims, these guys were all al-Franja, the Franks.) But it keeps turning up: in 759, the Chronicle of Moissac says, it was the ‘Goths’ who expelled the Muslims from Narbonne for the Franks, in 801 it was the ‘Goths’ and the Franks who retook Barcelona according to the Life of Emperor Louis by the Astronomer, in 827 it is the ‘Goths’ who have to be pacified in the rebellion of Aizó and apparently, in 844 and 874, it was ‘Goths’ whom instructions of Charles the Bald to Barcelona would reach.6

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

One suggestion to this dilemma came from the famous scholar of Spanish monasticism, Jesus Lalinde Abadia, who came up with the following ingenious idea: the first Gothic settlers were based on fiscal land from which they drew renders as federate soldiers, he said, but these grants, once for service, presumably became hereditary before very long. If those lots were somehow kept in being, and somehow continued to be associated with military service, he argued, then they would conceivably be the lands of the Goths, and someone who held them, who would presumably do so by a claimed hereditary descent, would then be a ‘Goth’, albeit more by reason of occupation and dwelling place than actual biology.7 He backed this up by pointing out that the term only crops up referring to groups in cities, basically at Narbonne, Girona and Barcelona, and suggested that what we actually have here is the city garrisons. It’s as if, for Londoners and those who’ve visited the Tower of London, `Beefeater‘ was an ethnicity, or had been mistaken for one, or perhaps more contemporaneously, as if the Varangian Guard in Constantinople claimed to all be from Sweden.8

Yeomen Warders at the Tower of London

Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London in ancient tribal costume. It's a little known fact that the E II R legend actually stands for "East of the Rhine", the middle two minims symbolising a bridge.

Let’s go back to Narbonne for a moment, though. Passing through there at an uncertain date early in the ninth century while operating as a missus dominici for Emperor Louis the Pious, Bishop Theodulf of Orléans penned a few lines on the place, and he was a Goth himself (whatever he meant by that) and so ought to have been informed. He does not, however, say that Narbonne was a Gothic city, it’s more complicated than that. Here it is:

Mox sedes, Narbona, tuas urbemque decoram

Tangimus, occurrit quo mihi læta cohors

Reliquiae Getici populi, simul Hespera turba,

Me consanguineo fit duce læta sibi

I won’t try and translate his verse as a whole—there are other people who do that better than I can—but the key phrase is “cohors reliquiae Getici populi”, ‘a band of the remnant of the Gothic people’.9 That is, pace the nationalists, not a regional identity, no blanket coverage of the inhabitants of an ancient Gothic territory; clearly, not everyone in Narbonne is a Goth, what with that `Hesperian crowd’ also milling around. It might easily be read as the garrison, however, especially as cohors is a military term. But Theodulf seems to be claiming kinship with these people, and he was not a military man. I don’t see how this can be read as anything other than an ethnic, read descent, community, whether claimed or somehow real, and whether or not it’s confined to a band of soldiers. Given all this, I can’t now take either `professional’ or `descent community’ reading by themselves; they must be assumed together. We might here picture the sort of British upper-class member who will tell you that his or her family came over with the Conqueror. That’s even more generations involved, and I think it now fairly ridiculous to care about, but these `Goths’ were in positions of power, and kings addressed them: even if we now think it really very unlikely that they could genuinely have been and have any basis to think of themselves as descendants of Alaric’s warband – “my family came over the mountains with Euric, you know” – we probably shouldn’t assume that it was a silly thing to claim in those days. Maybe, ultimately, the upper class here was as nutty about descent as ours are. We don’t have to believe them to believe they believed it.

Post scriptum: matters of barbarians have become an Internet hot topic these last few days following Guy Halsall’s challenge to battle that you can read here. There are reasons I don’t want to speak to that debate that you can all probably work out, but if I were to follow the suggestion of Steve Muhlberger in response to it and say, “what did these people need the barbarians for?”, I think I would say this is not about barbarians. Theodulf was proud to own to belonging among these people and I don’t think he saw himself as a barbarian. I think it’s more about an identity that has the venerability of age and a Classical heritage to it, however paradoxical that may seem to those who think Goths = 410. I might suggest that for the people in this period the way they escaped that category is by seeing conversion as a redemption from barbarism as well as paganism, but that would be much more hypothetical; Isidore of Seville seems to lean that way but he was not, dammit, spokesman for the whole early Middle Ages. So as close as I’m going to get to that debate right now is that I might suggest that by this time, Theodulf didn’t need the barbarians; he needed the Goths and those weren’t the same thing for him. But this is the ninth century, and the game had clearly long changed by then.


