Tag Archives: kingship

Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 26-34.

Picture of a Lombard legislator

I suppose the time comes in most early medievalist’s lives, periodically, when they find that they must deal with the ghost of Patrick Wormald. For me this presents comparatively little threat: I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist, I just play one in class, and though his work ranged across most of the West at times, I mostly escape any areas where I’d actually have to argue with him.1 All the same, the piece of work I most recently finished at the time I wrote this began in part as an answer to a question he asked on one of the two occasions I was lucky enough to meet him, and though there’s no knowing how he or the fields he worked in would now be if he were still alive, I’d still quite like to have told him what my answer had turned out to be.2 More immediately, though, to my great shame—any erstwhile students of mine please skip on to the next paragraph—despite knowing more or less what it argued from people’s references to it, I actually only just read (in September 2012, when I first drafted this) his 1977 piece, “Lex scripta and verbum regis“, and it prompted me to share a couple of characteristic bits.3

The first of these is the reminder that Patrick’s scholarship was full of edges, some of which could be quite blunt. Some of us might agree with the following, for example, but perhaps no-one else would have gone to this rhetorical effort to express it:4

“… it is not easy to account for the existence of much barbarian legislation in its extant form, simply in terms of the needs of justice and government. Some of the difficulties were implicitly acknowledged by Boretius, the editor of the Frankish capitularies for the Monumenta:

‘I take it for granted that, even if the understanding of particular details in the outward expression of the public life of the time escapes us completely, we are better able to recognize and distinguish the essentials of the matter, the underlying forces, than contemporaries. In fact, I am convinced that today we are better able to understand the legal sources of the Frankish period, to appreciate their meaning and implications, than the scribes and compilers of the period.’5

“In other words, we know what the Frankish legislators were trying to do and why, even if the texts themselves do not entirely support our views. Boretius was far from the most distinguished member of the Rechtsschule6[,] but a convoy is exposed by the speed of its slowest member….”

5 Quoted by Stein 1926, pp. 291-2. The judicious Plummer was less confident: ‘The study of the Anglo-Saxon laws often reduces me to a state of mental chaos. I may know, as a rule, the meaning of individual words; I can construe, though not invariably, the separate sentences. But what it all comes to is often a total mystery'; Plummer 1902, p. 102.

6 For criticism of his edition, cf. Ganshof 1957, pp. 40-1; and of similar assumptions by his colleagues, Goebel 1937, pp. 1-61.”

I mean, in terms of edge, that’s a seax, sharp side first then a surgically-placed blow with the bone-breaking back of the blade, done with great style but not what one of the scholars in Wormald’s footnotes here would call “comradely”. (I also note that to sustain the metaphor to full extent makes the weapon of choice, in fact, a torpedo, and Patrick therefore a submarine.) This doesn’t prevent the chapter going on to be incredibly interesting, of course, even if one of the strange things about it in retrospect is how readily he attributed incompetence to modern scholars because they had not attributed competence to the authors of the sources

One of the busiest submarines ever fielded by the Royal Navy, the Second World War HMS Sealion

The scholarship of Patrick Wormald as represented by one of the busiest submarines ever fielded by the Royal Navy, the Second World War HMS Sealion, image from Wikimedia Commons

But what drove me to put fingers to keyboard this time was a passing reference later on, in discussion of the Lombard laws, to the fact that some of the manuscripts have portraits of the kings in. I did not know this, and anyone who has ever tried Googling for images of things Lombard will know that there is suprisingly little out there one can use, but the edition he cited for details of this is the earliest series of laws in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and this of course means that it is now online!5 Now, of course, this is not the same thing as copyright-free, though I guess Wikimedia Commons would make an argument, and in any case it turns out that the only one of these images actually replicated in the edition is from the Codex Cavensis which the then-editor dated to 1005, so it’s not what you could call contemporary. Nonetheless, it’s still cool, so I put a small version below and invite you to go and look at the real site linked through. Lombard law-giving, as seen during one of Italy’s sporadic attempts to have its own king maybe!6 Worth a squint.

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005; click through for a link to the full-size original drawing in context at the dMGH


1. I have dithered a lot about whether to use the first name of a man I met all of twice and who probably wouldn’t have recognised me subsequently; I really didn’t know him that well. But ‘Mr Wormald’ just sounds awkward and dismissive, and seems to deny the force of personality that those who knew him still remember: witness the first few papers of Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson & David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), especially Stuart Airlie, “Patrick Wormald the Teacher”, pp. 29-35, and of course, Jenny Wormald, “Living with Patrick”, pp. 37-43. So, Patrick, and I hope he wouldn’t have minded. Should you need a short guide to his scholarship, there’s also there Sarah Foot, “Patrick Wormald as Historian”, pp. 11-27. As for ranging across the West, I had also lately read, at the time I first wrote this, a clutch of essays responding to Chris Wickham’s The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005) in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009): almost all of them cite C. P. Wormald, “The Decline of the Western Empire and the Survival of its Aristocracy”, Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 66 (London 1976), pp. 217-226, which must be almost his first paper and is also, technically, a review. That’s not bad for long-lasting influence, is it?

2. He asked, “What formulary are the scribes in your area using?” and the answer became, more or less, J. Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-126.

3. P. Wormald, “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138.

4. Ibid. pp. 105-106. His refs to: S. Stein, “Lex und Capitula: eine kritische Studie” in Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Vol. 41 (Wien 1926), pp. 289-301; Charles Plummer, Life and Times of Alfred the Great (Oxford 1902); and François-Louis Ganshof, “Recherches sur les capitulaires” in Revue historique du droit français et étranger Vol. 4 (Paris 1957), pp. 33-87 & 196-246. Goebel 1937 is not in the volume’s bibliography, but is presumably Julius Goebel, Felony and Misdemeanor: a study in the history of English criminal procedure Vol. I (New York 1937, repr. Philadelphia 1976).

5. F. Bluhme (ed.), Leges Langobardorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges in folio) IV (Hannover 1868), pp. xxx-xxxiv, plate inter pp. xxxii & xxxiii.

6. In 1002, on the death of Emperor Otto III, Arduin Marquis of Ivrea had been raised to the kingship of Italy, in eventual opposition to Otto’s successor in Germany, King Henry II (1002-1024). Henry eventually came and drove Arduin back to his home territories, getting himself crowned King of Italy in 1004, and Holy Roman Emperor in 1014, after which Arduin finally gave up and retired to a monastery. (On all this see Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History III: c. 900-1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 346-371, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521364478.015, at pp. 364-368.) 1005 is therefore an interesting time for someone to be copying up the ancient laws of the Lombard kingdom. There is presumably recent work on the Codex Cavensis that either refines the date or makes this point, for example a quick search throws out Francesco Senatore, “La storiografia cavense dall’Ottocento ad oggi. Storia del Codex Diplomaticus Cavensis” in Rassegna storica salernitana, New Series Vol. 18 (Salerno 1992) pp. 131-160, but until such time as I have a need to read that I’ll leave this poorly-founded speculation lying around.

Seminar CXLVI: heroes and gods at Old English courts

My declaration of intent has proved sadly hollow, and what was feared has come to pass: I am more than a year behind with my seminar reports. I live in hope of catching up, but the time to do so is proving hard to find. Nonetheless I plug on, and today I do so with the fact that on the 17th October 2012, the David Wilson Lecture was given to the British Museum and University College London Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar and the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar by Professor Barbara Yorke of Winchester, with the title, “Weland, Woden and Anglo-Saxon Court Culture, c. 600-900″, and it was really interesting.

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi

The earliest manuscript of the Old English Boethius, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi: not the easiest read… Image licensed under Creative Commons.

What Professor Yorke was trying to do with this piece was find ways to describe the culture of Anglo-Saxon royal courts once princely burial fades out in the early seventh century, depriving us of our best index of what people in power thought was impressive and culturally significant. With no Sutton Hoo treasures to guide her, she therefore resorted to literature on heroes and their deeds, in which relatively few texts, and not least of them the Old English translation of Bœthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which is quite a step away from its original, have to do quite a lot of work. That forces one to rely on figures who come up a lot, and there the obvious ones are Woden, probably the head of the Anglo-Saxon pagan pantheon, and Weland, a smith-hero of fable most famously depicted on the Franks Casket as you see here.

