Tag Archives: Historian on the Edge

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.