Tag Archives: IHR seminars

Seminar CXLIX: the importance of being eloquent in the Italian Church

I seem to have emerged from a hole somewhat in March 2014, suddenly going to lots of seminars after some time on rations. I put this partly down to the welcome presence of Another Damned Medievalist in London, which gave me a good extra reason to be in town, but also the new course I had been running that term was mostly unrolled and the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had several things on the programme that interested me, of which one was when Giorgia Vocino gave a paper on the 19th March called “Bishops in the Mirror: literary portraits and episcopal self-fashioning in early medieval Italy”.

Mosiac portrait of Saint Ambrose of Milan

Mosaic portrait of bishop no. 1 for this paper, Saint Ambrose of Milan. “AmbroseOfMilan“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Dottora Vocino as a face from Leeds but had never met her or her work, so this was valuable context. Her paper was about the standing of bishops in the early medieval world, and she took a complex and interesting approach to the question, taking several well-documented bishops and asking, respectively, how they presented themselves in their writings, how contemporaries report them and what their posthumous reputation was like. Her examples came from quite a chronological range: the earliest was Saint Ambrose of Milan (ruled 374-397) and the others were Pope Gregory the Great (ruled 590-604), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia (ruled 787-802×804) and Bishop Atto of Vercelli († 960), so perhaps it was not surprising that their own self-presentations, as Dottora Vocino characterised them, differed widely: Ambrose, despite his chiding emperors and leading mobs (this is my editorialising) presented himself primarily as a teacher of Scripture; Gregory saw the bishop as more active in the world, a shepherd more than a teacher (though a teacher too); Paulinus was most concerned with soldiering for Christ against the enemies of God, as befits one of the key scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance perhaps, by means of prayer, teaching and preaching but still more confrontational than the previous two; and Atto’s most revealing writing, a thing called the Perpendiculum is an anonymous prophetic condemnation of those who would depose kings, though it too got reused as a teaching text. Nonetheless, though they all taught only Ambrose seems really to have thought this definitional of his office, which evokes comparisons to the modern Academy that might be unkind but occur all the same.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It may then be that while those who have a quality in abundance don’t need to shout about it, those who do the same job without it still envy them, because what all of these bishops seem to have been remembered and praised (or even sometimes dispraised) for is none of the above, but instead their eloquence as speakers. Saint Augustine actually saw Ambrose speak and thought him amazing. Gregory was supposedly given his eloquence by the Holy Spirit (his senatorial education presumably assisting that gift somewhat), and although Gregory of Tours thought of his namesake as a scholar and the Liber Pontificalis remembers him mainly for building, as let’s face it it does every pope who didn’t get deposed violently, Isidore of Seville, whose brother knew Gregory, praised him mainly for public speaking. Paulinus is written up as having been preternaturally eloquent from infancy, and although we have no outside witness texts for Atto his own writings take trouble to refute charges of over-eloquence that had apparently been raised against him. This ars loquendi, art of speaking, is apparently the thing that Italian bishops got remembered for, whether they wanted that or not. Miracles, public works, and their own shared emphasis, instruction, all take a back seat to how they came over when they stood up in front of people.

Carolingian-period sculptural panel on a baptismal font ion the church of Cividale

I can’t find an illustration of Paulinus of Aquileia from earlier than 1790 but here at least is something he is believed to have had made, a panel from the baptismal font in the church of Cividale. Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate about why this should be. Dottora Vocino emphasised the politics that whirled around the writing of these bishops’ lives, and suggested that while miracles were a good way of indicating divine favour for the past bishops they might have been a tall order for the living ones who needed comparison to their predecessors; eloquence, on the other hand, could be presented as a divine inspiration but could also be performed by the current incumbents. Susan Reynolds wisely asked if any bishops were ever condemned for being bad speakers, but apparently there are some so it’s not just generic, however common. Alice Rio and Caroline Goodson both asked questions about regionality, seeing little of this emphasis in bishops’ lives from Francia and Southern Italy. Dottora Vocino thought that some comparisons in Francia could be found, but I think this is in some ways to be expected; she pointed out that the transmission of these famae, reputations or fames, probably needed schools, and I would add also audiences outside the schoolroom among whom such portrayals could be deployed, and both of these imply cathedral cities with urban populations, for which Northern Italy is about the most likely zone, though the South’s non-participation is still odd. It would be interesting to take the comparison across to the Byzantine world and see if the cities of Greece or Asia Minor thought of their bishops similarly. But the takeaway point for me was an old one, that people write history or similar for a reason; what someone did may not be as important for their memory as what someone later needed to do with it. Whether or not all these bishops were really talented orators we probably can’t tell, though Ambrose at least seems likely; what we can say is that while there was more to them than that, it was what served the interests of their successors to remember (perhaps because all other comparisons would have been unfavourable). As ever, it behoves us to think about what our sources did not need or want to mention before we decide what they knew.


