Tag Archives: land use

Seminar CLX: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, III

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

Returning to a thread after our short diversion to Lotharingia, the next paper I went to in my massive backlog of such reports was the third of John Blair’s Ford Lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, this one entitled: “Why was Burton Built on Trent? Landscape Organisation and Economy in the Mercian Age?” and occurring on 1st February 2013. Here John was propounding a really quite simple theory that has big implications. Starting by setting out the assumption that other kingdoms would have imitated the practices that had made Mercia successful during the period when it more or less dominated Anglo-Saxon England, he reminded us of his last week’s proposition that at this time the functions of central places were decentralised across wider zones and then asked, more or less, what then is to be read from the place-name ‘Burton’, burh-tun, more or less ‘fortress settlement’? What do these places in fact have to do with fortresses and what would that mean?

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air. Note the cropmark near the pylon! Probably modern, but if not, could it be the ‘Wall’? No, OK. For more such conjectures, read on!

The scale of John’s project made him uniquely able to try and answer this; as he put it, by now he had “gone for pretty much every Burton there is”. And there are a lot! And John’s contention was that they mostly, perhaps almost all given the incomplete state of our knowledge, stand upland from and within sight of an Anglo-Saxon burh, and should be seen as supporting settlements, watch-places or similar. The best example, because actually documented, is Bourton-on-the-Water (unrelatedly, the town I have been to with the highest concentration of teashops—there is a part of the High Street where you can stand and see seven, knowing that two more lie just round a corner—and a really quite good motor museum, but I digress), which King Offa gave to his thegn Dudda in 779, and which is is explicitly said to be “portio ruriculi illius attinens urbi qui nominatur Sulmones burg”, ‘the rural portion belonging to the town named Salmonsbury’, but John had many others, as well as regional variations (Boltons, in Northumbria, relating to Bothals, Kingstons in Wessex, Newtons relating to Roman sites that could be described as “ealde geworce”, ‘old earthworks’).1 The biggest of all, subject of his title, is actually only one of five on the Trent, but relates most probably to Tutbury, an old Iron Age fort facing the Peak District and close to the Mercian royal centre of Repton and Breedon. Littleborough, anciently a Roman site (and in Anglo-Saxon times known as Tiowulfesceaster, ‘Theowulf’s [Roman] fort’) boasts two Burtons and two Strettons (Straet-tun, ‘settlement of the [Roman] road’), spread out on either side of it, and Burcot in Oxfordshire seems to link Badbury and Lechlade, being equidistant between them.

View of hilltops from Burcot, Oxfordshire

View from Burcot towards I-know-not-what hilltop, but maybe one of the right ones. Now we are dealing in sites that are below the burhs, not above them, but then this is a -cot, not a -tun

By this stage, while the number of examples was hard to dismiss, the idea of a system was getting harder to hold on to. John had found many many different ways to relate Burtons to burhs, but I began to wonder whether the choice of which one they related to was always clear, especially since some of the burhs in question were so much older than others, Roman or even Iron Age sites to which names of equally unclear date were being related. One, Black Burton near Bampton, has at least been dug, and produced exactly what John wopuld have wished, Middle Saxon buildings and Ipswich Ware pottery pinning its activity reasonably to the late eighth and early ninth centuries and I expect he will have more, but as ever the work of Mary Chester-Kadwell leaves me bothered about making these links by pure geographic association.2 What if there were just enough burhs in the landscape that when you put a new settlement down there was one nearby it could be defined by? Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. But particular concentrations of Burton-names are still suggestive: John saw a line of them in the Peak District more or less delimiting it, a different pattern of burhweord multiple estates down the Welsh border and a row along the edge of the semi-independent enclave of Hastings with which Offa had trouble.3 (One such site, Bishopstone, relating to the burh at Lewes, has also been dug and showed an eighth-century hall with an associated church over-writing an old minster that Offa seems to have repossessed.) Even if not all of this matches up as neatly as John was arguing it does, quite a lot of it could still be some kind of deliberate organisation.