1. The Frankish royal documents to Catalonia were all edited by Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals in his Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona 1926-1952), and the ones that mention Goths are Arles III (Louis the Stammerer, 878), Particulars XXI (Charles the Bald, 854), XXII (Charles the Bald, X858) & XXIII (Charles the Bald, 858), Sant Julià del Munt I (Charles the Bald, 866, to some Goths and Basques who’ve just founded a monastery) & app. V (Charles the Bald, 844, but probably using a text of Charlemagne’s as model) & VII (Charles the Bald, 874). The apparent genesis of this usage in Charles the Bald’s time should be nuanced by the fact that very few documents from his predecessors survive, though many are known to have existed. On the other hand, it possibly is significant for what I’m about to argue that when addressing the citizens of Barcelona direct in 877 (ibid., ap. VIII) Charles didn’t use these terms. On the usage of Hispania for Muslim Spain, see most sanely Ann Christys, “The Transformation of Hispania after 711″ in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jorg Jarnut & Walter Pohl (edd.), Regna and Gentes. The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples and Kingdoms in the Transformation of the Roman World, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (London 2003), pp. 219-241.

2. The idea of Traditionskerne goes back to Reinhard Wenskus, Stammesbildung und Verfassung. Das Werden der frühmittelalterliche Gentes (Köln 1961), cit. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), p. 14 n. 26.

3. Peter Heather’s arguments are easiest to find with reference to the Goths in Heather, The Goths (Oxford 1996), unsurprisingly; for Guy, see Barbarian Migrations, esp. pp. 189-194 but also passim.

4. The pact of Tudmir for Murcia is translated as “The Treaty of Tudmir” in Barbara Rosenwein (ed.), Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World (Peterborough ON 2006), p. 92. On it see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 711-797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 39-41.

5. Observe the contest for the Gothic legacy between Castile and Catalonia in L. Suárez Fernández, “León y Catalunya: paralelismos y divergencias” and Federico Udina i Martorell, “El llegat i la consciència romano-gòtica. El nom d’hispània”, both in Udina (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991, 1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 141-157 & 171-200 respectively; cf. Christys, “Transformation”, or Peter Linehan, History and Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993) for detached perspectives.

6. G. H. Pertz (ed.), “Chronicon Moissacense…” in idem (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Scriptores in folio) I (Hannover 1826), pp. 280-313, s. a. 759; ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris“, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, at cap. 13; Annales Regni Francorum, ed. F. Kurze in idem (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, MGH SRG VI (Hannover 1895), s. aa. 826, 827; and Abadal, Cataluna Carolíngia II, app. V & VII as above.

7. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Udina, Symposium Internacional II, pp. 35-74.

8. For the Varangians you can now, I discover, see Raffaele d’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988 – 1453, Men at Arms (Oxford 2010). I haven’t seen this but I’ve used other things from the series and they’re often surprisingly good considering they’re essentially non-academic in desired audience.

9. Theodulf of Orléans, “Versus contra iudices”, ed. Ernst Dümmler in idem (ed.), Poetae latini ævi karolini Vol. I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica…  (Poetae latini medii ævi) I (Berlin 1881), pp. 493-517 at p. 497.

Big books, high praise and tiny queries

(Written substantially offline on the East Coast main line between Edinburgh and Newcastle, 23rd May 2011.)

