Tag Archives: Isaac Sastre de Diego

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

The title is true of the present and the past, for I continue very busy even now that term has stopped. We will not speak of job applications, but even without that and purely domestic affairs, over the last week I have:

What I have not done is written blog, as you have noticed and may also now understand. So, let me change that by giving an unfairly rapid account of four Oxford seminars from last May, connected by nothing more than their location and my interest but perhaps also yours!

Scylla and Charybdis

On the 7th May 2012, the speaker at the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford was Dr Paul Oldfield, now of Manchester, and his title was: “A Bridge to Salvation or Entrance to the Underworld? Southern Italy and International Pilgrimage”. This picked up and played with the facts that as pilgrimage to the Holy Land grew more and more important from roughly 1000 onwards, Italy became equally crucial to it as a point of embarkation for those going by sea, which was most people going, but that this enlarged transient population also bred an alternative economy of banditry and ransoming. Pilgrimage was of course supposed to involve suffering, though maybe not quite like that, and this seems to have bred stories that also greatly exaggerated its natural dangers, especially concentrated around the very busy and notoriously tricky Straits of Messina but also, for example, Vesuvius (3 known eruptions 1000-1200) and Etna (probably rather more). Classical literature that plays with these places as gateways to the bowels of the Earth was well-known to the kind of people who would write about these things. The result was, argued Dr Oldfield, that one might wind up unexpectedly meeting one’s Maker en route (and dying on pilgrimage was reckoned a pretty good way to go, in terms of one’s likely destination) but some of the things that might kill you were gates to Hell, at least as they were talked about, making Southern Italy an uncertain and liminal zone that reflected the status, decontextualised, uprooted and vagrant, of those among whom these stories circulated. This was all good fun and of course anything involving Italy always has splendid pictures, here especially of the pilgrim-favoured church San Nicola di Bari, so here it is for you below.

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

Next, on the 9th, Paul Harvey, emeritus of Durham I understand, came to the Medieval Social and Economic Seminar to talk to the title, “How to Manage Your Landed Estate in the Eleventh Century”. That sounded as if it should interest me, so along I went. Professor Harvey was looking for the kind of problems that manorial surveys indicate big English landowners were meeting before the end of the twelfth century, and observed several in them some considerable difficulty with actually defining demesne in terms of how its labour or revenues were organised differently from anywhere else. He wound up arguing that in England demesne land was really a late eleventh-century invention, and that the surveys’ expectations were all quite new. On the other hand, that doesn’t appear to have been a time of great change in land organisation or settlement nucleation, or so says Professor Harvey, and what might really have been happening is simply that the choice between direct extraction and leasing was made on the basis of what was convenient given the existing settlement patterns, but that the surveys themselves might be changing things by defining more closely who was responsible for what renders. In either case, using them as windows on earlier land use is probably dodgy! This mainly seemed to meet with people’s approval but it seemed to me that this must, if it’s happening, also be the point at which the Anglo-Saxon hide ceased to be a useful land-measure, as it was based on a standard yield. Land that could produce that yield was a hide; if yield went up, the hide got smaller. You can’t easily measure land like that, especially if you’re trying to change the obligations of a hide. When I raised this Ros Faith pointed out that Domesday Book uses plough-teams anyway, so I suppose it was kind of an obvious point, but I was glad to have thought it out anyway.

Buildings of opposition

The church and/or palace of Santa Maria del Naranco, Oviedo

The next week, speaker to the Medieval History Seminar was Isaac Sastre Diego, developing the work on which he’d presented earlier that year to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar. Here he took a group of Asturian monumental churches, Santa Maria del Naranco (above), San Miguel de Lillo, Santa Cristina de Lena and one or two others, that have distinct royal connections. The first and third have been called palaces, the former by modern historians and the latter in the seventeenth century when it’s first documented, but Isaac argued that they need to be seen as exclusive royal chapels in which perhaps the king himself was officiant, since the two `palaces’ both have altars in but no clear separation of space for the clergy. Isaac saw this as a deliberately new kind of display initiated by King Ramiro I (who is named in an inscription on the altar at Naranco) to deal with the similarly new monumentality of the rule of Emir ‘Abd al-Rahman II in Córdoba, perhaps also the Carolingians and most of all their probable candidate for the throne whom Ramiro had defeated, Nepotian (whom as we know would later be recorded as a lord of wizards). Isaac sees these sites as buildings of opposition, in which an explicit differentiation was made between the new r´gime and its competition both in the past and at the time. Discussion, especially with Rob Portass, brought out the extra dimension that at Oviedo, where the first two of these sites are, they would have been in explicit distinction to the cathedral and royal place of King Alfonso II, which were in the city while these still perch on the hills above. Chris Wickham suggested that San Vicenzo al Volturno might be seen as another such opposition building, which works for me. I had expected not to get much out of this seminar because of the earlier related one and in fact it was really thought-provoking, so I hope it gets published where I can easily find it.