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left;

Front panel of the Franks Casket, in the British Museum, showing Weland the Smith on the right and the Adoration of the Magi on the left; image from Wikimedia Commons

To categorise Woden as god and Weland as man is probably too simple, however: by the time Bede wrote about Woden, which he was seemingly happy to do, he was no more than a distant ancestor shared by many of the Anglo-Saxon royal families, with a father as well as sons, eheumerised into humanity, whereas Weland, though likewise mortal when he shows up, was a worker in precious metal (at least for the Bœthius writer) whose forge is eternal and who escapes captivity by ascending into the sky in a flying suit he’s made.1 In that last it’s hard to pick what references might be being made: Dædalus, another famous craftsman, is an obvious one but Ascension by a character both human and divine would also have had other resonances in the late ninth or early tenth centuries… The depictions on the Franks Casket throw Weland and other stories we don’t recognise into a sea of references from the Bible, Roman history and Roman myth as if all these things had a message to communicate to the same audience. And the Bœthius author doesn’t stop there, Heracles also turns up with very similar qualities (demi-god, worker in metal, cunning). There’s a particular importance to the word `craft’ here, which has the sense of `crafty’ as much as `craftsman’ in the Old English, if not rather more so. These were all characters who could see cunning and unconventional solutions to problems, be they diverting a river through a mucky stable or penetrating enemy strongholds in disguise, to pick two possible examples. This, along with bravery and fearsomeness, seem very likely to be characteristics people thought important for kings, rulers and nobles to possess throughout this period, but it is definitely nice to be able to show some basis for believing this in evidence of the time.2

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire

Scutchamer Knob, Oxfordshire, also known as Cuckhamsley Hill and behind that, sometime long before, as Cwichelmes Hlaew, `Cwichelm’s Barrow`. Sure, it looks nice enough in daylight… Image from Wikimedia Commons

The other line of argument, a lesser one, that was pursued which might interest readers of this blog was an attempt to link the Old English Bœthius back to the court of King Alfred, in full knowledge of Malcolm Godden’s arguments against this.3 This was only tentative, and really more aimed at getting us to think of Alfred as this sort of king than to categorically refute Godden. After all, consider the Alfred of Asser: an artificer (clocks, ships), a lateral thinker and an organiser (clocks, again, but also fortresses, army rotas), a warrior and, if not ascending to Heaven by his own direct agency at least aiming that way due to suffering and great responsibility piously met.4 This formed part of a larger final point about the continuing sacral flavour of kingship, with such figures’ burials still being `known’ in the Wessex landscape in Alfred’s time (Scutchamer Knob above being a mangled version of an Old English phrase meaning Cwichelm’s Barrow and Wayland’s Smithy, indeed, so-called in the tenth century too, very close to where Alfred fought the battle of Ashdown).5 In part this was a kind of continuity, no doubt, but it was also a symptom of the great inventiveness of the minds generating our sources in borrowing, adapting and modifying motives from almost anywhere to make the men they praised seem as contemporary as they did ancient. It makes me think of chronology-mashing speculative fiction writers like Michael Moorcock, generating figures like Jerry Cornelius who are (often unwitting) members of many different mythologies simultaneously, or indeed the fun that an unjustly-forgotten author called John James had writing the life story of the man he invented to fit behind the Odin (and perhaps also Woden) myths.6 The writers Alfred and his successors could find may not have been as many as he would have wished, but they should probably not be reckoned any less, well, crafty than ours…


1. The Bede reference is in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book I chapter 15, which you can find in your edition of choice or here. For Weland I have much less idea what to cite: this Encyclopedia Britannica article‘s a start…

2. For an argument that fearsomeness may have been very important to early medieval kingship, see Régine Le Jan, “Timor, amicitia, odium: les liens politiques à l’époque mérovingienne” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 217-226. This, for me, fits quite nicely with Weland’s vengefulness and violence; part of the king’s charisma is that he might just kill you out of hand and no-one could gainsay him. Professor Yorke was arguing that the reading of the Franks Casket that sees it as providing good and bad examples of conduct in the manner of Bede’s History was mistaken, and that they were actually all favourable models including the ultra-violent and genocidal ones, by means of this kind of reasoning.

3. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23; cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited” in Medium Ævum 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

4. Asser, De rebus gestis Alfredi regis, most easily accessible in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ and other contemporary sources (London 1983). It is probably off-colour to wonder how many days’ agony in the privy (Asser, c. 74) might have been reckoned to equal three days’ hanging in a tree, or indeed one hanging on a cross, but you have to admit this kind of lecture makes the comparison seem less originally horrible. Not that we know what was actually wrong with Alfred, of course: see Paul Kershaw, “Illness, power and prayer in Asser’s Life of King Alfred” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 10 (Oxford 2001), pp. 201-224.

5. For really illuminating discussion of this kind of thing, including these two cases, see Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past: place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), pp. 154-161.

6. With Moorcock it’s just hard to know where to start, he’s written so much and so much of it really quite similarly generic from when he was cranking out a novel every month or so in the sixties. I think his most enjoyably reference-messy one that I’ve read is The Condition of Muzak (London 1977) but you do have to have read about twenty of his other books before the play with the recurrent characters and storylines seems impressive rather than perverse and obscure, I suspect. As for James, the book in question is Votan (London 1966), which is bloody marvellous (both marvellous and bloody) and was succeeded by the hardly-less splendid Not For All the Gold in Ireland (London 1968) which takes the same character stamping unawarely through the world of Celtic myth too.

Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated 'execution'], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.


1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:


1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005), http://www.heroicage.org/issues/8/cessford.html, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period

2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.

3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.

Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England

After some weeks of having to miss it, I made a special effort to get to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 2nd March because my occasional collaborator and general knowledge machine Levi Roach was speaking, with the title “Stating the Obvious? Ritual, Assemblies and the Anglo-Saxon State, 871-978″. The general outlines of this have already been described, excellently as always, by Magistra et Mater so if you haven’t seen that yet, go and look – I’ll wait, it’s fine – and then we’ll haggle over some details. If you don’t want to read that for some perverse reason, well, in very brief form this was an attempt to apply the substantial German (and US) scholarship on ritual as a feature of early medieval German kingship and statecraft to Anglo-Saxon England. This has been done before, as Magistra points out, but Levi took us on a slightly different voyage through the evidence for substantially choreographed assemblies, especially coronations, with ritualised elements like receptions of attendees, dinners to which certain people only were invited,1, handing over of regalia and of course the use of unction with holy oil like a priest and general near-deification of the king. It doesn’t even have to be the king: that Bishop Æthelwold mentioned last post is also on record in his Vita, also mentioned there, as settling disputes between noblemen after they commend themselves unto him for a settlement, doing something very like homage to the holy man by way of submission to his judgement. Chris Lewis, whose questions are always interesting, asked if we might not want to think of such rituals even unfolding at household level (an example might be carrying the bride over the threshold, or showing the sheets I suppose, I don’t know when either of those are first recorded but they are such rituals), though of course we hardly have the sources to tackle such questions.

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

King Edgar in supplication before Christ in majesty, from the dedication charter of the New Minster, Winchester; from Wikimedia Commons

It is very hard to deny that the sources we do have, including narratives, liturgical material like the coronation ordines and artworks, all seem to offer pictures of choreographed court and sub-court processes loaded with symbolism, at least.2 But there are three questions it seems fair to ask. One of these is the basic one we should always ask, in the words of journalism: “why is this [so-and-so] lying to me?” Is Byrhtferth of Ramsey confirming that Edgar’s coronation went more or less to the plan of the Second English Ordo or does it just seem that way because that text was most of what he knew about what should have happened? The texts frequently show lots and lots of public emotion, crying and joyful choruses, which obviously serve to show popular consensus; but does that mean there was some, that the sources knew there should have been some or, more subtly, that the people knew there should be some and dutifully provided it. (And if you think this unlikely, consider how many people who don’t otherwise pray say ‘Amen’ at the end of graces before formal dinners or similar religious public moments. They know what’s supposed to go in that space and don’t want to mess things up.)