View of hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire

An obvious-looking candidate, the hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, now topped by a modern ‘Topograph’ but who knows what lies beneath, inside those rampart-like ridges? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways this ought not to be a surprise: we do after all accept that the Mercian kings could enforce, to a reasonable degree, obligations of military construction on their subjects, and even if John were not right about centres being decentralised in this period, a fortress network still needs links and watchposts, something which I very much observe in the similar roll-out of a network in Catalonia.4 Something like this system should have existed, and it may be that John has in fact demonstrated it. There is a space for factual realism here that lies somewhere between my wish for a clearer pattern and a readiness to accommodate all possible variations; after all, the landscape itself is very various, and incorporating legacy elements like Roman and Iron Age fortresses would obviously make sense, both in terms of investment cost and the likely defensibility of their locations. Nonetheless, I suspect I will not be the only one who will want the publication of this theory before them before they can shrug off their modern discomfort over accepting a system so authentically ready to be unsystematic, at which point such a publication may indeed do us a power of good in terms of helping us think in Anglo-Saxon terms, not our own…


1. The 779 grant is printed in W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885-1899), 3 vols, no. 230, and indexed in the Electronic Sawyer here as Sawyer 114. Anything else in this post which is not linked or footnoted to a source is coming out of my notes, and will therefore presumably be found in John’s publication of these lectures.

2. M. Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

3. The defeat of the Hæstingas by Offa in 771 is recorded only in Simeon of Durham’s Historia Regum, trans. Joseph Stevenson in his The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Church Historians of England III.2 (London 1855), online here.

4. It remains a pleasure to invoke Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but we should also add Stephen Bassett, “Divide and Rule? The Military Infrastructure of Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mercia” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 53-85, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2007.00198.x.

Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.


1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon England

One of the features of being so far behind with seminar reports is that I find myself writing about papers whose definitive versions have already been published.1 In some ways this is better than writing about work in progress, as it avoids the occasional issue about whether I’m letting people’s findings out before they’re ready for that to happen and means that my post becomes mere advertising (or, I suppose, warning, but I very rarely bother with reports on papers I can’t say good things about).2 In other ways this is worse: the people who are most interested may well already know about the work. But the Internet is large and not all of you are plugged in to the mains feed of the UK academy, so, I imagine people are still interested in Professor John Blair addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on 19th November 2012 with the title, “Land-Surveying in the Post-Roman West” even though you could now read it for yourselves?3 (I should note, by the way, that this means I’m skipping Annette Kehnel talking to the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 7th October 2012 with the title, “Rituals of Power through the Ages – a History of Civilisation?”, not because it wasn’t fascinating but because Magistra et Mater covered it in depth some time ago and you can read about it at hers.)

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

The whole reason that I spent three years in Oxford was ultimately that Professor Blair (whom I have to call John, really) had got money from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out a thorough-going survey of how settlement changed in Anglo-Saxon England, and I got lucky enough to be his stand-in. This left him free to bury himself in site plans, and as he did so, he told us, he began to notice a particular measurement coming up again and again. Now, this way madness can lie, as John was well aware. Not only do many medievalists not really understand numbers, so that they tend either to dismiss arguments that involve them or else accept them completely uncritically, but medievalists who do understand numbers have in some cases gone much further with them than many would credit, attributing immensely complex calculative abilities to those writing Latin prose in the period, er, just for example.4 At the far end of this lies work on monumental alignments, some of which is justly to be lampooned but some of which is just hard to assess.5 There is some limited work on Anglo-Saxon land measurement, which came up with a common ‘perch’ of 4·65 metres, but testing this has always been tricky because there’s always more material that might not conform.6 John, however, had got closer to being able to survey it all than anyone else ever has and saw what was, indeed, a ‘short perch’ of more or less 15 feet in many many places (although, interestingly, not in Wessex). Aware of the dangers, at this point he’d got a statistician involved and, giving them as close to raw figures as he could, was informed that there was a genuinely significant peak at the 4·6 m mark in them (pretty much 15 ft), as well as some other peaks at the multiples and fractions of that unit that were less demonstrable. Reassured that he wasn’t just seeing things, therefore, he then set out to find out how this was being used.