I would have to do a lot of digging to pull together references to these various bishops works and the texts that Dottora Vocino was using, and it seems easier simply to refer you to her subsequent related publication, G. Vocino, “Under the aegis of the saints: hagiography and power in early Carolingian northern Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 26-52, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12037, and hope that that will do. Sorry!

Seminar CXLVI: forgetting the Thuringian frontier with Willibald

My seminar reporting backlog now shrinks forwards to 26th February 2014, when Dr John-Henry Clay of Durham, another early medievalist blogger apart from anything else, came to speak to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research with the title, “St Boniface in Thuringia”. Boniface, born in Wessex as Wynfrið, is a saint who provokes strong reactions at the time and still does now: I remember speaking to one revered academic who had the previous day returned from a three-day conference about Boniface and who, in a shocking breach of their usual total refinement, told me that the conference conclusion had been that “Boniface was a bit of a prat”. But equally there are those who find him fascinating, and Dr Clay has done much with the material preserved about him.1 As a missionary and church-builder Boniface spent a lot of time at the edges of ‘known’ territory, anyway, and what Dr Clay had to tell us was one of those edges, the duchy of Thuringia.

Map of the territories of Merovingian Francia

A suitably old-fashioned map of the territories of Merovingian Francia, Thuringia being the long vertical strip at upper right. As long as you realise that this is almost completely hypothetical we’ll be fine. “Frankenreich unter den Merowingern” by Johann Gustav Droysen – Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of our information on Boniface as he is conventionally told comes from a Life written for his successor, Archbishop Lul of Mainz, by one Willibald, and he tells us of Boniface’s religious training in Wessex, an early attempt at a mission to pagan Frisia in 716 defeated by resistance from King Radbod and a subsequent papally-backed mission to Thuringia in 719-721. He shows us Boniface going back to Frisia in 721 and then being in Hesse and Saxony in 723-731, after which point he was more and more concerned with the organisation of the Frankish Church as it developed on the eastern edges of Christianity’s range so far and less and less with mission work.2 He died on the mission trail, however, in 754 in Frisia, aged nearly ninety and clearly, from the letters he wrote setting his affairs in order, aware that he could go on little longer and determined to go out a martyr.3 We can thus temper Willibald’s portrayal with the man’s own words here and there and this all gives a fairly consistent picture, but there are hints in it and in other sources that it is definitely not the whole story.4

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary, a prized treasure of the monastery of Fulda which he had founded. “St Boniface – Baptising-Martyrdom – Sacramentary of Fulda – 11Century” by Unknown – Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda (Fuldaer Sakramentar), fol. 126 v. See here for more information on the manuscript.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lots of what is missing is, naturally enough, about Boniface’s opponents. He faces down heretic or just untrained priests and has to fight tooth and nail for their removal and replacement because they are backed by local élites;, and this has been read sensibly enough as a strategy of Frankish colonisation of the local Church with papal support, though as my first paragraph implied and Dr Clay also said, the popes don’t seem to have driven Boniface’s mission so much as support it with judgements and texts as required, when they could find them; Boniface seems to have expected a lot more authority and direction from the papacy than it was used to giving and some of his opponents are also therefore ‘backsliding’ Frankish bishops who didn’t understand why orthodoxy mattered and wouldn’t have looked to the pope for guidance ordinarily.5 But the other figures only just in the picture are the dukes of the Thuringians and the conflict and cultural exchange that was going on between Frankish- and Thuringian-controlled zones behind and outside the ecclesiastical context.