Levi kind of answered such questions by taking that last distinction and using it to tilt at the second set of them, these being the concerns raised by Philippe Buc (among others) about whether our sources for these rituals may be the only place that those rituals existed, as an idealised version of the working of society. Levi felt that the variety of sources that seem to show the basic point, that organised expression of symbolisms was important, minimised the likelihood of this danger, but also reminded us that texts also act in society. If there’s a coronation ordo then odds are good that the next ceremony may well look a lot like that. If people hear stories of submitting to the judgement of a powerful bishop they may think of that the next time they find themselves in an intractable dispute. The line between story and instruction here is quite hard to draw. In any case, and perhaps most crushingly for the Buc argument, the authors of the sources were themselves clearly convinced that organised demonstrative behaviour was important and effective, so unless they’d all fooled themselves but no-one else, this dialectic does have to have met the real world and come back somewhere along its course! This sort of extra step with the thinking is why we need people like Levi.

King Harold II depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, enthroned next to Archbishop Stigand

King Harold II depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, enthroned next to Archbishop Stigand who crowned him, irregularly as the Normans later claimed

The third set of questions I wanted to ask, and did in one case though I didn’t quite make it clear enough, was about the audience’s participation in these rituals. Levi asked who the audience was—which not everyone would have—and concluded that it was of course principally the élite, though reminded us also of the servants and menials who were also present, but that to me raised further questions about who could `read’ the symbolism involved in the ceremony, and who might be explaining why that particular verse was appropriate or why it was that sword so-and-so wore and so forth or whether the laymen were just all in the dark about meanings while the bishops and clergy all nodded sagely across the church. Also, as I always do when someone brings norms into play to explain social behaviour I wanted to ask whether people can’t break them. There is certainly room to see competing norms operating in some cases but there’s also got to be room for people actually being contrary. Non-compliance is also a form of demonstrative behaviour, I realise this—the recent student `demonstrations’ would have made this quite clear if I didn’t—but it is a deliberate inversion of the norm that does not necessarily imply acceptance of its framework.

The questions Levi himself wanted to answer was, firstly did the Anglo-Saxon state use such means of expressing its authority, to which the answer was clearly `yes’ I thought, and then why, given that the Anglo-Saxon state is supposed to have been very strong and yet the use of such tactics by the Ottonian rulers of Germany is supposed to have helped make up for a weak state apparatus. This may be contradictory: as Chris Lewis again said, for one thing, you have to have a fair old administrative apparatus to be able to hold and feed an assembly of any size. Levi however brought a range of anthropologists and social theorists into play to look at what a developed state might get from such things. Magistra has covered this better than I intend to, other than saying that as well as using clear and relevant chunks of Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bordieu, he also invoked both Durkheim and Weber, whom I’ve seen people claim can’t both be used by the same scholar; again, Levi is clearly unusually able with clever thinkery (and also willing to explain it). But, as his conclusions stated, in an attempt perhaps to avoid what used to be a stock post-seminar question at this gathering asked in the pub by a certain figure I shan’t identify,3 while it might be `stating the obvious’ to say that the late Anglo-Saxon kings had rituals at their courts, what taking these kinds of tools to it do is demonstrate (ahem) that we need them in order to properly work out what’s going on behind the rituals and what the nature of the late Anglo-Saxon `state’ might be.4 For Levi, it was more constructed in horizontal bonding built by such rituals and moments of reciprocity with the rulers, and consequently less in vertical relationships of authority and obedience, than we have necessarily made clear, and whatever else its workings may be, obvious they weren’t.5


1. For example, Levi told us that Byrhtferth of Ramsey, in his Vita Sancti Oswaldi, tells us that at King Edgar’s coronation in 973 the queen ate separately, with the abbots, while the lords and bishops ate with the king, which might be some interesting evidence for clerics being reckoned as a kind of third gender—or just people it would be safe to leave your queen with—but is also almost all we know about women in this context. The Vita is printed in Byrtferth of Ramsey, The Lives of St Oswald and St Egwine, ed. & transl. Michael Lapidge, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 2008).

2. For work on the narratives, you could as Magistra suggests see Julia Barrow, “Demonstrative Behaviour and Political Communication in Later Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 36 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 127-150, or indeed Levi’s own work (see n. 5 below). On the ordines the key work is by Janet Nelson, namely “Ritual and Reality in the Early Medieval Ordines” in D. Baker (ed.), The Materials, Sources and Methods of Ecclesiastical History, Studies in Church History Vol. 11 (Oxford 1975), pp. 41-51, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986), pp. 329-339; Nelson, “The Earliest Surviving Royal Ordo: some liturgical and historical aspects” in Peter Linehan & Brian Tierney (edd.), Authority and Power: studies on mediaeval law and government presented to Walter Ullmann (Cambridge 1980), pp. 29-48, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual, pp. 341-360; Nelson, “The Rites of the Conqueror” in R. Allen Brown (ed.), Proceedings of the Battle Conference IV (Woodbridge 1982), pp. 117-132 & 210-221, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual, pp. 375-401, and Nelson, “The Second English Ordo” in eadem, Politics and Ritual, pp. 361-374, and that volume also reprints most of her work about coronation ordines generally rather then specifically English ones. On the artwork, and particularly the bit of it above, see now Catherine E. Karkov, “The Frontispiece to the New Minster Charter and the King’s Two Bodies” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English, 959–975 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 224-241.

3. The question was of the form “So ****ing what?”, and not asked of the speaker. This doesn’t happen any more, I feel I should point out; the pub crowd at that seminar either dissipated a long time ago or now manage to gather without my being aware, which given my heightened senses for such things seems unlikely.

4. There is of course some argument about the word `state’ is even safe to use and here, as with most matters to do with words and their meanings, the best take for my money is by Susan Reynolds, “There were states in medieval Europe: a response to Rees Davies” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 550-555, which some kind but possibly illegal soul has put online here, for now.

5. If this leaves you hungry for more, Levi kindly draws my attention to related work of his in the form of an article called “Hosting the king: hospitality and the royal iter in tenth-century England” in Lars Kjær & A. J. Watson (edd.), Feasts and Gifts of Food in Medieval Europe: Ritualised Constructions of Hierarchy, Identity and Community, Journal of Medieval History Vol. 37 no. 1 (Amsterdam 2011), pp. 34-46, DOI:10.1016/j.jmedhist.2010.12.002, the conclusions of which, he tells me, lead to some of the same places. Nice work, anyway, JMH is one of those journals I’ve never been able to get into…

Seminars LXXXVI-LXXXIX: four for the price of one

(Written offline between approximately Andorra and the Isle of Wight, courtesy of British Airways, 12/04/11)

Front Court, All Soul's College

Front Court, All Soul's College (the Medieval History Seminar is up the last staircase on the right)

By the time I can post this I’ll be back, and with loads to write, but of course I already had loads to write so something must be done. By a happy coincidence, however, the next few seminars I wanted to write up, all Oxford ones, were one where I had less than usual to say, in each case for a different reason, so I’m going to rattle through them quickly, without prejudice to the speakers I hope, and then move on to the more recent matters.

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing, from Wikimedia Commons

In the first of these cases, when none other than Steffen Patzold spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 14th February 2011, the reason I have little to say is that his paper was all around one core point, argued elegantly and persuasively, but which is if he is right bad news for Carolingianists. His title, belying this rake in the grass with its innocuousness, was “Einhard’s First Readers”, and what he was doing was studying early reception of the most famous work of the eponymous biographer of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli. By early I mean really early, in one case contemporary; the two readers he looked at were Lupus of Ferrières and Walahfrid Strabo, the former of whom corresponded with Einhard, including flattering him about the biography in order to wheedle books out of him.1 Walahfrid, too late to have known Einhard himself, wrote a shiny new preface for the Vita emphasising how reliable Einhard’s testimony was since he had known the emperor himself, and so on. Lupus on the other hand paid little attention to the contents but lauded the Ciceronian style, including completing a quotation of Cicero that Einhard had used in the Vita in his letter of self-introduction.