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

This part involved quite a lot of maps with grid overlays. Here, if anywhere, was the problem of subjectivity. Some of John’s example cases appeared more or less inarguable, although the problem of whether the archæological sequence was right in the first place and all the structures John was lining grids against had been there in the same period was lurking behind even these somewhere. This was easier to accept in some cases than others, especially given that John is famously willing to reinterpret other archæologists’ findings when he thinks there’s reason to do so.7 In other cases, though, I really wanted access to the files so I could see whether shifting the grid overlay by a metre or so one way or the other, or around by a few degrees, would not show up just as many matches, not that I would have been clear what it might mean for the theory if it had. Certainly, there were a few cases that made me think that John’s choice of what to align the grid to was possibly more arbitrary than was good for demonstration. This was much less so in the case of individual buildings (and a surprising number of square and rectilinear buildings could be relatively easily fitted to a 15 ft module, these including not least SS Peter & Paul Canterbury and All Saints Brixworth, whose bays and aisles snap nicely to it, with explanatory significance to which we’ll come), although quite a lot did so only in one dimension, being for example 15 ft wide but, say, 22 ft long, and most site maps provided one or two buildings that just failed to align at all, let alone be the ‘right’ size. The larger the map got the more this kind of non-conformity seemed to me to make the choice of where to lay the grid basically arbitrary, though the fact that some sites present several possibilities may work for John’s theory as much as against it and even, I suppose, open up the possibility of micro-phasing in their topography. Anyway, here was where I was least sure how much credit to give the idea.

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d'Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d’Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

But, as long as even a small number of widely-spread and unconnected sites appear to conform at all, even if many others don’t, something needs explaining, and John had an explanation for how this might all be that, I think, makes his other cases easier to accept as possible. Unlike the prehistoric monument guys who have to assume that the knowledge of calculating such alignments and measurement techniques (not so much of lengths, which could just be a marked rod—perhaps the best bit of the paper was pictures of John himself messing about in open country with a fifteen-foot rod of his own manufacture seeing how hard it would be to lay out a village plan with it, the answer being not very—but of consistently precise right-angles) was transmitted somehow, John could point to texts, in the form of the manuals of Roman surveyors, agrimensores, copied in monastic contexts more or less throughout the period. We’ve already seen some of these texts on this blog, in fact, as such a manual exists from Santa Maria de Ripoll. Finding them in Anglo-Saxon contexts is a lot harder, but the fact that a lot of the uses of this 15-ft module are in fact ecclesiastical suggests that this is the easiest way to imagine its dissemination, monks with building projects putting into action the instructions of the ancients that they actually had written down.

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Fitting nicely with this was not just the number of his examples that John thought could be linked to monastic contexts (especially here the estates of Bishop Wilfrid of York (among other places) whose resort to Rome and Roman technical knowledge is well-documented), where possibly others might be less willing to assume a monastic church structure all over Anglo-Saxon England than he, but also the fact that this module is very hard to find in use between the eighth and tenth centuries.8 In other words, it is best attested during the first, ‘golden’ age of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and then in the age of the Anglo-Saxon monastic reform, both eras in which monastic learning was in fact involved in economic development and alterations to land-holding and land use.9 This works not least because, even though John was quite happy to find connections via which monks might actually have owned or operated many of the estates in question, you don’t actually need that as long as you accept that someone with a project to build a new village or whatever might be aware that the monks had information on such matters which they would probably impart on request. It would need to be quite high-culture monasteries to have a copy of the Ars gromatica in their collections, maybe – it doesn’t show up anywhere outside Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia before the 13th century, says Michel Zimmermann though with various inevitable issues about patchy evidence survival, and Santa Maria is the biggest knowledge storehouse not just in the area but for some way beyond – but a mechanism for the transmission of this knowledge is visible, plausible and thus arguable in the cases where the evidence on the ground might not convince by itself.10

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

Different ways of laying out fields in the Ars gromatica text in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

There is a lot more that could be squeezed out of this, including the possibility of what would basically be tenements laid out for what would basically be serfs by monasteries, although the questions afterwards came substantially from a number of people who were very interested in the continuing use of the Roman foot, questions that made John’s contentions look much saner by comparison in fact, and to which he wisely ducked all answers, saying that the external verification of his 15-ft perch meant that it was the only measure he dared say was genuinely present in the data. John’s final publication of this is a meaty 49 pages in the quarto format Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, too, so I guess that a good bit more has been squeezed out in that version. If you want to know more, therefore, I can only recommend you have a look and get the information from the man himself!