My current job is quite luxurious, there’s no point in denying it (and you know, I don’t exactly mind). One of these luxuries is somewhat enforced, however, which is: time to read. This is a luxury, no mistake, because I sorely missed it in the previous job, where I could only spare the time to read up for my own papers; now I can read more, but, on the other hand what I have to read is now also dictated not just by what I’m working on but by what I’m teaching, where I really do have good reasons to get current quickly because I have to tell other people to read it. So, since arrival, I have been attacking this problem.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Quite a lot of the books I have got through have been really quite large. I don’t mean so much the multi-authored exhibition catalogues and conference proceedings the Continental scholarship, especially, generates, like Jordi Camps’s edited Cataluña en la época carolingia that’s been in my sidebar, well, possibly since I started the blog—and every now and then I take in another of its informative little papers—but single-author syntheses. Among these there are two I thought it was fairly urgent for me to get a hang of, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007) and John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005). The reason for the latter will be obvious: my idea of the scholarship of the man I’m standing in for was a decade behind the times and since then he’d written something that was now on every reading list in the subject. Guy’s book, meanwhile, I’d bought on a whim in the CUP bookshop a few years before, probably after hearing him present somewhere but maybe just on the basis of what I knew of his work, which is now of course much easier to know about, and because of a sneaking suspicion that it probably should be on a lot of reading lists, and it just took me a while to make it urgent: sorry, Guy! But Guy’s book is 616 pages long, and John’s 624 (gloss, heavy), so this was a bit daunting; I knew when I picked these things up that I would be living with them closely for a while. (There’s also another very obvious extremely large book of wide-ranging comparative focus that has defeated scholars as least as bibliovoric as me, temporarily I’m sure, which I am now taking on properly rather than just reading via the index, and that invites comparisons in what follows, but if they occur at all they will have, in justice, to wait till I’ve taken it all in.1)

There are obvious limits to what I can say about these books: both these (all three of these) scholars’ goodwills are important to me, in so far as I have them I want to keep them and so you would probably expect what follows to be basically praiseworthy, and so indeed it will be (although it has been a pain to phrase because of implicit comparisons – I apologise if any offence remains to be taken, it is not intended) but that’s because I think they are good, I have no need to pretend about this. My adulation will be very slightly tempered below with some tiny points of query, but I think the first thing to make clear is that it was or is worth reading all of these books. I actually enjoyed the reading of Guy’s; I picked it up each time genuinely wanting to know where it would go next, as opposed to simply wanting to know what was in it. It may be that he was conscious that his book was in a series of supposed textbooks, and so wrote deliberately clearly, and if so it pays off, he is admirably lucid and the reading goes quickly. John’s is slower going because there is so much information on every page that one keeps being caught up by footnotes and going, “really? where? <flip flip flip page> Wow that sounds interesting. Hang on, where was I?” (Guy’s is by no means short of information but John has little local details that distract. This may only really affect English readers though.) Also, and this is just my weakness really, Guy’s chapters are shorter and more divided up: beyond a certain amount per lump I do find that my brain creaks trying to hang on to it all, and here Guy is kinder. (I’m conscious that I myself fail on this assessment; sorry about that.)

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Both of these books also offer very big interpretative answers to substantial historical questions. Guy is of course offering an answer to to the great question about the fall of the Roman Empire, and he is far from the only person doing so; the only reason his book isn’t on more reading lists, I would guess, is that most people who set them read Peter Heather’s almost equally large tome that narrowly preceded it into the shops and then felt they had all the answer they needed for the moment. Many will know that Guy and Peter do not agree about many things: Guy is scrupulously polite in his references here, however, indicating disagreement where necessary but never without respect, and certainly the opposition is not silenced but acknowledged and engaged. The big difference between Guy and his opposition for me, and the one that means I prefer Guy’s take, is that for him archæology is crucial. Archæological evidence is given at least equal billing throughout his book and it substantially underpins his argument, which is, basically, that even in economic and military crisis Rome was still a sufficiently potent political force that it warped and changed the cultures at its borders and offered them opportunities of engagement and enrichment that drew them in towards it, while at the same time its military and aristocratic culture was increasingly affected (and I use that word both transitively and intransitively) with supposedly-barbaric overtones. No-one, however, wanted to fell the Empire; they wanted to control it. It was competition between such ambitious members of a military élite that overlapped the Empire’s borders which did the whole thing in.2