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard, image from Wikimedia Commons

Steffen’s contention was, basically, that Lupus understood what Einhard had intended better than did Walahfrid, that the Vita, which is as Steffen showed heavily larded with Ciceronian references, was mainly intended to demonstrate Einhard’s skill with Latin, perhaps by way of engineering a renewal of his importance at court. Steffen even argued that from what the scholars of the time knew of Cicero, especially that he had written his Tusculan Disputations when similarly removed from court on the Classical equivalent of garden leave, Einhard would have probably felt keenly similar to Cicero (and, we established in questions, would not have known about the great rhetor’s rather unpleasant end). It all added up very neatly. The reason that this is bad news for Carolingianists, who have been trying to date the Vita by reference to its contents and their potential contemporary allusions for many years now (a debate I have even seen conducted in filk) is that it makes it likely that the actual content of Einhard’s Vita Karoli is similarly bent to a rhetorical end first and foremost, with the actual historical accuracy we have all hoped for possibly rather less important. In other words, it may just sound good, and never mind the facts. Walahfrid, of course, tells us otherwise, but if Steffen’s right Walahfrid must have been wrong, which is not something one often gets to say.

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on 16th February, Vivien Prigent addressed the Oxford Byzantine History Seminar to the title, “The Myth of the Mancus and The Origins of the European Economy“. Here he was addressing a very old numismatic dispute about what, exactly, the coins that the sources of the European eighth to tenth centuries call mancusi actually were. They occur first of all in Italy, and were plainly gold and apparently Eastern in some sense but within those brackets many possibilities exist: Byzantine solidi, Muslim dinars, and so on, In 1959 Philip Grierson published an article called “The Myth of the Mancus” that tried to settle this, which he subsequently had to admit was wrong, arguing that the word should be understood to mean ‘defective’ and that they were just low-weight solidi; others subsequently argued that in fact the word derived from the Arabic ‘manqush’, ‘engraved’, and that it referred to dinars struck by the Caliphate after the reform of the Islamic coinage that stopped the use of figural representation on the coins.2 There are to my mind a bunch of reasons that looks convincing: that coins that would fit the explanation exist and have been found in the right places, that this is what King Offa of Mercia apparently strikes at about the time that the term is first seen in England (seen above), and the negative argument that the standard coin in Europe at the time was called denarius in Latin so that the term ‘dinar’ would have been effectively indistinguishable by ear for many – they would have had to have another name and we do have Arabic sources calling these things ‘dinara manqushi’ (forgive dodgy Arabic, or indeed correct it if you like), albeit not till later on.

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Vivien however argued that everyone has been wrong, and that the metrology and the early Italian instances can only really be explained by reference to Sicilian-minted Byzantine solidi. This certainly does seem to fit the Italian finds evidence, and at least fits the (Italian) metrology better than full-weight dinars, but to my mind still has two problems. One is that he was arguing his weights of coins by taking a mid-point between an ideal weight and a mean weight of finds; coins are of course almost always found worn and so the real mint weight is a matter of assumption, but the ideal standard is thus itself derived from the surviving specimens so this is only slightly more rigorous than the kind of `rounding up’ I have decried in this game before. The other obvious problem is that the term ‘mancus‘ is much more widely used than the distribution of the Sicilian coins, not least in Catalonia where it certainly does refer to dinars, something that we know because in 1018 a Barcelona Jew called Bonhom was contracted to produce them locally and some of his signed coins exist (pictured above).3 If, therefore, Vivien is to be right, and on his own ground he looks convincing, it means that we have to assume that the word quickly got out of Italy, where it meant something quite specific, and then was almost immediately used to mean pretty much any foreign gold coin, everywhere except Italy. That might be arguable (and indeed Vivien argued it), but, nonetheless, in other contexts there is no similar alternative to the dinar theory and fairly incontrovertible evidence for it (some of which I’ve given above). There are ways in which Vivien’s more complicated answer might be more realistic, and we can probably all think of a historian who would caution us against assuming that words always mean the same thing, but Occam’s Razor vibrates like an electro-magnet when brought near this theory even so and I for one am tempted to cut.

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch, from Wikimedia Commons

The very next day I then went to a paper at the Oxford Late Roman Seminar, by one Simon Ford to the title, “Take Us To Your Leader': the mechanics of ecclesiastical authority in the exilic Monophysite Church (AD 518-638)”. I confess that I did this under a misapprehension brought on by ignorance: I’ve got more and more interested in the Christian sects that began to leave the Byzantine Empire in the era after the Council of Chalcedon after teaching them this term gone, and I understood `exilic’ to mean groups outside the Empire whereas Mr Ford was actually talking about the disenfranchised Church inside the Empire. That’s one reason I have little to say, the other is that the presenter was painfully nervous and had to basically restart every sentence at least once. The effect of this was that as the end of his hour approached he had only got halfway through his text, which had probably seemed a completely reasonable length in front of the mirror, and had to skip to the end missing what seemed as if it was the interesting bit, in which rather than plotting the decline in the status of the kind of patrons that the clergy of the Monophysite Church were able to attract after 518, when they were ruled against (as evidenced basically in the letters of Bishop Severus of Antioch, who seems to be Mr Ford’s main subject), he would have talked about the way that this counter-intuitively forced the exilic Church into the arms of the Emperor, as no lesser patrons remained who might help. The Byzantine double-think involved here, where the clerics of a sect whom you, as Emperor, have removed from office are still important men whose dignity you respect and whose protection you order when necessary, would have been very interesting to hear more about, and it was a pity the paper wound up the way it did.

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Then last in this batch, I arrived late by reason of idiocy to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 21st February when Anne Pedersen was presenting to the title “New Discoveries at the Royal Site of Jelling, Denmark”, a site that she has more information on than is yet published and which I wish I’d been sharp enough to hear more about. By the end of the paper I’d managed to gather a picture of a diamond-shaped walled palace complex with one, maybe two entrances, neither on the obvious approach road, with a massive ship-setting of stones from point to point of the diamond. My natural inclination is to be sceptical about monumental alignments but this one is hard to ignore. Jelling fits into a hierarchy of similar sites in Denmark, and is predictably at the top (in a 1-2-3 size ratio with Trelleborg and Aggersborg). It also experienced conversion, as its famous rune-stone (there’s a 3D visualisation behind that link) more or less informs us: Dr Pedersen was not able to end the speculation about what might have happened to King Harald Bluetooth’s illustrious forebears who should, presumably, be in the site’s burial mounds but aren’t—one is empty, one emptied—but the church is hardly central and exactly how the site was articulated and how people moved through it may be the next thing to start trying to work out so as to solve questions like these. Whatever the answer is, it can be unusually short-term; the fixtures at all three of these sites appear never to have been repaired or replaced, we’re looking at a single generation in which power was expressed through a new form of building that then apparently became redundant. While they were up and running, though, there were people there: Dr Pedersen had emphasised the almost total absence of finds in the palace precinct, and as Rosamund Faith pointed out in questions, this must imply management of the site, unless no-one ever came there. So there’s lots still to work out, even after lots of digging.


1. My abiding impression of reading Lupus’s letters (in the translation of Graydon W. Regenos as The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966)) is that this was the key motive behind all of Lupus’s letters, and that his correspondence can be divided into three phases, (early) you’re so great and I hear you have a copy of [x] I’d like to borrow, (middle) your copy of [x] is quite safe with me and will soon be sent back, honest, and (late) wah no-one will lend me books why is the world so cruel? I may do him the injustice of rapid reading though, it was a while ago I formed this impression. I assume that you know Einhard’s work, but in case not the translation of resort is now that of David Ganz, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), replacing the older one of the same title by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1969, repr. 1984 and often thereafter). The still older one of Samuel Turner is online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook here.

