Tag Archives: ideology

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.

From Roman to Romanesque, or from Catalonia to Austria by obscure processes

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

I mentioned that I’d been reading a very clever article by Jerrilyn Dodds that I wanted to respond to. If what follows is quite dense I apologise, but I’m keenly conscious that it could balloon to many pages if I let it. I want to try and summarise the article, if only to make sure I understand it well enough to express, and then to raise a tiny finger of query about the thesis. Dodds was writing an article for an exhibition catalogue (I’ve praised the volume before) whose subtitle was “art and culture before the Romanesque”, which for those of you who haven’t met the term is the Continental artistic and architectural phase that comes before Gothic. Dodds therefore set out to problematise as well as explain the idea of pre-Romanesque architecture, by saying that the term (much like ‘medieval’) denigrates by implying that the thing it describes was only an opening act rather than a thing of its own, and by suggesting that a European phenomenon can be encapsulated in all its diversity in one term. With these reservations expressed, Dodds then draws architectural history in three broad phases, and does so in an implicitly Marxist way, which is very interesting: her criterion is, more or less, who controls the means of production, or at least sets its aspirations. So, she sets out a late Antique phase when an increasingly individual and abstract late Roman style is adopted by a range of incoming élites and particularised with their own local and traditional motives and ideas. (She refuses to entertain the word barbarian for this work, as you might expect.)

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007. Follow the link for some examples of exactly the sort of adaptation Dodds is talking about...

Then, argues Dodds, there come the Carolingians and a centralising authority with its own ideological project, and since art follows patronage and patronage requires wealth, which tends to come from power, that ideology bends art towards its chosen ideal. Adopting Carolingian styles, or the particular form of imitation of Rome and late antique culture that the Carolingians like to present, is a way of stressing one’s membership of this unity, but as that membership becomes less desirable and the élites of the regions lose interest in the centralising power, the force of local identity is let loose on this style, meaning a new diversification of Carolingian art and building styles in the various places they no longer control, although before long one of these variations becomes a new hegemony under the Ottonians.

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris


Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Of course Dodds is notionally writing here about Catalonia, and here is where Catalonia fits in, because it is a region where the Ottonians do not rule, and so is left to develop its own artistic version of the European vague without much outside pressure to normalise. Furthermore, it is just across the border from another polity with its own powerful normalising artistic project, the Caliphate of al-Andalus, so its local versions have some peculiarity to them. That said, when the style settles it’s less Muslim and much more rural Italian; the Romanesque churches of Catalonia have a lot of Lombard parallels, to the extent that it has been hypothesized that actual Italian craftsmen must have been working here. (Since the exiled Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo retired to the area, there were some connections.) And what Dodds finishes by emphasising is that this fairly rural style, massive blocky buildings with round arches and a particularly characteristic way of marking off stories with ornament and doubling their windows, becomes part of the next ideological project, the supposed reform Church promoting the primacy of Christian religion and allegiance to Christ over all secular ties through its building and other forms of artwork, and thus a regional style winds up all over Europe. (It’s certainly true that Romanesque as it survives is overridingly a religious architecture, but then secular buildings of any kind from this period are incredibly rare, so I don’t know if that’s meaningful.)

Apse and tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

Apse and tower of Romanesque church of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

I find this a very powerful explanatory paradigm, and as I said when I first mentioned this article it serves to remind one, very convincingly, that art really can reflect power strategies, especially in this era when wealth is so concentrated and art so expensive. That said, I feel discomfort with the tightness of the envelope and I’d like to think some of this stuff out more. I know, for example, that there is a school of anthropological thought that argues that borders are very often sites of cultural production, and that what the border originates the centre will often follow. (The name I have been told is Gloria Anzáldua and her book Borderlands but I have yet to take my anthropologist-of-resort’s exhortations to actually read it far enough to heart, alas.) Quite where that leaves the idea of centralising artistic projects I’m not sure, and I wonder if Dodds and Anzáldua’s paradigms could actually be brought into dialogue here. Rome, I presume, is what bends things here; all these projects are some variation on Rome in Dodds’s view. Secondly, there is the problem that Romanesque really does spread. It’s rare in England I believe, where ‘Norman’ as a style is affected by it but not quite the same thing. But compare the below, which are from many many hundreds of miles apart, one from inside the Ottonian domains (though later) and the other from outside even the Carolingian ones.