1. How do people manage this? I gave a paper on Monday. If I knocked in all appropriate revisions and rewrote, I could have something ready to send out by the end of the month probably. It would then take at least six months to be reviewed, the changes that required would probably take me another three and then it would still be eighteen months on average till it got to print. So, some time in 2016? Even being a retired expert with a complete grasp of the evidence would only let me crunch three months out of that two-years-plus process. But Lesley Abrams of last post cut that lead time in half and John Blair, of this post, did even better…

2. This has been a matter of concern for me ever since I did my first one of these posts, seven years ago more or less. I always come back to the same answer: if someone is willing to talk about their work in public, anyone who really wants to misuse it can already get at it, and meanwhile, if I write about it more people know whose work to use respectfully on the subject… But it’s always a little dicey.

3. As J. Blair, “Grid-Planning in Anglo-Saxon Settlements: the short perch and the four-perch module” in Helena Hamerow (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 18 (Oxford 2013), pp. 18-61.

4. By which I really mean David Howlett, British Books in Biblical Style (Dublin 1997), a six-hundred-plus page monster that rather defies evaluation, alleging deliberate arithmetical meter in a host of Insular Latin works and apparently only one of five such books Howlett now has on such questions.

5. For example, Charles Thomas, Christian Celts: messages and images (Stroud 1998), blisteringly reviewed by the normally-equable Thomas Owen Clancy in Innes Review Vol. 51 (2000), pp. 85-88, DOI 10.3366/inr.2000.51.1.85.

6 P. J. Huggins, “Anglo-Saxon timber building measurements: recent results” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 35 (Leeds 1991), pp. 6-28.

7. E. g. J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121.

8. The former is of course the great minster debate, actually framed as such in Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104 & J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212.

9. These threads both picked up and carefully woven into much else in J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 135-367, no less.

10. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 891-897 on the Ripoll manuscript and its milieu.

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

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

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

Scylla and Charybdis

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

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

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

Buildings of opposition

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

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

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

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

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

If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

That Bonnassie story in full, or, psst! wanna buy a tower?

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

I said I would tell you Pierre Bonnassie’s story that I used, with caution, in the Oxford seminar paper just gone, and so I will. It’s about a man called Hisnabert and a tower scam. No, not a pyramid scam: read on. Here’s how Bonnassie put it, in my own rough translation.1 He was writing of the wild lands beyond the organised frontier, and said:

This extreme march was really a terra incognita, except to a few specialists. How can one not, in dealing with this, cite the enormous mistake committed in 1012 by the monks of Sant Cugat concerning their territory of Calders? At that date, a certain Hisnabert, pretending to be descended from a very noble line, presented himself to them and claimed that he had, with great effort and at great expense, installed his household, his peasants and livestock there, cleared the territory there and built a tower fifteen cubits in height. The monks, taking him at his word, saw in him ‘an envoy of God and of Saint Cucuphat’ and conceded the domain to him under very advantageous conditions. It would only be five years later, in 1017, that they discovered the imposture (nothing had been done and Calders was in the same state ‘of desert and of solitude’ as in the past!) and they delayed no longer in getting the donation anulled by the judges of the count, Ramon Borrell.