2. Philip Grierson, “Carolingian Europe and the Arabs: the myth of the mancus” in Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire vol. 31 (Bruxelles 1954), pp. 1059-1074; repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), III with important addenda. Cf. among others Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543.

3 On these and other imitative mancusi see now Lutz Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. `Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit” in Reinhard Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Klüßendorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hannover 2004), pp. 91-106, a reference for which I must thank Dr Marcus Phillips.

Leeds 2010 Report IV and final

Time to wind this up. I really ought to get up to date with my conference blogging before attending my next one, after all. So, I woke in relatively good order on the Thursday of Leeds and, once caffeinated and breakfasted headed out to the final two sessions. Given my interests there was only one choice for the first one.

1505. Texts and Identities, XI: the Carolingian Empire in crisis?—Impacts of Political Crises on Regional and Local Levels as Reflected in Charter Material

You see? It’s basically my whole track-the-big-events-through-the-little-ones approach written into a session title. I have to do this, of course, because there are no big narratives from my area,1 but it’s not so often done in the areas where we have lots of chronicles and annals. And who better than this team to take it on, armed with the unparalleled St Gall archive?

    Supposedly the oldest charter in the St Gallen archive

    Supposedly the oldest charter in the St Gallen archive

  • Karl Heidecker, “Crisis or Business as Usual?: political crises as reflected in the charters of St Gall”, opened the theme up, by asking if we can see reflections of the numerous crises of the Carolingian Empire, which St Gall, in its borderline position between West and East Francia and some crucial Alpine passes, usually knew about in some detail, in increased transactions and donations as recorded in the abbey’s documents? Stressing that having the original documents actually gives you a whole set of new dating problems when you realise that the multiple dating systems usually don’t agree, Karl produced a histogram that showed royal donations peaking in 816-20, 840-50, the end of Louis the German’s reign and generally under Charles the Fat (who began, let’s not forget, as King of Alemannia, so St Gall was sort of local to him). The non-royal charters (I don’t like the term ‘private charter’, I don’t think it marks a useful difference here) meanwhile peak 816-820, 826-830, crash until 837, again [840 ]till 850, peak again in the 870s and then fall off under Charles the Fat. That looks pretty consistent, overall, and you could of course correlate this with general political events quite nicely, but trouble is that, at first at least, as charter preservation drops the presence in what survives of non-monastic scribes writing them rises, more or less in proportion. So the crisis is far from general: it’s just trends at the abbey that show up like this, and they could of course have many causes. Karl suggested that blips rather than trends might be what we should be looking at here, in which case the real trouble at St Gall seems to be in the 850s. But really, I think that this test shows that we need to ask different questions of this sample. And hardly had I thought this when…
  • … Bernhard Zeller stepped up to present, “Who is the Boss?: representations of royal authority in the private charters of St Gall – or, revisiting Fichtenau’s ‘politische Datierung'”. Here he looked at the political reigns by which St Gall’s charters were dated, an approach of obvious interest to me, and showed very similar results in terms of it being as much scribal choice as policy whom to date by.2 The 817 ordinatio imperii, for example, is not reflected in the charters, they continue to date by Louis the Pious, but when in 829 the infant Charles the Bald was made King of Alemannia, two scribes chose to use this fact in dating, although not consistently. Louis the German’s title and presence changes in these clauses depending on his status with regard to his father, often opposed. Heinrich Fichtenau had seen this scribal opinion as a division between ‘nationalists’ and ‘imperialists’ in the scriptorium, but Bernhard thought this too simplistic in the face of the considerable variation. He also suggested that, since we are still basically doing Fichtenau’s work here (and in my part of the world too, at least I am) with much better exposure to the data, he wouldn’t have minded being proved wrong too much…
  • Many of the papers I’d attended, as you may have noticed, had already had informal responses from Mark Merswiowsky, but in this case it was actually on the programme. He reminded us that for the period before 911, St Gall has ten times as many original documents preserved as the rest of Eastern Francia and Germany put together. With the copies that we do have from elsewhere, however, similar sorts of number-crunching as Karl had done can also be done, and this shows various things: Thegan was not kidding when he recorded that Louis the Pious tried to confirm all of Charlemagne’s charters at the beginning of his reign, there really are a lot of confirmations 814-816; grants are thickest in the 820s, Lothar is most generous during the Brüderkrieg, Louis the German makes many grants in West Francia during the 870s… But of course since, and Mark does keep making this point but people keep failing to get it, these documents are requested, not ordained, this doesn’t tell us about royal policy direct but about people’s response to the kings, which is something they can’t reliably affect.3
  • But it’s complicated. Morn Capper asked a seemingly innocent question about the mixed-up dating systems in the originals, asking whether there could be multiple occasions being recognised in the varying clauses. This made my ears prick up because one of the things I think I have shown, quietly, is that sometimes charters are drawn up over a period of some time.4 But Karl said he thought not, because [although some documents with dates at beginning and end might be dating both transaction and writing, ]the [final ]dating of the charter would usually be the last bit of the process; and Bernhard said he thought not, as the dates were usually coming from the dorsal notes that were the first thing recorded. You see the problem there? And these guys have been working together for years. Karl was also willing to offer an answer to another crucial question (this time from Wendy Davies), how much don’t we have? What proportion of the charter survival has been lost? Karl said that Peter Erhart has counted the number of references to documents in the documents, and figures that we have about one third of what is mentioned thus; that’s as good an idea as we can reach, but as Rosamond McKitterick pointed out, the variation from archive to archive is huge and St Gall, with its already-exceptional preservation, probably doesn’t tell us much about other places.

So as you can tell that got people talking and thinking, and while I realise that charters are not everyone’s idea of excitement, I will continue to work here to show that the individual ones are often interesting while the collection of these data is very often significant, for a wider range of people than the perspectives of a single historian indeed, and this session was a welcome chance to listen to other people who also see this.

Then, after coffee, it was a different kind of specialism, but I didn’t actually get coffee because I was picking up books instead, and was consequently slightly late for…

1612. Bishops before GPS: English bishops on the move, c. 700-c. 1300

    Stained-glass portrait of Bishop Wilfrid of York, at East Hoathly Parish Church

    Stained-glass portrait of Bishop Wilfrid of York, voted English bishop least likely to travel without retinue 669-678 inclusive (I jest)