Ruins of the thirteenth-century castle at Frauenberg, Hesse

The ruins of the fortress of Frauenberg in Hesse, this building probably being thirteenth-century but apparently by no means the first on the site… „Frauenberg2wiki“ von Peter Voeth. Original uploader was Die silberlocke at de.wikipedia – Transferred from de.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper.(Original text : selbst photographiert). Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

Noting various such omissions and demonstrable errors in Willibald’s account, therefore, Dr Clay brought in data from burial archæology and fortress excavations, or at least, a class of fortresses he sees in the area of which one in Hesse, Frauenberg, has been excavated and diagnosed Frankish by its material culture remains. The picture he got from this was one of a broader Frankicisation of the Thuringian duchy, visible in Frankish burial practices and funerary kit, and, as the reference to local priests above suggests, Christianity, this not least because St Willibrord of Utrecht, with whom Boniface worked in Frisia in 721-723, had run a mission in Thuringia around 714 already, something that Willibald doesn’t mention at all! So as Dr Clay told it what Willibald was doing was to turn a career that had essentially been one of fixing other people’s mission work with intermittent state backing, as part of a larger and ongoing process of Frankish acculturation of a border area, into a sanctified career of personal evangelisation that spearheaded all social change for the better in the area.

There were, I have to say, quite a lot of arguments with this thesis from the audience. I had two, one being that I wasn’t clear if Dr Clay was arguing for immigration from a material culture change—he was arguing for a distinct, Frankish funerary kit in the fortresses, as it turned out, which he therefore saw as military occupation rather than settlement on a broader scale—and the other of which being his diagnostic fortress type, which I could have paralleled quite happily from Pictland and therefore thought needn’t be any more than functional similarity. More excavation might of course show other links, what I would not deny. But there were wider issues about the opposition of Frankish and Thuringian as cultures in the first place, raised not least by Julie Hofmann, by whom the IHR was richer this spring and summer just gone and who knows a thing or two about Thuringia.6 The Thuringian aristocracy was long married into Frankish ones, just like the Bavarian one; whether this was anything more than a political branding exploited as convenient was, for Julie, very much to be doubted. That doesn’t prevent wars arising out of it, of course, as they plainly did, but marrying it to wider shifts in material culture as anything more than fashion, and linking those to other forms of political change is, I tend to think, unprovable.

Kloster Sankt Salvator Fulda

The centre of the cult of Boniface, the monastery of Sankt Salvator Fulda. „Catedral de Fulda“ von Author and original uploader was ThomasSD at de.wikipedia – Originally from de.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Lizenziert unter Public domain über Wikimedia Commons.

Between these two Alice Taylor had asked what was perhaps the sharpest question, which was to wonder what Willibald’s purpose was in all this: Dr Clay said, and this seemed obviously correct once he’d said it, that the Vita was using the holiness of Boniface’s career to justify and sanctify the kinds of action towards Church reform that his successors for whom the text was written were still struggling to carry out. It is, in other words, a text about the politics of the 750s, not those of the 720s, and probably had little interest in being accurate, rather than partial (in both senses) about the earlier period. This was, to an extent, where we had begun, with the problems with Willibald’s Vita, but by now they looked serious enough that I think several of us were uncomfortable with using the text for a picture of the 720s at all. That time was perhaps not long forgotten when Willibald wrote, but having others remember it was apparently not his concern!


1. J.-H. Clay, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-54, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 11 (Turnhout 2011).

2. The Life has been much translated, and Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface, transl. George W. Robinson (Cambridge 1916) seems now to be all over the Internet to purchase, presumably because it is also online at the Internet Archive for free here; the one I am used to setting for students is that in C. H. Talbot (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany, being the lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba, and Libuin, together with the Hodœporicon of St Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St Boniface (London 1954, repr. 1981), pp. 25-62, which is reprinted in Thomas F. X. Noble & Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 107-140, but is also online for free (because copyright-free in the USA) via the Internet Medieval sourcebook here.