In the course of this, Guy raises several important issues about assumptions people make about barbarian identities, not least that they are detectable in burial styles and that they are incompatible with Roman identities. The most interesting examples of counters to these that he provides, for me, are the facts that the Visigoths only started doing furnished burial with grave-goods once they were in Spain, so it can hardly be an imported ethnic practice—he argues that instead it represents, here and in other places, competition and insecurity among élites that Romans as well as others could employ for status display (pp. 342-346 for Spain and more generally at pp. 27-29 and per people thereafter)—and the weird and oddly loyalist imperial dignities claimed by the Moorish rulers of the western edges of Roman Africa, left on their own by the Vandal takeover as ostensibly legitimist rulers who would never again recognise a higher authority (pp. 405-410). I don’t know where else you could go for someone writing in English who makes these populations part of the wider story of Empire.

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing, from Wikimedia Commons

John’s book is also part of several wider debates. Most people are probably familiar with John’s work because of the ‘minster hypothesis’, an argument he started in the 1980s about the organisation of the early Anglo-Saxon Church which now has a Wikipedia entry, and which holds that it was substantially or entirely built round collegiate churches with priests operating out of a shared base ministering to very large mother-parishes, and that there wasn’t really any other kind of Church organisation than that before the tenth and eleventh centuries. This `minster’ category included both gatherings of priests and gatherings of monks; John held and holds (pp. 2-5) that there was no functional difference except in wealth until the age of reform.3 This book represents the deep background that makes such a picture of the Church in early Anglo-Saxon England plausible. (He doesn’t deny the occasional existence of smaller-range churches, especially in zones where the British Church might have survived into Anglo-Saxon control, but doesn’t think them significant.) He has a case, at the very least: it’s impossible to deny that with this much detail thrown behind it, pulled from legislation, place-names, charters, narratives, archæology and topography, and this level of detail means that even if you don’t yourself buy the case, or indeed if you’re actually interested in something else, there’s still stuff in here that’s relevant to you. An example: a highly-touristic friend of mine said, on a visit to mine while I was reading this book, that he’d been in Kidderminster the previous week, which he gathered had “roots in your period”; I dimly remembered having read as much, figured the name was a give-away and was indeed able to check John’s index and show my friend a date of first record (736), the Old English place name (Husmerae) and a picture of the charter where it and the incipient church first occur (Sawyer 89),4 which was nice.

From this book, then, could start dozens and dozens of local history enquiries, and equally many have been incorporated and assimilated into it. There are also, either side of the big argument about the shape of the Church, absolutely fascinating chapters about the conversion (pp. 8-78) and the social function of the parish church (when we have some; pp. 426-504), both a bit more informed by foreign scholarship and indeed social anthropology than the more structural chapters, but because of that all the more engagingly humanistic, showing a lively compassion for the everyday member of a community and an almost combative willingness to consider the unusual and see if it makes more sense with the evidence than arguments of long tradition. What John achieves with these chapters is to demonstrate how flexible, adaptable and individual such traditions might be, and how we might do better to talk in terms of changing religious practice than of converting people. So, whether or not you come for the argument, stay for the people: this book is full of them, and John’s writing is always prepared for them to do something odd or opposite to the usual interpretation of the evidence. It is, really, a very rich volume.

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

It seems almost rude, therefore, to wish that there was even more in it,5 and indeed I would probably have groaned to find it as I was reading, but with it all inside my head in some way, I still want to know what John thinks about some areas he doesn’t have space to cover here. Some of these are questions hanging from his argument, and I actually hope to have his help in tackling them separately later, so I’ll not go into detail now, but they include the significance of Roman sites to the Anglo-Saxon kings—owned but unused?—the possibility of non-church religious foci like standing crosses occupying the small parish rôle, and the actual management of the ministry in a minster landscape. All of these strike me as areas where John’s book indicates that we don’t yet have good answers, and that is another value it has but I wonder if he has answers anyway for which there just wasn’t space here.