  • Thomas Pickles, “Episcopal Logistics: clerical retinues, hospitality, and travel, c. 600-c. 800″ was trying to figure out how many people Anglo-Saxon bishops usually travelled with and how difficult this would be to arrange. The figures of course basically aren’t there, so he started with King Henry I, who usually trailed round 100+ attendants and 50-odd supporting hunters and so, plus 200+ barons with their own households of, say, 35 people each; Anglo-Saxon royals were probably only doing a third of this (I’m not sure where that assumption came from), meaning a royal household of 50-odd and by happy coincidence, for the reign of King Alfred we can name at most some 30-40 thegns at any one time…5 On the other hand the Yeavering theatre probably seated more like 300, so some occasions were obviously different. How were they all fed? Here he did what we should all do more, and asked someone who knows about such things: he took the food-rents specified in the Laws of Ine to a hotelier friend of his and asked how many people he could feed with that render. 250, was the answer, so supporting a royal court on a food render starts to seem realistic in that period at least. The question then becomes do you consume the food on the spot, meaning that the court’s movements are restricted by the availability of food and where they haven’t already eaten, or do you move it to the court, with consequent costs in feeding the men and horses needed to do so?6 Bishops of course have to visit all parts of their diocese, in theory, so in theory that question is decided for them, but even bishops sometimes have to be somewhere else or in one place for a while. And how do you go outside the kingdom? How far will the king support you? And so on. Thomas raised most of this sort of question and suggested answers for almost all while stressing that most were only guesses. I have a lot of notes on this paper, and I came in late, yet I don’t think he over-ran, so I congratulate him on packing so much in so accessibly, a trick I’d like to learn…
  • Julia Barrow, “Somewhere to Stop for the Night: way-stations on English episcopal itineraries, c. 700-c. .1300″ then asked exactly where these bishops went, when we can tell, and how that could have been provisioned. In particular, she noted, after a while most church councils are in London, so that high medieval bishops will often tend to have a string of small properties on the route from their see to the capital whose purpose is basically to give them a bed for the night when they have to do that journey. Where there was no property, arrangements are made with local shrines or monasteries; renting lodgings was the last resort, not least because being accessible could involve important people like bishops in unexpected hospitality that would raise such costs considerably. It is perhaps for this reason that the properties they owned en route were usually a little way off the road… As with Thomas’s hotel budgeting, there was here a faint perfume of anachronism as we looked at these questions through some very contemporary perspectives about what places are nice and feasible and for what, but I usually think that this is a danger worth risking in exchange for seeing our historical actors as human beings like ourselves facing similar annoying dilemmas. Apart from anything else, history’s much less interesting when you can’t project yourself into it like this.
  • Lastly, Philippa Hoskin presented “At Home or Abroad: English episcopal itineraries as a measure of 13th-century pastoral concern”, which largely focussed on one guy, Bishop Roger de Meulan of Coventry, who was soundly told off by letter by Archbishop Neville of York for failing to adequately tour his diocese and oversee the standard of clerical office in it. Dr Hoskin showed that Archbishop Neville had picked just the right, or wrong depending on which figure you empathised with more, time to criticise as Bishop Roger’s itinerary had shrunk dramatically for the previous year or so; Neville says he realises Roger’s ill, but other arrangements should have been made to stop this affecting things so dramatically. By plotting itineraries for Bishop Roger’s career, therefore, she was able to tell us something fairly direct about his available time and energy levels during what were quite advanced years; he tried to measure up under his metropolitan’s criticism, presumably once recovered, for a few years, but then had to admit he wasn’t up to it and did start relying more on his subordinates and staying in one place more and more. So a human story here, which left us mostly sharing Dr Hoskin’s feeling that Archbishop Neville was being rather unfair, a quality in which he seems to have specialised…
  • The questions also raised the issues of bishops’ family property, which obviously must have factored in and left those not out of the top-drawer rather less able to do their diocesan work easily, and Katy Cubitt reminded us that in contemporary terms a bishop who failed to do right service to his congregation, thus endangering their souls, could expect to be punished for their sins as well as his in the hereafter, all things that must have sat in the minds of these peoples as they did or didn’t get on horses, into litters or up on their feet to head out to their people.

So, having thus been hearing about people crossing Yorkshire, it was time to do so myself. Apart from a faint worry that the Silver Machine’s rear wheel would buckle under sheer weight of books, the journey back was more or less trouble-free, and happily by the time I’d run out of will to read I found a Cambridge friend of mine waiting at Stevenage, with whom to gossip as we rode back to our alma mater. So the conference trip remained sociable to the last and I was fairly cheerful as I got home, unpacked ate and and then got stuff out to pack again for the next conference trip the next day, before setting about sleeping the sleep of someone who isn’t seeing enough of his bed just currently.


1. Honest: see Thomas N. Bisson, “Unheroed Pasts: history and commemoration in South Frankland before the Albigensian Crusade” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge 1990), pp. 281-308, for musings on why this might be and a list of what little there is.

2. For the same technique applied to the Catalan sample circa 987, when political allegiance is obviously a bit of a question, see Jean Dufour, “Obédience respective des carolingiens et des capétiens (fin Xe siècle-début XIe siècle)” in Xavier Barral i Altet, Dominique Iogna-Prat, Anscarí M. Mundó, Jospe María Salrach & Michel Zimmermann (edd.), Catalunya i França Meridional a l’Entorn de l’Any Mil / La Catalogne et la France méridionale autour de l’an mil. Colloque International D. N. R. S./Generalitat de Catalunya « Hugues Capet 987-1987. La France de l’An Mil », Barcelona 2 – 5 juliol 1987, Col·lecció «Actes de Congresos» núm. 2 (Barcelona 1991), pp. 21-24, though he does pick and choose his charters somewhat and the real situation was often more confusing even than he chooses to show.

3. A point made by him some time ago, and largely ignored it seems perhaps because it’s awkward, in M. Mersiowky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25.

4. Best at J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), pp. 37-38.

5. Here citing David Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 67 (Cambridge 2007).

6. Here citing Albin Gautier, “Hospitality in pre-Viking Anglo-Saxon England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 23-44.

Leeds 2010 Report III

The amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that last time. So, Wednesday. I woke up extremely confused for non-academic reasons and eventually got myself together to head over to Weetwood for some really small-scale stuff.

1003. Landscape and Settlement in Early Medieval England: using the evidence of minor names

This session was mainly about getting down into not just place-names but field names to try and dig down into really old toponymy in various areas of England.

Map of field names circa 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire

None of these field names, recorded c. 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire, were harmed in the course of this session

  • Simon Draper, “Minor Names as Evidence for the Roman to Medieval Transition”, focussing on Wiltshire about which he has a book out, argued that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate Roman site survival into the Romano-British and Saxon periods, and among sites where this has been demonstrated those with names containing the elements ‘wic’ and ‘chester’ feature strongly, as we might expect, and thus encouraged us to look at them suspiciously. I raised awkward points about whether it would not in fact be unusual for an Anglo-Saxon site to be on virgin ground, given how densely the land was settled under the Romans, and Dr Draper conceded there was a point there, but his technique was still fairly demonstrably valid, as far as it went.
  • Susan Oosthuizen, “Early Medieval Land Use and its Wider Context”, was working on areas local to my current home, which made it especially interesting to me; she thought that areas of pastoral agriculture could be differentiated from those where arable farming had been carried out from the names for the fields that survived, and these names matched the geology and flood area of those lands quite well. So another proof of concept, but perhaps questionable how much it told us that wasn’t obvious; I suppose the point is that we can check things haven’t changed and that the landscape isn’t misleading like this.
  • Chris Lewis, “Field Names as Evidence for Dispersed Settlement: an example from East Sussex”, was why I was really there, because Chris is always interesting whether he’s working at tiny scale or national, largely because he is capable of both. Here he was also trying to prove a concept, which was what can we do with this sort of evidence in areas where there is almost no other, and picked an area of the South Downs about which this is the case to try it with, the villages of Medehurst and Heberden, the latter of which is the older name, meaning ‘Hygeburgh’s swine pasture’, but which appears to have been a dependent of the older which looks like a hundred meeting site even though it’s not attested till 1120. From this he teased out strings of history of dispersal and agglomeration of bits of settlements like a slightly tentative conjurer, all very hypothetical but certainly a valid demonstration of his exercise.

I quite like this stuff but it’s arguable that I don’t learn very much from it, I just like seeing the little picture drawn out by people who care. The big picture remains the one that offers the chance of making big connections, though, so after much-needed coffee I admitted necessity and went and rejoined the Texts and Identities sessions, which had now stopped talking about Modes of Identity and started talking about Louis the Pious, a subject on which they have been fruitful for many years now. Additionally, now the Hludowicus project have all got themselves t-shirts, identifying them with notable figures of the era in football-player style. I approve of this, mainly. I see that no-one has got Bernard of Septimania, which is tempting, but Mayke de Jong has the Judith shirt (of course) and that makes the ultimate Barcelona-based Carolingian bad boy an awkward choice. Anyway, I’m not part of the group, so let me talk about people who are.