3. The letters are translated in Ephraim Emerton (transl.), The Correspondence of Saint Boniface, Records of Civilisation 31 (New York City, but a selection is also in Talbot, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries, pp. 64-149.

4. Cited here was Ian N. Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe 400-1050 (London 2001).

5. This is a perspective that I think I got from Rosamond McKitterick, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: personal connections and local influences, Eighth Annual Brixworth Lecture, Vaughan Papers 36 (Leicester 1991), repr. in her The Frankish Kings and Culture in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 477 (Aldershot 1995), I.

6. And we need her to publish some of what she knows! But in the meantime there is no standard work, at least in English, though there is now John Hines, Janine Fries-Knoblach & Heiko Steuer (edd.), The Baiuvarii and Thuringi: an ethnographic perspective, Studies in historical archaeoethnology 9 (Woodbridge 2014).

Seminar CXLV: more Anglo-Saxon feud and punishment

I’m not sure I’ve blogged two successive versions of one paper except inadvertantly, and I’ve certainly decided not to do so before now, but I will make an exception for Dr Tom Lambert and his paper, “Crime, Community and Kingship”, which I wrote about here when it was presented in Oxford but which on 12th February 2014 was also appearing, with modifications, at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. You may remember from the earlier write-up that whereas the standard picture of Anglo-Saxon law has been that it develops from feud to royal enforcement, Tom argues for a two-part system from as far back as we can see up till the twelfth century at least, in which there was injury and crime.1 The former was to be compensated for or avenged and the latter, because it had no obvious worldly victim—things like sacrilege, failure to do public works, and so on where the victim is the whole community or no-one—falls to the king to prosecute. He sees the Anglo-Saxon period as a long process of increasing regulation and efficiency management of a system that basically fitted that description throughout. So, that was the Oxford pitch, what had changed by the time it came to London?

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester, image from Wikimedia Commons

I suppose that one point I hadn’t properly taken on board before is that when we see Anglo-Saxon law for the first time, in the Laws of Æthelberht, there is no sovereign paradox in them.2 The issue of the king’s right to make law or decided compensation isn’t really touched upon, but his rights are in the code, and they are of a different grade but not a different order; he is just a ‘big freeman’ with some extra duties. He is not outside the system as later royal legislators have to be in order to say what the system is or does; instead the code shows us a bigger system of which the king is also part. This includes feud, in as much as the king receives compensation for the death of a free man, perhaps (I considered) because he has lost the resource of that man’s military service or similar.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

What this men is about to do was messy but completely legal, OK?

Tom was also working a bit harder to make this argument fit with his earlier work arguing that theft was one of the most serious offences in the Anglo-Saxon world of misdeeds because of its secret nature, which more or less prevents people taking vengeance; how can you if you don’t know whodunnit? The whole village becomes suspect; the cohesion of the community is placed under threat until the matter is resolved.3 A good honest slaying is easy to settle by comparison! And it’s in the area of pursuing thieves and protecting the Church especially, Tom argued, that we see royal expansion, rather than in attempts to limit feud. The king’s business was the kind of offences that people can’t punish themselves, and so it remained right up to the Conquest and beyond. In questions, Susan Reynolds, with her typical insight, pointed out that what we are talking here is ‘punishment’ versus ‘damages’, that is, exactly the difference between criminal and civil law that England still maintains… Since homicide is now definitely criminal not civil, however, there’s a change to be explained still, and Tom puts it later than 1066.

London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

The opening of the Laws of Edmund in London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero a.I, fo. 88v.

As for the people’s action, even the royal legislation is full of references to assemblies and local courts; in fact, it tries to make them do more and make justice the affair of lower-level assemblies, moving prosecution of offences down from towns to hundreds! This is, you have to admit, not the kind of appropriation of right of court to royal justices we see under Edward I. What is is, however, Tom now conceded, is a universalisation of practice across a much wider area as the kings of Wessex brought the rest of what is now England under their control. There was some tension there, I thought, since Tom’s picture was being extrapolated from laws from several kingdoms in the first place, but it’s sort of got to be true anyway; the king decides which set of local customs he endorses, and to say anything at all that puts him in charge (which shows that I have not entirely left Wormald behind) he has to do something other than tell everyone to go on with what they were doing. Some communities must have experienced royal demands for how they did things as cancellations or abrogations of ‘their ways’. This is true of far more things than just crime and punishment, of course, but it does tend to be where my sympathies always go when the extension of royal power turns up in argument (as in Oxford it so often did). The thing about a big society is that it normalises all the little ones…


1. That standard picture is now canonically enshrined in Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003).

2. The sovereign paradox, that he who would change the law must be above it, is repeatedly explained by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, though once is really enough.