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

Last in this batch, the same place a week later was graced by Professor Rod Thomson, with a paper called, “‘The Dane broke off his continuous drinking bouts, the Norwegian left his diet or raw fish’: William of Malmesbury on the Scandinavians”, which is hard to beat as is much of William’s work, which of course has mostly been edited by Professor Thomson. William was here talking about the Scandinavian response to the Crusades, where he gets unusually ethnographic, but as you see not necessarily without an agenda. As far as William was concerned these nations were still barbarian, and would be that way till they learnt civilisation, however orthodox and devout their Christian beliefs might be. This was a communicable disease, too, barbarians being more resistant to acculturation than those among whom they came to live! Most of the paper was however an exegesis of William’s method of using his sources, which was neither uncritical nor reverent but highly intelligent. There was even a suggestion that William might have had access to some saga material. This raised various intelligent questions, one obvious one being what he thought he was himself in ethnic terms, to which the answer seemed to be `the best of both English and Norman and thus neither’, and another being that of how far his sources and his audiences shaped his attitudes, which there wasn’t really time to resolve. It’s always impressive to hear someone who’s really lived inside a text without turning into an apologist speak about it, though, and Professor Thomson got points for this and also for being almost 100% unlike what I expected him to be like from his writing alone, all of which only goes to show that it’s not just the cover of a book one can’t judge by, both for William and his editor…

Right, that should do for this time; next time, much more than you probably want to read about mills, with footnotes sufficient for anyone who’s been wondering where they’ve been these last two posts! À bientôt!

Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, looking into the dome from the nave

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, in slightly better state than shortly after the Emperor Justinian built it as a church, when part fell down, as his rather conflicted historian Procopius records

I’m sorry to have gone silent again so quickly: in my defence, I was finishing a chapter for a book of essays in memory of Mark Blackburn, and that’s now done so we’ll see whether it passes muster. Meanwhile, I still have a backlog here of course. The seminar reports seem not to have drawn many comments lately, but I intend to persist, so for those not so interested I’ll try and stay brief, by my own elevated standards of course. The next three I have to report on are all Oxford ones, and they begin with a visit to the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies seminar there by Dr Peter Sarris of Cambridge on the 28th February 2012, whose title was “The Economics of Salvation in late Antiquity and Byzantium”. This was a wide-ranging paper, with examples from England to Anatolia, and as ever with Dr Sarris heavily erudite, but its basic thrust was in fact fairly simple: he argued that in the late Antique period, the drain that the relatively-new Church represented on resources that might have gone to other supporters of the imperial or royal régimes, and the Church’s consequent wealth as a land- and slave-owner, meant that there was in fact a detectable amount of opposition to it and that this probably retarded conversion and/or Christianisation for a long time. His starting point was the Emperor Justinian, perhaps unsurprisingly, of whom Procopius scathingly said, “Justice for him lay in the priests getting the better of their opponents”, but we rapidly got down to the peasantry, for whom despite what has sometimes been argued, the Church for Dr Sarris was no better and perhaps a worse landlord than the aristocracy might have been, because of its greater potential to develop estates, move people around and of course exercise a form of social control over them via worship, as well as having the best possible state backing most of the time.1 Benefaction and support for the Church, in this view, would come principally from those who saw a means to profit or advancement in it for themselves, the sort of people who might build churches on their estates or want to safely house family property with the tax-exempt Church in such a way that the family retained a heritable interest, a compromise that was easy to manage (and, according to one study Dr Sarris referenced, could represent a 5.5% return on investment per generation!).2 In questions, he was forced to back down a bit and admit that obviously there were also sincere believers who gave to the Church for their souls and to fund God’s work, and there was a lot of argument about whether the fact that that is overridingly the sort of language that the sources use of donation to the Church should be taken as evidential or as merely formulaic (or, as I would have preferred, the ineluctable result of only Church archives surviving). There was also some argument about which regions this might be more or less true in, but overall this was a provocative paper thoroughly put forward and those arguing with it needed their evidence about them.