1105. Texts and Identities, VIII: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), I

  • Stefan Esders, “Missi and Inquisition Procedure under Louis the Pious: a new style of government”. I should make clear here for web-searchers that this is not inquisition like Monty Python and Torquemada, this is inquisition in the sense of inquest: Stefan was talking about the representatives of the court, missi, who were sent out to settle cases by holding inquiries. Stefan saw these as the hands and ears of the general initiative of correctio that formed so much of Louis’s royal policy, although he stressed that they only dealt with cases where ‘public’, that is royal, property or persons were involved, not often enough realised I think; monasteries and churches were allowed to conduct their own such proceedings. There is a particular flurry of these enquiries in 829, though they had been running since the beginning of the reign and never clearing their own backlog of cases. His main point was the sheer disruption that all these suits, enquiries and threats to office-holders would have caused; it could not have aided the smooth running of the empire to question all its operators like this, and so Stefan asked what kind of crisis Louis and court thought they were in that it might actually be better to do this. Not for the first time, parallels between the way people are thinking about Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready were unavoidable for anyone who’d been at both this and my session, I think.
  • Martin Gravel, “From Theory to Practice: top-down governnance and long-distance communications in Louis the Pious’s ordinatio of 825″ added to this by tracing the manuscript context of the so-called Programmatic Capitulary and including the second half of it that isn’t very programmatic, usually separated, what are cc. 25-28 if you care about such things, seeing the whole thing as a set of instructions for the operation of the Empire’s system of long-distance reporting, pragmatic as well as programmatic. I thought this was perfectly convincing, though I don’t know the text half as well as some so other views would be interesting.
  • Philippe Depreux, “Videte ut nullam negligentiam habeatis: reception of the King’s missi, tractoria and the Carolingian sense of proportion for hospitality of travelling agents”, took this a stage closer to the ground by looking at how much the royal agents of this sort were allowed to demand by way of hospitality from the king’s subjects when about their business. He stressed that while such provisions go back to Marculf’s Formulary, and therefore this was a seventh-century mechanism, it was being used much more heavily by the Carolingians, and so Louis the Pious was engaged in an ongoing effort to restrict the opportunities within the rules for venality and thus for corruption.
  • Whether this all actually worked would be a project for another time of course: it was stressed in question that though we have a lot of orders for how this was supposed to be done we have very few documents showing it being carried out, though Mark Mersiowsky predictably knew of a few. I offered to explore the early Girona documents for this question for them next year but was rebuffed with polite confusion; I might still do it for Kalamazoo. Rosamond McKitterick made the last, excellent but somewhat acerbic point, that Charlemagne and Louis both wanted people to be able to reach them to complain of malpractice,1 but that the officials those people had to go through were not necessarily so keen, especially the ones in the local positions who were likely to wind up ‘corrected’.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

This then continued after lunch, with a slightly less administrative and more ideological bent.

1205. Texts and Identities, IX: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), II

    Here we had hoped to see Steffen Patzold, who had been so thoroughly invoked two days previously, but though we must have said his name five times, he was still unable to attend so instead things went like this…

  • Jens Schneider, “Louis the Pious on the Road”, which was an old-fashioned attempt to map Louis’s itinerary. This has of course been done, and big problems since found with the technique because we are no longer half so sure that the charters that are issued in king’s names with places of issue on them necessarily indicate any presence of the king, even if the dates are to do with the grant rather than whatever occasion, maybe weeks later, that the document was actually drawn up. Jens elected at the outset to ignore these problems, and so I thought it wasn’t surprising that he found that charter issue locations didn’t look the same as the spread of recorded assembly locations. He wound up with a further methodological problem, in as much as we don’t know how far the king was able to set these locations or how far they were guided by events: I was minded of Jennifer Davis’s argument at Kalamazoo that most of Charlemagne’s so-called policy was a reaction to immediate and present crisis. So as you can probably tell I thought that any charter historian would find big problems with this and so it may not surprise the attentive reader that Mark Mersiowsky stood up in questions and basically tore the method to pieces, allowing as a saving throw the fact that the documents still allowed us to show a connection between king and subject. Stuart Airlie, who was moderating, said he was cancelling his subscription to Archiv für Diplomatik forthwith, which would be a pity if he meant it as I’m in the next one. Anyway…
  • Between these questions and that paper was a rather calmer one, Eric Goldberg, “Hludowicus venator“, which asked what we should take from the unusual attention that is paid to Louis the Pious’s hunting in the sources. It’s not that Charlemagne, who built a huge deer park around his palace and so on, was immune to the thrill of the case, but the chronicles and biographies that cover Louis’s reign do largely pay a lot of attention to his hunts. It has been suggested that this was a way to engage a military élite who were having to come to terms with the fact that there would be no more big conquests, a means of continuing to supply victory, albeit on a smaller scale. Eric balanced the sources that make so much of this with others that don’t (Nithard and Thegan for example) and suggested that though it was plainly only one strategy out of many for leading an imperial-style court lifestyle, it might well be one in which Louis was a greater success than his father.
  • Because we’d only had two papers, Dr Airlie as moderator gave us an improvised “Response” to fill some of the time, reminding us that the court authors and even the legislators of the Carolingian era were often aware of each other’s work, and that while Aachen might well not be the be-all and end-all of Carolingian power, as it sometimes seems, it is still a pretty big deal, a centre of tension and above all suspicion. (Dr Airlie’s vision of ninth-century politics is often darker than many others’.) However, he also said, people were not just passive consumers of Aachen: the audience who beheld it also thought about it and interpreted it to their needs, and they evidently did interpret it as the key centre even though perhaps, in realpolitikal terms, it wasn’t. This seems like a good point, though somehow cheating in a way I can’t pin down.

By the later afternoon, I was flagging. I’d been up too late the night before, it had been three fairly intense days, and caffeine was becoming vital. Also, the rain impeded use of the silver machine, which is the only way I can explain why I was late to the next session, which was a pity. It was this one.

1302. Medieval Monuments as Technologies of Remembrance, II

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

  • So I came in in the opening minutes of Niall Finneran, “Subterranean Memories: rock-cutting Ethiopian churches as commemorative practice”, which meant that although I got to enjoy the pictures, which were fabulous, I didn’t get the paradigm he was setting up that he then spent the part of the paper which I saw contesting. We were talking about churches actually carved from the living rock, hollowed out chunks of cliff or cave, so it was easy to have fabulous pictures. I got to hear about the Axumite culture, which carved its churches so carefully that they look like wood, and had subterranean tombs in their centres just like the pagan shrines they replaced, and the slower process in which the same change-over happened in rural areas, so that Axumite features were still being replicated a millennium later 400-500 miles way. This sounded pretty amazing and then I thought, wait, what about a religion that likes its places of worship with a long hall, let’s call it a nave, crossed by another one with a place for a choir beyond the cross… how far could that spread? But the proof of the continuity of ideas is still worth something, especially when some of these buildings are in such inaccessible places. Who’s the audience? Someone who can replicate it, apparently…
  • Second paper was Meggen Gondek, “Revealing the Pictish Stones: carving ritual, memories, actions and materials”, which was why I’d chosen this one: Dr Gondek’s stuff is always very engaging and deeply thought-out. I was very glad to hear her say that the Picts weren’t one group, as you might expect, and tried to encourage her towards saying that the stones were an élite means of self-identification in questions; she wouldn’t, but did admit that the stones define the region, at the same time saying wisely that their use might not be uniform. The most interesting part of the paper was where she outlined a small group of supposedly Pictish stones which are in fact reused prehistoric standing stones, Pictishly carved, spread over the whole Pictish symbol zone. Whether this was an adoption or an erasure of the previous heritage, given that these things are displaced and arguably disfigured, however, is a lot more tricky to say. If you thought you might say, pairs of these stones in which only one is recarved, like Nether Corskie below, might then still mess up your theory. She instead chose to argue that the process of carving may be the important thing, which we are left trying to read from its results as if they were the thing the act had been focussed on, when in fact it may not have been. You see what I mean when I say her work thinks deeply…
  • The two standing stones at Nether Corskie

    The two standing stones at Nether Corskie, one of which shows Pictish symbols still in the wet

  • Last up was Howard Williams, “Technologies and Transformations in Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, which was exactly the sort of theory-driven paper that might get certain blog acquaintances’ backs up were they not friends of the speaker, but which was focussing on temporary structures, buildings for example that went on top of funeral pyres, built only to be burnt, and in that to be compared to funeral boats or the pyres themselves. Again the focus was on process: we get to see a body, a burial, and the stuff that is buried with the body, and so that’s what we think is important, but we don’t get to see, as it might be, the three or four days that the elaborate room burial is left open to be viewed by visiting relatives; by the time it’s filled in, Williams argued, its purpose might well be over, so intuiting things about belief from its durable contents might be trickier than we’ve so far imagined. The other end of this scale, of course, is the re-use of much older structures, forts, burial mounds, and so on. All this has something to do with memory, but the nature of that memory may be very little like what we think it was; it certainly wouldn’t have to be actually remembered or in any way correct to have a working effect among its holders. The ultimate point of the paper as Professor Williams pitched it was to remember that architecture is built for many more reasons than just settlement, but what I was mainly left with was the urgent need to actually conceptualise the process of burial when dealing with graves. Burial’s always kind of been the archæological focus I don’t have, though, so others may have heard different parts of this rich paper more loudly.