As for Guy’s book, that leaves me with fewer questions, not least I admit because I know his subject in much less detail and so am just readier to accept what look like careful well-founded answers. I do really like his recharacterisation of the ambitions and mores of those implicated in the Empire’s break-up, and I really like his use of archæological evidence as part of that. But, on the Continent I work much later and I don’t have the kind of acquaintance with the material to query someone who so obviously does. It’s only when Guy deals with England, my long-lurking secondary interest, that I have enough of a grasp to wonder if his argument doesn’t get a bit fragile this far away from Rome. I don’t just mean his challenging reinterpretation of Gildas’s chronology, which is set aside in an appendix (pp. 519-526), but, well, really just one thing: quoit brooches. These are made to bear an awful lot of weight in his interpretation of sub-romanitas in southern Britain (pp. 236-237 & 316-319). I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the book where he would allow that one type of dress item holds a fixed archæological significance (in this case, (post-)Roman military organisation) over a hundred and fifty years of change, they are here almost his only evidence for such a survival and I’m not sure I buy it. At the very least, at the end of that period the fact that this was an old type of artefact must have meant its meaning differently to what it did when they had first been current wear among soldiers in the island. Maybe I have him wrong here: I’m sure he will say if so, but to me this implies that we might better think of more disruption to identities and organisation earlier in Britain than he suggests, and I don’t see why it should damage his argument for the rest of Europe at all if Britain, as so often, refuses to fit comfortably in with it.

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

So yes: big books, high praise and tiny queries. But the queries are only tiny, and the books’ impact is much greater than them; I humbly commend these works to the readership. I already own one and am happy about this; I will have to own the other. May there be more whence these came!


1. I ought perhaps to worry about his reading this, which I know he does, and finding out that I haven’t yet properly read his magnum opus, but firstly I’m sure the fact that I cite his earlier work avidly but not this one had been noticed and in any case I’ve by now given up assuming I have any information that he hasn’t already found out. If he didn’t have two eyes I’d be looking for ravens, I tell you.

2. I’m conscious that I’ve rephrased fairly freely here and that I may be emphasising things a bit differently to Guy, but I do want to point out that the fact that I can do this belies the particularly bone-headed Amazon review of this book that maintains that it has no argument. The book’s argument is set out at the beginning, the end and most of the discussion between is directed to it so I can only presume that the reviewer didn’t spot it because they were only prepared to see the argument they already believed.

3. The debate before this can be pursued through J. Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; and D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

4. Blair, Church, pp. 102-103 & fig. 14.

5. And it reminds me infallibly of the first time I ever saw Stuart Airlie presenting a paper, one in which he said while discussing the inadequacy of the treatment of his subject by some recent Sonderforschungquellenschriftarbeit-type monster, “And isn’t that always what you think when a new six-hundred-page German-language monograph bang on your subject area lands on your desk? `Oh, it’s just not big enough!’” This reassures me that I may not be confessing awful scholarly inadequacy by occasionally enjoying it when a book is short.

A request for your signatures, or, after the protests, a petition

It doesn’t take a lot to make me angry at the moment. Most people in higher education in England have got good reason to be angry, as the UK government has decided to cut its subsidy of university teaching there by nearly halfeighty per cent, starting in the next financial year. This will, ineluctably, mean the further raising of tuition fees on new students, a massive consequent rise in the cost of higher education and its consequent restriction to those who can pay to a much greater extent than at present. If you believe in meritocracy, equal access, a level playing field and so on, there is no way not to be angry about this. If you believe that higher education contributes something to a person, and that academic research and teaching are worth something, this is an attack on that belief, a belief which is clearly not shared by the powerful part of the current government. So if you’re not angry, you’re just not paying attention. [Edit: my numbers were wrong in the first take of this, optimistic even: see the round-up of facts and commentary by JPG in the comments.] It’s not just me it’s been making angry, either. On the Internet we find fellow medievalist blogger Gesta reaching new heights of outrage and no less a figure than Professor Guy Halsall not just writing on the Internet, but actually going to protests himself. He seems to have been lucky, however, because the protests where students have been charged by police on horseback and where schoolchildren have been penned up outdoors in sub-zero temperatures and clubbed if they try to escape, were not the ones he was at, though it is still from him that I learn of them. Let it not be said that the police are the only ones bringing violence to these situations, but they are also the ones being paid to keep order and maintain the law, yet they are also notoriously invulnerable to prosecution if they go too far, as the eventual lack of outcome against the murderer of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests of 2009 only too well shows.