Zing! How could this come about, you may ask, and there the answer is a bit more complex. Sant Cugat is one of the older monasteries in Catalonia: it later claimed to have been founded by Charlemagne (of course) but at the very least it was operational by the 850s, and in 878 it obtained a precept from King Louis II, the Stammerer as he is known to us, confirming all its properties.2 This was, shall we say, aimed at the future, in as much as it included a huge swathe of frontier land at that point well beyond any organised control.3 But, by the approach of the year 1000 that had changed; continuous creeping frontier clearance had advanced the line of organised settlement well into these “extreme furthest ultimate marches” and Sant Cugat was now facing the possibility of being able to claim its rights in these lands, for which reason in 982 it had had them freshly royally confirmed so as to deal with any possibility of people claiming reversion under the Visigothic thirty-year rule and so on.4 The territory was still far from them and difficult to control, of course, so this was why someone like Hisnabert would have seemed so heaven-sent to them; a powerful man who could perhaps reduce some of it to order and get them something out of it. (And if he couldn’t, of course, well, nothing much lost, something that Bonnassie’s version chooses not to consider.)

A tower in Calders, Barcelona

A tower in Calders (probably not the right one but not far off the right height)

But is this really what was happening? If so, it seems very odd that we get to hear about it. That the story was written down once in the grant to Hisnabert is probably explicable: this was an unusual situation and probably demurring voices were raised at the monastery, so the story functions here as a kind of insurance, saying why this odd thing made sense to do. But why do we have it? Once the old grant had been proved worthless, would you keep the original? and would you then, as Sant Cugat did, copy it up later into your cartulary? Okay, maybe their copying endeavour was that attention-less and their archiving that shoddy, but it’s a problem, enough of one to make the original text worth hunting down, and happily for us all, Josep Rius Serra’s edition of Sant Cugat’s cartulary is online. So, what does that say? Well, this is a long document, by the should-be-legendary super-scribe, Bonhom.5 It begins with an account of the capture of Barcelona by Louis the Pious that brought these lands into royal control, the fact that they then remained unused,

because of the incursion and persistent siege by a multitude of the depraved and most savage Ishmaelite race with their troops which raised battles and raids without intermission against the fortifications and castles of the Christians which were founded in the marches of the aforesaid Barcelona

all of which made it a bit unsafe, if you see what he means, and so for more than thirty years, do you see what he did there (and Bonhom is a judge, his own copy of the Visigothic law survives, we know he knew what that implied) it was left for pasturing beasts and nothing more.6 He then sets out the bounds of the property, and there’s quite a lot. But, he adds, after many years of this ceaseless plunder and demolition by the Muslims, Ramon Borrell and his brother Count Ermengol (the First of Urgell) raided through to Córdoba itself, guided by the Hand of God, and:

they put all the Saracens and Berbers to flight, with the help of God, and the king of the Muslims [Mucelemiticum], who had fled to them, they placed in the royal seat at Córdoba. Then God gave tranquillity unto the Christians, and they went out and walked everywhere around the aforesaid Marches [presumably thereby setting boundaries...] and they built many fortifications and castles which had once been destroyed by the aforesaid power of the pagans.

And, you see, this is why I don’t mind so much that there are no chronicles from this area so early, because that’s most of one for 1010 right there. There’s even truth behind the Biblical triumphalism: it seems that a number of frontier fortresses were demolished as part of the peace terms between Borrell II (because he had to come into this somewhere) and his brother Miró III and the Caliph al-Hakam II after he came to power in 961, so these places would have been vacant for most people’s memory by this time.7 And this is the context into which Hisnabert arrives, after a full page of the printed edition gone on historical preamble. Bonhom goes on:

Meanwhile there came forth a certain noble man, Hisnabert, of the nobler sort of origin, who predestined by God and Saint Cucuphat had taken over much of the aforesaid place and sought it from us to live in, he having come there with all his household… [and the rest as in Bonnassie]. For this place, heavy experience tells, was placed in great terror and trembling, so that anyone who should live there from day to day would not escape being himself often subject to danger on account of his or others’ possessions or money. On account of which it pleased us [Abbot Guitard of Sant Cugat, in whose voice the document is phrased] and all the congregation of monks subject to the aforesaid martyr, with the consent of the lord Count Ramon, his wife Countess Ermessenda acquiescing, Borrell Bishop of Osona assenting, Pere Bishop of Girona and Ermengol Bishop of Urgell agreeing, we unanimously with good heart and prompt will give and concede the aforesaid town and its church of Santa Oliva with the money or offerings of first fruits or other gifts of the faithful, and of these tithes we dedicate two whole parts [presumably of three]… to you the aforesaid Hisnabert.