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4)

Obverse of a bronze coin of Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judæa (4 B. C.-A. D. 4), with Chi-Ro symbol in field

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530x534, from Wikimedia Commons

Reverse of 50-denarius silver coin of King Gelimer of Carthage, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons, with denomination mark derived from a letter

Then on the 1st March, Ildar Garipzanov gave the second of his two Oliver Smithies lectures in Balliol College. This was entitled, “The Rise of Graphicacy and Graphic Symbols of Authority in Early Europe (c. 300-1000)”, and to an extent it went over the same ground as his similar paper given in London a little while back on which I reported, but here managed also to cover the periods before and after. Graphicacy, you may need to know, is the skill of determining information from symbols, and it’s most usually used of maps, but Ildar was more interested in monograms here, which since they use letters meant a certain amount of definition-chopping over what is and isn’t text. His key reference point therefore was the symbol above, the Chi-Ro, composed of the first two letters of the word Christos in Greek. The basis of this is in text, but its meaning as a symbol for Jesus goes far beyond the text and was recognised far far beyond the realm where the language relevant for that text was spoken or read. It is seen as a marker on Christian objects in Britain as early as the early fourth century, before Emperor Constantine’s conversion had made it famous, and in general has a lot to tell us. Ildar wanted this time however to try and bring this tradition together with a different one of ownership marks used on property in shipment, usually elaborations of a letter N, M or H rather than anything related to an actual name, which were also widely used, including on coins very occasionally, and suggest the two traditions converged into the authority-marking monograms on which Ildar is more known for working.3 He didn’t quite leave himself time to make this case, as I felt, and had to withstand a full-on interrogation from Jonathan Shepard afterwards so couldn’t expand on it, but I expect that we will see it fully made before long, because Ildar does write quite a bit.

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian pre-Romanesque church of Santianes de Pravia

Last in this batch was a paper given before the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 5th March 2012 by Isaac Sastre de Diego entitled, “Early Hispanic Churches through their Liturgical Sculpture”. This paper had been provoked by a phenomenon that irks me a lot too, the acute dearth of excavation around early medieval Spanish churches. (Catalonia is probably better for this than non-Catalan Spain, by the sound of it, though even there there’s a big difference between digging in and also digging around.) The other target assumption was that before Spain caught Romanesque, everything went in sensibly chronological phases that can be plotted in architectural styles, something which has also been disputed here so in general I was well placed to like this paper. Isaac’s solution to the problem, the problem being that this set-up gives a nice sensible system of dates for standing structures which is in fact entirely artificial, was to deal with the church’s architecture in terms of what we know about changes in the liturgy of the times and basically to see how that affects the dating of the churches. This is a big project, and here he focused specifically on altars. There are several types of altar to be found in Spain’s pre-Romanesque churches (even I can’t get away from the adjective, drat it), some late Roman ones reused (again, a subject dear to me by now), some set up as slabs on a single pillar like a Tau-cross (as above, or the one at Santa María de Quinzanas which was dated to 725×825 by carbon-dating of the relics still in place within), some as table-like slabs set up on legs at the edges, some slab-sided and roofed and some built of piles of slabs. When one stops assuming that there is a stylistic sequence to these types, and looks for actual dating evidence, which is rare, it becomes clear, said Isaac, firstly that we have nothing from before the second half of the fifth century as yet detected (though I pointed out that Sant Feliu de Barcelona, the first cathedral there, is known to be earlier even if we don’t have its altar any more), secondly that regional styles of decoration are detectable within the sample (and across types) and that there is certainly no such thing as a `Visigothic’-style altar as the old phased chronology has it, and thirdly (as emerged only in questions) there is nothing either that can be dated to the eighth century, though plenty after. Isaac suggested that that was best seen as a time of low investment in the Church, rather than some mass abandonment of altar-building. I found the dating arguments in this paper generally somewhat hard to follow, and it was some time before I was sure that the dates of the altars in question hadn’t in fact come from the same typology Isaac was attempting to dismantle, but it was not in fact so and as he said, while there is not a lot to go on here yet it’s still a step forward towards something a bit more scientific, from which indeed new and better-founded typologies could still be developed. So there we have it for now! More soon.


1. One thing about Peter Sarris’s papers is that they always feature a full bibliography, so I can tell you that the paper derived from some of the work in Sarris, Matthew dal Santo and Phil Booth (edd.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 20 (Leiden 2012), which I’ve not yet seen myself but which looks really interesting actually.

2. For this figure the cite was Paul Gautier (ed./transl.), “La Diataxis de Michel Attaliate” in Revue d’Études Byzantines Vol. 39 (Paris 1981), pp. 5–143 at pp. 17-129 [sic].

3. I think here mainly of I. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.