The London protests obviously got the most coverage, because the UK press basically lives in London and so does the government and both operate under the illusion that London is the only place important things happen. You can see from the above, however, and other videos too, that even Cambridge was up in some kind of arms, and a fairly sustained campaign of occupations and protests was managed there for a week or so. I am so impressed with this. I used to be mildly politically active in Cambridge, I went on a couple of protests and indeed helped to organise one (badly): getting any more than forty people together for anything political was just impossible then. Clearly, one of the things that New Labour and now the Coalition have done is radicalised the student body, or possibly removed its sense of any other option. To me, the idea of police beating down student protesters in Cambridge with clubs, rather than simply laughing at them from a careful distance as they did to us, is completely alien: I am amazed that things can have reached this pitch.

You will readily see from this that the students were in some cases fairly obnoxious, and it isn’t really the police about whom they’re supposed to be protesting. They are, of course, supposed to be allowed to protest, although the Criminal Justice Act makes it difficult, and the occupation of Senate House was, though trespass, not criminal, so that the police were not at first sure of their right to take action. The suspicion of damage, however, and most of all the humorous, but unwise, removal of the police officers’ helmets, rapidly altered that position. I’m pleased to see that Cambridge’s MP, of whom I used to be a colleague and whom I’ve known since before he was either of those things, who may even indeed have been on that protest I helped organise way back when, has condemned the violence of both parties, separately, and has pressed the government to investigate the police’s conduct here and in London. Anyway. I’ve nothing but admiration for the students who go in order to be heard, rather than to start fights, which seems to be almost all of them. We need people who set out to try and change things, after all, because the assumption that we can change nothing is exactly that on which this government, like the last one, trades. But a protest is as nothing if it doesn’t get into the papers and onto the Internet, you know? “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” So it bothers me that the protests in Oxford hardly got a notice.

The Oxford protest was rather eerie, in fact, for me at least, because we had been speculating at dinner in college the previous night what form a rumoured occupation might take, and drawing on my ‘radical’ background no doubt, I said something like: “Well, if they’re stupid and want to hurt the university, they’ll have to attack the administration, which is not going to get any notice. But if what they want to do is get press coverage, then they’ll have to do something in the centre and they’ll have to attack somewhere people have heard of, which basically means the Bodleian or the Radcliffe Camera, doesn’t it?” And, er, lo and behold, there you are…

But, though there was some coverage in the Oxford Mail, I’ve been able to find no evidence that any national paper came up to cover this, an occupation that went on for two days with reinforcements arriving by night, and which, I learnt yesterday, was broken with exemplary police tactics using a large roll of carpet. True story. But it deserved better press: there was no serious violence, no damage, and though it is, granted, a little counterproductive perhaps occupying the undergraduate portion of the Bodleian (for this is what the Camera now holds, the University’s teaching library), it certainly should have got the press. Presumably if they’d been idiots and started a fight it would have done, though you’ll see from the above that the difference here was mainly the police commendably not rising to provocation. I fear that this is why people do deliberately resort to violence, because at the moment doing anything less means one is silenced.

But, there is something else we can do. It may not be much, and it may not be effective, but it is at least funny and clever, and that’s no small thing. A valued colleague has directed me to this, and asked if I would put it on the blog. And so I will. It is a petition asking the current government, degree-holders almost to a man and a very few woman, to cough up the cash that they would have to have paid for their degree if they had taken them under the same rules that they are now setting. I mean: only fair, right? At least Nick Clegg, who has in the past shown signs of a sense of humour if not a conscience, ought to dig in his pockets for this one. Pass it on, do. (And as you do, note the name of the petitioner. If that’s not medievalism in action, I don’t know what is.)

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Someone is wrong on the Internet

XKCD strip 386

XKCD strip 386

That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).

DIgital Archaeology my Archive

The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:

Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.

The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.

And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.

I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid

On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:

It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.

At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.

Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:

“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.

“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.

“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”

You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.

Private Eye cover 1074

And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now

That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.


1. Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how the public purse is funding the guy.