There then follows a long precision of the terms under which he holds, which are basically that his family may inherit it but that neither he nor they may bestow this property or its proceeds anywhere other than Sant Cugat, that Sant Cugat will still be able to pasture their animals there and they retain rights of access and can remove him if necessary. And the abbot and fifteen monks sign along with six untitled laymen and the count and countess. So okay, let me just pull out some things there:

  1. If Hisnabert is actually a fraudster, it’s not just the monks and abbot he’s fooling here; he’s also fooled the count and countess and every bishop in Catalonia, some of whom know this area as only frontier landgrabbers could (that’s Saint Ermengol to you);8
  2. the specification of the property’s bounds calls it Santa Oliva, “as it was called in antiquity”; I don’t quite know if they’re anticipating him restoring the church, they don’t say so explicitly, but they do appear to anticipate it rendering tithe (or rather money: denaria not decima), which in turn implies a reasonable population base and it’s hard not to imagine the church is already up and running;
  3. it seems to be implied that Sant Cugat’s contact with this area has been, and will remain, running herds of animals through it; at that rate, they ought to be passing through the area probably twice a year if not more, and should also have known there was no tower if tower there wasn’t, not just far quicker than five years later but even before this was being granted, which is also implied by the gravis experientia of its vulnerability that they report; it all reads as if this was familiar territory to them, even if still wild.

All of which then makes me want to look at the five-years-later charter, also available online.9 And, lo, it is a bit complicated, but basically what happens here is that a woman called Adelaide comes to court at Barcelona, on behalf of her infant son by her late husband Guillem del Castell Sant Martí, whose father Galí had cleared some frontier territory at Calders, and she says Sant Cugat are moving in on her land and what’s the count going to do about it? So the abbot rocks up with his papal privilege and royal precepts and so forth and sets them all down, but the array of judges present, including Ponç Bonfill Marc, Son of Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, look them over and find there’s nothing in them covering this property. Red faces for Sant Cugat’s men! But it’s no better for Adelaide, who also can’t prove any right to the land. “On which account,” intones young Ponç, “it was judged in the same court to be better and more true that this land should be princely land just like the other spaces of waste land,” or to put it another way, the count gets to swipe it. It seems to be at this point that the abbot produced the grant to Hisnabert, or Isimbert as Ponç prefers to spell it, which is the first point at which it becomes clear we’re talking about the same property or properties, but the judges decided that since Sant Cugat had held no right to the land, they could not rightfully have granted it to Hisnabert. The count, however, so careless about his property, decided that probably Sant Cugat should have it after all, now, and granted it there anyway, aww, whereafter,

since it is necessary to build castles and fortifications in the waste marches and in solitary places against the attacks of the pagans, and since Isimbert himself did not develop this land, which instead remains a waste and solitude, the above-noted Guitard, abbot, and his monastic brothers were advised and ordered, on the instruction of Countess Ermessenda and by her son Count Berengar, and by the men written below, that they should seek out such a man as would build and develop this waste land in the service of God and Sant Cugat, just as they should require, and they give it to that man by this precarial charter of donation for management together.