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria


Panoramic view of Santo Toribio de Liébana, Cantabria, from Wikimedia Commons

I could find more, and they would stress, yes, diversity, but not enough diversity that you would necessarily be able to say, without knowing that the tower of Sankt Hippolyt there has a peaked wooden roof and the tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb up above has a spire, which of the two was from where. And although Santo Toribio’s tower is hardly there you can see from the fabric and the windows that the building is basically part of the same project, and indeed if you go out to Catalonia and wander you will find that people were still building in this basic style for the next eight hundred years, give or take, and that guessing whether something is medieval or not comes down basically to weathering or finding the tourist information plaque. Can this really all be explained by power relations and the universal church? And if not, what on earth does explain it? Dodds’s answer is the best I have seen, but clashes with some of what we know of medieval political identity and rivalry. Or does it? It may be, instead, that I am just a bit too soaked in my region and my medieval world-view is too shrunk to accommodate something this big. Or, it may be that the élite culture is in the end mostly useful for talking about the élite and that stepping into such a building would not have made the average worshipper feel connected, or Roman, or Catholic, but just apprehensive and God-fearing. That is, I wonder if the primary purpose of this art really is political, even if it may still reflect political choices. As you can see, Professor Dodds has given me plenty to think about, but I’m not finished yet.


That article, again, is J. Dodds, “Entre Roma y el Románico: el mito de Occidente” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 147-155, transl. as “Between Rome and Romanesque: the myth of the west”, ibid. pp. 492-496. For the story of Pietro Orseolo, however, I’d need to go back to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, II pp. 141-277, though I’m sure it must be covered elsewhere too.

Book bit bullets I

Because sometimes you only have a sentence worth of content and it seems foolish to make them all their own posts.

  • One that probably will be a separate post, if I can find the images, but it’s too late in the day now: Jerrilyn Dodds is clearly very clever and has reminded me in an impressively subtle and persuasive article that architecture genuinely can be an important window, no pun intended, on ideology.1
  • Jonathan Phillips‘s book about the Latin kingdoms of the Holy Land and their links to the west, though it does go through some background details too thickly and/or several times over, is still a really intriguing account of the East itself in that era, tying together a number of strands that would otherwise probably get left out of an ordinary history of the Latin settlements.2
  • Lastly, radio-carbon dating has its problems because of the need to calibrate, as we know, but even as I’ve been drafting this post scientists have been on the case and the calibration curve considerably refined, as you may have seen. This makes it downright contrary of me to have just caught up with a five-year-old paper arguing that, even when advances of this sort are made, what they reveal is not greater precision in dating, but that there are problems inherent in the samples we use to date stuff in the first place that possibly make precision tighter than currently available impossible anyway!3

Oh well, that’s all for this one…


1. J. Dodds, “Entre Roma y el Romànico: el mito de Occidente” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 147-155, transl. as “Between Rome and Romanesque: the myth of the west” ibid., pp. 492-496.

2. J. Phillips, Defenders of the Holy Land: relations between the Latin East and the West, 1119-1187 (Oxford 1996).

3. A. Bayliss, E. Shepherd Popescu, N. Beavan-Athfield, C. Bronk Ramsey, G. T. Cooke, A. Locker, “The potential significance of dietary offsets for the interpretation of radiocarbon dates: an archaeologically significant example from medieval Norwich” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 31 (Amsterdam 2004), pp. 563–575.

Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England

Sometimes, not as often as one wants but perhaps as often as one can deal with, one gets as an academic to see research presented that you know is going to be really important. It’s like being at the first gig of a truly incredible new band, except with a rather better chance that the scholar will get a deal for his album (though neither will get paid anything for it, I have to point out). You try and soak it all up, but actually it’s stuff that will change the way you think and you can’t understand it straight away; only once you’ve been able to work out what of what you understood before remains and how much you have to re-envision will you know what you have learned. Now, I was pretty tired and spaced-out—the summer is really messing with my usual Circadian polyrhythms—but this is the state in which I left the Institute of Historical Research on 10th June after Chris Lewis had presented a paper called “The Ideology and Culture of Anglo-Saxon Government” to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar. It was too rich to summarise; I feel like the only way I could get its points over to you is to type up my notes, but there are lots. So I’ll just try and explain the set-up and then say that if you see Chris, and he appears in many places, urge him to get this written up. It could be a book, it could be an important book, and it might get us through some increasingly stagnant debate about how powerful the Anglo-Saxon royal government was and out into new thought about how to understand what it did and why.