3. See T. Lambert, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law” in Past and Present no. 214 (Oxford 2012), pp. 3-43.

Seminar CXXXIX: buddy bishops in Bernicia

Returning to the decreasing (yes! actually decreasing!) seminar report backlog takes us up to the 13th November 2013, when I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research as part of my grand project of accurately imitating a professional Anglo-Saxonist for the year, and also because I was interested to hear Trevor Morse give a paper entitled “Cuthbert and Wilfrid: parallel lives(?)”. This found us all looking more closely at late seventh-century Northumbrian history than I think anyone has done for a while, in a way I like to encourage everywhere, with as many of the operative personalities in it as possible considered at once.

St Cuthbert's shrine, Durham Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s final final resting place, in Durham Cathedral

The starting position here is the reputation of the two saints of the title, both bishops in the early Northumbrian Church, both much described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and, in Cuthbert’s case, his two Lives of the man, while Wilfrid had a follower called Stephen who wrote up his Life for him.1 If you know this, you will also know that Wilfrid was an extremely controversial figure, expelled from his bishopric three times, an exile hosted at the courts of I think four different kings, with the pagan one of whom he nonetheless organised the conversion of the Isle of Wight; he also rejoices in the title of the Apostle of Sussex. Where Trevor brought us in to the debate was therefore with Walter Goffart’s controversial book The Narrators of Barbarian History which argues of four classic early medieval historical works that they are far more about contemporary politics than the events they purport to recall, and in Bede’s case that one of the big issues hiding in his work is the reconciliation of the various parties in the aftermath of Wilfrid’s divisive career, something that Bede did by developing Cuthbert as an alternative figure of that age suitable for veneration.2 To this, having made it clear at the outset how tricky and partisan the sources are, almost all at that dangerous remove from events where it’s still not possible to be neutral, Trevor wondered what we can learn by taking a closely chronological approach, putting the two men’s careers against each other and asking: were they in fact rivals in life?

The high altar of Ripon Cathedral

With somewhat less certainty, this is probably where Wilfrid finished up, near or under the high altar of Ripon Cathedral, if that stayed in the same place during its later rebuilding. By Andrewrabbott (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

I love chronological approaches anyway, but I did feel that this one was particularly revelatory. If, for example, one abstracts Cuthbert’s career from the various praiseworthy contexts in which his hagiographers paint him and try and put together a bald career summary, one of the things that becomes clear which certainly I hadn’t realised is that Cuthbert got booted out of office or fired upwards almost as much as Wilfrid did, driven out of Wilfrid’s foundation of Ripon with the then-Abbot Eata after Wilfrid’s move the Lindisfarne, moved to Lindisfarne from his subsequent appointment as Prior of Melrose after Wilfrid’s first restoration as bishop but retiring from there very soon afterwards, returning to the political fore as Wilfrid’s star began to rise again after his second deposition, then becoming Bishop of Hexham then swapping (with Eata) to be Bishop of Lindisfarne and dying before Wilfrid could get expelled again, whereafter Lindisfarne apparently nearly dissolved and there was a big argument over where Cuthbert’s body should go.3 It suddenly got hard to see him as a figure of peace with all this put together, and it also looked much more as if his spells in the sun coincided with Wilfrid’s than the way the Lives are built would lead you to spot.


“For I know that, although I seemed contemptible to some while I lived, yet, after my death, you will see what I was and how my teaching is not to be despised.”

This is not something a successful peacemaker needs to say on his deathbed, even less something a hagiographer should need to say of such a person thirty years later... Nonetheless, they are the words Bede gave Cuthbert in his Prose Life, c. 39.