By this stage I’ve already lost track of just whom Hisnabert even would have ripped off: Galí and son, the monks, the count? But what is clear is that no-one is here saying he wasn’t a nobleman or had lied or whatever, or that there was no tower. That would have been at Santa Oliva, presumably; the land here is at Calders, and the problem seems to be that he hadn’t developed that, in other words, that his tenure had resulted in insufficient value added. The count, or rather the countess—this case, despite its date of 1017, seems to have dragged on past Roman Borrell’s death in 1018, take note—weren’t happy with that, but the implication seems pretty strong that if the monastery had not been told to do otherwise, they’d have given the lands straight back into Hisnabert’s hands. Instead, the document as we have it has the whole hearing copied out merely as a precursor to the new grant to one Bonet Bernat. And then, right at the end, in a fit of afterthought worthy of his learned father, Ponç adds, along with his own signature and that of the other judges, this codocil:

we the judges who edited this, and by the ordination of our competence gave a term to the waste land at Torre, the tower that Isimbert made in the lands of Sant Cugat by the ordination of the above-noted donation that Abbot Guitard made to that Isimbert, and we reserved all the lands brought under cultivation, and all the buildings and workings that are in the circuit of the already-said tower to that term. The rest however, we ordain just as is written here. Signed Ponç, also known as Bonfill, cleric and judge, who have written these things….

And that, I think, changes everything. Because look, a tower! It was there all along! And cleared lands and buildings and stuff! Hisnabert had done his stuff! Instead, what seems to have happened is that Adelaide’s suit, far from the only one that Sant Cugat’s efforts to make its privileges and precepts count in these lands kicked off, had started an enquiry no-one wanted, not even her at the end, leading to Ramon Borrell being able to assert fiscal control of the area and thus retaining the ability to direct it, via Sant Cugat. That this is so, even though the terms on which it was given back to the monastery grant them full right, is clear from Ermessenda’s later order to change its manager; Bonet Bernat was presumably one of her people she wanted in instead. Or, indeed, maybe Hisnabert just hadn’t done enough. But either way, Sant Cugat weren’t, to their credit, about to turf him and his familia out on their collective ear; his tower was quietly secured as its own term by the judges, quite possibly once the countess (not a woman it was wise to cross) had left, and left “the rest… just as is written here”. So for once, a happy ending, except for Adelaide and her little son Bernat (wait, Bernat? but no, there are probably a dozen Bernats here, it probably isn’t the son being put in charge alas) at least.

Charter of Sant Cugat del Vallès

A charter of Sant Cugat (not the right one, but probably about the right height...)

Those of you who were at the paper will maybe notice that this isn’t quite how I told the story there: instead, I suggested that the monastery had dispossessed Hisnabert for some reason, and had kept the charter to be able to prove their own title to it and the terms under which they could do that, whereas actually it seems that they probably kept it because they still had him there on the land. I would have to confess that I seem to have relied too heavily on notes and didn’t myself then notice the codocil in the second document, which does rather alter the picture. Still, I take some small solace in the fact that apparently Bonnassie didn’t either and he had it in print for thirty-five years before anyone spotted a problem…


1. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975, 1976), I p. 127.

2. R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolíngis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-1952), Sant Cugat del Vallès I.

3. Not that this area was completely anarchic! I have got so fed up of waiting for my paper on this to come out that it is very tempting just to stick the proof PDF on the web somewhere, but for now, I still hope that you will one day be able to see: J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), pp. 83-109, now heading for its fourth third anniversary in process.

4. On the thirty-year rule you can at least see my work, in this case, Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 325-327.

5. The document is edited as J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés (Barcelona 1946), doc. no. 449.

6. On Bonhom, meanwhile, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92, where his copy of the Forum Iudicum is briefly described and where references to it are given.

7. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona. False metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming), pp. 1-42 at pp. 14-15 with references to the Catalan scholarship.

8. On whom see Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16.

9. Rius, Cartulario II, doc. no. 464. This one’s brilliant.

Name in print IV: the new Early Medieval Europe has me in it twice

This is the first part of the important news I’ve not been getting round to posting, and this bit already broken at Medieval History Geek. In fact, had I not checked in out of curiosity, Curt’s notice that the new issue of Early Medieval Europe was online would have been the first I’d heard of it myself; their mail didn’t arrive till rather later. That’s how cutting-edge he is folks! You will hear it there first, at least sometimes. And now today my single author’s copy has arrived in the post, so it is genuinely ‘out there’.