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

Chris expressed this stagnation when he said that he thought that, for Anglo-Saxon England, there just isn’t the evidence to give a sustained political narrative: we’ll never do it, and all work on such things only advances us halfway there, like Zeno’s paradox. What we can do is explore our evidence in a modern way, looking at ritual, language and organisation, exploiting the sources (coins, documents, art, material all alike) for ethos rather than dates, and in general attempting to compile an ideological understanding of the enterprise of English government, what it was doing, why and how rather than the tiny details of when and where. He thus wound up with an approach that could be called instititutional history, political thought or social history, but was really many things at once. So, for example, there is a debate on when England was divided into shires, and who had this big idea. It has died down, mainly because it can’t be given a single answer. Chris instead described what we can know about shires: that they were linked to the centre in a uniform way, that they were not universal (Rutland is its current tiny anomaly because it was never allotted to a shire, for example) or always fully manned, they don’t match bishoprics perfectly, that they were done in stages without a big plan but apparently with a consistent ideology, that they stay more or less fixed, and that the actual borders are dictated by (and therefore a source for) local politics to an astonishing degree. Lists like this were a big feature of the paper, and kept demonstrating that really, when we step back from the detail questions it’s possible to group quite a lot of evidence together to describe these large themes (if you’ll forgive the Byzantinist pun) and we do in fact know a lot, or at least can.

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Chris has another paper under work on the political unity of Anglo-Saxon England, which is an essential prerequisite to any attempt to answer what the effects, abilities and intentions of its government were, so here he confined himself to questions about that government’s ideology. The argument was thick, well-sourced and full of meat (as a Northerner, Chris will probably not mind the almost inevitable comparison to gravy I seem to be drawing). I won’t try and repeat the act, but will say that by the end we had come to a series of interesting conclusions, among which were that the ideology of late Anglo-Saxon royal government was essentially a Benedictine project (which raises questions that we’ve asked here before, apropos indeed of something to which Chris contributed, about why their project is pro-royal and not pro-papal); that this means it was restricted to areas where Benedictinism itself was powerful, and that these left short many parts of England, most obviously the North but also Kent, Essex and East Anglia; that this project was most active only over the short period 970 to 1010; that with Cnut and Edward the Confessor, first kings for a long time to have succeeded as adults and both with experience of the German Imperial court, a much more regalian and less monastic ideology was begun; and that over many other parts of England and times of its history a quite alternative royal and Christian ideology may be propagated through the minster churches that disseminated ideology where the monasteries were fewer and unreformed. He also pointed out that the Normans were able to partially adopt both of these ideological systems.

Silver `Pointed Helmet type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Silver `Pointed Helmet' type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Points of discussion arose over much of this, of course (not least the coins: Stephen Baxter and I had to agree to differ amicably over the initiative of moneyers with the royal portrait on English money, I seeing it as essentially a stereotype whose regulation was unimportant and Stephen seeing it as a vital propaganda tool that must have been controlled). One of these I raised, which was that Chris himself admitted that Cnut first continued to use the old Benedictine scheme of royal power, until the death of Archbishop Wulfstan (whereafter, as Chris pointed out, lawmaking stops; no more laws till William the Conqueror!), and that this looked a lot like the importance of Benedict of Aniane to Emperor Louis the Pious’s earlier and not dissimilar reform project, a man without whom the project simply couldn’t continue. This raises questions about why, in either case, the Benedictine project hadn’t managed to reproduce itself in a new generation of similarly able firebrands. The fact that Wulfstan didn’t, as far as we know, teach, is very interesting here. Did they not think anyone could replace them either?

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Another point that is likely to interest some of my readers here is that Chris thought that though there is very little evidence which could be used to do a similar project for the `minster ideology’ of Englishness, royalty and Providence’s place for the Anglo-Saxon state, there is probably some. He noted that the Exeter Book, for example, was given to its cathedral home by a bishop who had been a canon, not a monk, and that much of its content is theologically quite irregular, and it may well tell us some of what such a person thought of in these ways. Other contenders might be the Vercelli Manuscript, and also British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, that is, the Beowulf manuscript. Chris was prompted to imagine someone reacting to the Benedictine preaching in his locality by saying to his colleagues at the minster, “look, this isn’t what I think of when I think of as the important things that make us us, this is all Roman liturgy and law. We should write something properly English” and coming up with a story harking to a distant past but full of contemporary resonance that then wound up bound with a very strange set of other things that they were interested in. It gave us pause for thought. But then, so did all the rest of the paper. The small conclusions I’ve given are only the top of the iceberg. We could really get somewhere with this kind of all-inclusive questioning that lets the sources illuminate each other. I’ve seen a manifesto like this before, in fact:

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups – Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Well, apparently, we don’t need drugs to upset Aristotle, we just need people being really clever and this was what we got. It is part of the continuing shame of the discipline that people like this can’t find jobs; what hope is there for the rest of us? But the cynic may say, the discipline can save its money here because Chris is clearly going to do it anyway, and for that we can all be thankful.