That then raises the issue of what on earth was so divisive about him, and there Trevor’s answer was that one of the things the various Lives do say about Cuthbert, usually as praise but in this light now looking different, was that he was a champion of a fairly strict monastic lifestyle; when he ran into trouble with his various communities, this is how his hagiographers explain it, Bede indeed making this out as a trait going back to his youth when even training for war as a child he would outdo, outrun, out-strive his contemporaries. If you wanted to, then, you could see Cuthbert’s career as a long series of annoying people by over-achievement, but Trevor framed it mainly in terms of Roman and Benedictine observance. In that framework Cuthbert, despite his roots in the ‘Irish’ Church of early Christian Northumbria (roots that Wilfrid of course shared), appeared as a more Romanising figure than was found useful by his subsequent biographers.

The tomb of St Bede the Venerable in Durham Cathedral

As long as tombs is the theme… this is where the mind that we’re substantially seeing all this through finished up, the tomb of St Bede the Venerable, also in Durham Cathedral

At the end, I was still a bit unclear as exactly how sincere Trevor thought the reform agenda had been (though setting it out involved a description of a whole group of Northumbrian churchmen as ‘Whitby grads’, which I enjoyed). Bede seems to want Cuthbert to have been just a bit too ascetic for his charges to cope with; his earlier hagiographer (who Trevor suggested might have been the eventual Prior of Lindisfarne Æthelbalda Ripon priest then Lindisfarne hermit by the name of Oiðilwald, in the right places at the right times) seems to have wanted him as a Benedictine figure, but which of these, if either, was the ‘safe’ historiographical position by which someone writing up this somewhat explosive career might defuse it? Was ‘reform’ more a matter of factional competition than anything really about how to be a good monk? Still, having reason to believe we can see even that far back through the mess of writing that tangles up the history of the Northumbrian Church was further than any of us might have expected to get with such well-studied material, and even if some of the connections are still difficult to understand, Trevor managed to use them to explain things anyway, no mean achievement.


1. Almost all the materials in play here were at one point or another edited, translated or both by Bertram Colgrave, and in most cases his versions remain the standard ones: B. Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge 1927); idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St. Cuthbert. A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life (Cambridge 1940, 2nd edn. 1985); idem & R. A. B. Mynors (edd./transl.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford 1969); Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Cambridge 1985). Bede also wrote a Verse Life that is only translated in a forthcoming volume of Bede’s Latin poetry by Michael Lapidge, and we also had several other bits of Northumbrian hagiography in play, all of which you can find in D. H. Farmer (ed.) & J. F. Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (London 1983).

2. Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A. D. 550–850): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (London 1988), pp. 235–328.

3. One interesting sidetrack here that I prolonged in questions is how Bede describes the difficulty at Lindisfarne after Cuthbert’s death in the Verse Life. Trevor’s handout has it thus:

“The insistent north wind, trusting in its snowy weaponry, strikes the Lindisfarne monastic buidlings on all sides with such spiteful blast, that the noble progeny of our brothers was hanging by the precarious thread of events, and would choose to abandon the site rather than undergo these extremes of danger.”

This all sounds weirdly like Vikings avant la lettre. Bede kept the storm metaphor in the Prose Life but dropped the reference to the north, but that actually makes a lot of sense at the time he was writing the verse life because of the resurgent threat of the Picts, so some people present wondered if that, rather than internal trouble, could be what was threatening the island monastery. Trevor agreed that Melrose and Abercorn, two of the Northumbrian Church’s now-Scottish outposts, were in trouble at this time, and that led me in turn to remember that some of Bede’s informants on Pictland were clerics exiled from there at this point in time. If they had found refuge at Lindisfarne, that might have changed the balance of opinions there quite suddenly and sharply, but unlike the Pictish military threat, it wouldn’t have been so much of an issue by the time Bede was writing his Prose Life in the early 720s…

Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below


1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926″, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927″, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928″, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929″, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31″, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932″, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933″, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934″, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937″, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938″, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954″ in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955″ in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7″, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964″ in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993″, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979″, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!