Now this evening was the dance. I actually nearly didn’t go, so tired was I, but I recognised from long experience that giving into that urge is a sure-fire way to feel wretched and friendless so instead I went, drank enough beer to loosen my legs and gave it some. There were enough people who wouldn’t normally dance dancing that I didn’t feel I could really claim it wasn’t my thing, after all. But some mention needs to be made of Kathleen Neal, who if there were prizes being given for enthusiasm ought to have won one, I don’t think she stopped dancing all night and this was no small reason for my also doing such as I did. This is supposed to be a point in the proceedings when you can let your hair down (in my case quite literally) and have fun, after all, it has a cathartic function, and while it’s never going to let me lose it like something where they play the music I actually own would, it’s so much better to join in than to be snotty and aloof. I went back to my room long after I’d meant to leave, reasonably happy with the state of things and much more relaxed than I had been when I got up. Now this entry has been brought to you by Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei and Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, so don’t worry that I’m losing my élitism, but I can put it down for occasions such as this, and just as well really.


1. Would you like an example? Here’s a good example because of the extra complications about how people might not have wanted the plaintiffs to reach the emperor. One occasion in 839 sees Louis the Pious make a restitution to a trio of fellows whom the Abbot of Notre Dame de la Grasse brought all the way north and east to Frankfurt, modulo my concerns about the truth of such information, where they told the emperor a sorry tale of oppression by evil men, at what comes over as very great length. The thing that makes this especially interesting is that the three men, whose names were Gaudiocus, Jacob and Vivacius, were Jews, and moreover Jewish farmers or at least, rural landholders. Presumably they were also clients of the abbey of la Grasse or they wouldn’t have got that kind of representation, so although Louis or Louis’s scribe find some good Biblical cites for not being les nice to non-Christians than to Christians, there’s really no obvious way in which these men aren’t part of the usual network of patronage and landholding in their area. People are conscious there’s an ethnic, or at least a religious, difference, but with the right intermediary they get their hearing and the verdict is just what you’d expect, albeit with a lingering impression that Louis might have given them anything just to get the lead guy to shut up: his speech is reported for some time

I guess this is in E. Magnou-Nortier & A. M. Magnou (edd), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse Tome I 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), but I know it from the rather older Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. II (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

Feudal Transformations XIV: Königsferne

In the aftermath of the great Kalamazoo saga I found there was one particular theme that had threaded through for me, and it seemed to me worth making it explicit, even it’s not very insightful. It was brought to my mind by Cullen Chandler’s paper about whether or not the marquises of the Spanish March of the Carolingian empire rebelled in search of Königsnähe or not, that being literally nearness to the king, access to royal power. No, he concluded, and this made me think, not for the first time but in new words, that what would better describe that situation is not that word but another one that I didn’t know existed, something like Königsferne, distance from the king.1 Do you know what I mean? What the Spanish marquises, albeit not the ones Cullen was talking about, come to want is a king who won’t bother them but to whom appeal can still be made when there’s a need.

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

At several other points in the Congress, the same idea seemed to come up. It was not unlike the French appeals to the pope made by the people of Anna Trumbore Jones’s and John Ott’s papers the next day, people who really didn’t want the pope to actually try and change anything in their areas but for whom he was a useful source of ideological backing for their more local plans. It was implicit in the way that Hajnalka Herold saw the hillfort of Gars Thunau in Austria, as an aristocratic power centre that had few detectable connections to a wider power system. Some of the parts of Alemannia that Karl Heidecker discussed on the Saturday would have fitted too, as far as they were able to escape kingship that much. And, of course, it worked for my paper because it’s studying that area that’s made me think it.

A contemporary depiction of Otto III

A contemporary depiction of Otto III in full royal style, I mean tent

I think we could use reifying this concept in the same way that we have Königsnähe. Certainly, the great deal of work that’s been done on kingship and legitimacy is quite right to to stress the importance of access to the king, once the court’s a centre of attraction anyway. One of the things we now accept as crucial, as a result of the work of people like Jinty Nelson and Matthew Innes, in the Carolingian effort (and the Merovingian one before it, if you ask the right people, and the Ottonian one after it if you can stop people arguing about ritual…) is the ability of the king to get people to look to him to answer their needs, whether it be for war leadership, justice, lands or honour and status, whatever, and the question of who can get those for whom is obviously vital to how the whole kingdom works in that way. But what about when it doesn’t? When we hit situations like these, where a king best serves the interests of his subjects by not being too close to them, how do we explain it?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Obviously, one of the answers has tended to be the same as for every other major social change between the years 900 and 1100, to wit, “it’s the feudal transformation innit?” though this aspect of it at least has tended more to be cause than effect. That probably needs rebalancing, and the scholarship that’s remained interested in that question has tended towards the bigger economic answers, but it still wants verbalising simply, I think. The Carolingian court stops working as a unifying and centripetal force; what happens? Some possible answers:

  1. Civil war discredits the lineage (unlikely given the Carolingian-reverence that continues after Fontenoy).
  2. The fragmentation of the empire makes people used to having a local and less powerful king; the court only really draws at full power when there’s one of it only and it can usefully reach everywhere (a combination of Regino of Prüm and Matthew Innes here, trying to explain why Charles the Fat doesn’t make it.
  3. There are some very ineffective rulers who don’t make this apparatus function at full power, or, Louis the Pious overdrives the whole thing and one way or another jumps the legitimising shark (somewhere between Mayke de Jong and Stuart Airlie here).
  4. The kingdom becomes less relevant as more and more economic resource is accumulated at the local level and people can achieve the local position they want using their own property and that they can appropriate from their erstwhile public offices (Duby and Bonnassie, and therefore the rather less convincing Poly & Bournazel; with some deeper causation and a greater place for inability at the top I suppose this is roughly also where I stand, for now).
  5. A variation of the above: the fossilization of the structure of empire has made it vulnerable to local aggrandisation by the holders of power in the localities and it ceases to be the king who can carry out the actions people need help with in those areas (Dhondt).

There are probably more. The point is, these models all suggest that kingship should become irrelevant, and we have seen in these cases of the search for Königsferne that that isn’t what is necessarily going on. There is a place for the king in these systems, and the cunning king can still play that position and win some of his power back. I maintain that Lothar III does this in the West and the Salian kings show it even more sharply, I’d hazard, by having both huge successes and improbably huge failures in this rôle of providing what the subjects want their king to do and getting back from them what the king wants in terms of service and loyalty. The people who don’t come to court, but still want a king, are a big part of the explanation for this collection of associated phenomena we resist calling a transformation, and maybe we should be thinking about the Königsferne as much as the Königsnähe. These are, if you like, the swing voters, whom a successful king has to secure once he’s got enough the actual courtiers on side to ensure that he can do anything at all. Some of them never do, of course, and some never work beyond the court, and there might be reasons for that far beyond pure personality and acumen of course, but it still needs thinking about, not least by me.


1. Theo Riches, in one conversation, assured me that this word does actually exist in scholarly German, so there we are. Now I shall have to find out where…