So yus. We have here two instances of me in my negative scholarly mode, in the first place a paper I’ve mentioned here a fair few times as it developed or waited but which was started by my reaction to an earlier EME paper by Cullen Chandler, on a procedure of land settlement from our mutual corner of medieval Europe which had a unique name, aprisio.1 This seems to come from the same root as aprehendere, means something like ‘taking over’ and if you read the article you’ll see that I have doubts as to whether it ever bore the legal significance that it’s often been given. Here’s the abstract:

Important aspects of social history can sometimes be lost in legalisms. A long debate, recently continued in EME, has studied the right of aprisio claimed by those who took over wasteland on the frontier of the future Catalonia. This paper argues that previous treatments of the term have conflated many separate factors and misunderstood what aprisio actually was in practice. When studied at ground level it seems that, despite the role given to immigrant settlers by historians, landholders by aprisio need not have been newcomers, but locals using new rules for otherwise normal land clearances.

After I’ve cleared the previous scholarship on the word and the phenomenon out of the way to my satisfaction, I do therefore get onto some more constructive consideration of how frontier settlement might have worked and how the various models fit with the actual evidence of practice. I think that that is the paper’s actual importance, but you could be forgiven for reading it as mainly a hatchet job on the older work, and in that it is true, ’tis pity, that Cullen’s paper gets the most blows with the axe, not least because it’s closest of course. Medieval History Geek has given Cullen a kind of right of reply with a post about it and if you want to see how we argue, there are a few comments there showing it in action. Here I just want to say, I first wrote this in 2003. It’s been through various stages of refinement as I referenced more and more previous scholarship in it, incorporated feedback, eased the critique and added more alternative views, but it was still in the print queue three months before I first met Cullen. At that first meeting I warned him this was coming, because I didn’t want us to become friendly and then him find out the hard way I’d only finished throwing daggers at his back a few months previously. I’m afraid I stand by every word, and I think they’re good words and am happy to have them being read, but it’s still kind of regrettable it’s taken this long, not least because the new paper of his that this one shares the issue with demonstrates perfectly well that he is a scholar to be taken seriously and learnt from.2

It’s also regrettable to an extent that this comes out at the same time as my review of Kathleen Davis’s book Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008). I have not been kind about this book, which I think is two article-length ideas, one of which was already out, blown up to book-length by massive and unhelpful repetition and free use of ‘the language that locks others out‘, and which had no business going to an early medievalist journal. So I was thorough, so that someone could hopefully tell if they needed to read it despite my dislike, but my writing is unavoidably negative here as well. These two things were begun four years apart and have emerged together only by coincidence, but the effect on me is that I now want to reassure people that I can write nice things about people’s scholarship, honest.3

Statistics: the article presented once in 2005; three drafts, one revision stage. Time from first submission to print: two years six months, slowed at least in part by strategical favouring of things that at the time I thought would come out sooner. I guess we probably could have shaved six months off that if I’d put it first. Also, unless their printers are somehow mistaken, it would apparently cost me £750.00 to have any offprints at all and I can’t have fewer than fifty, which is taking the mickey I think, as is their copyright agreement. On the other hand I will say this: there were almost no errors in proof at all, and that was a wonderful surprise, as indeed was the publication… As for the review, one draft one revision, time from first submission to print one year one month, and there were no proofs of this to check but it looks fine now.


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford forthcoming), pp. 320-342, provoked by Cullen J. Chandler, “Between court and counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″, ibid. 11 (2002), pp. 19-44.

2 Chandler, “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues”, ibid. 18 (2010), pp. 265-291.

3. I have been taken to task for being too self-deprecating about my publications here, and this is probably fair: after all, EME’s a top-rated journal and I am, I am really pleased to be in it again. But it is the devil of publishing in the humanities that things take so long to come out that they have become awkward by the time they emerge, and this is a particularly sharp example of that.

On boundaries

Aerial view of bocage in Normandy

Some modern Norman boundaries

A post by the inimitable Gesta at On Boundaries had me wanting to go, hey, hey look at my stuff in the way that I do, and that seemed best done over here.1 Specifically, among lots of other interesting things about the recent Norman Edge symposium, “Local boundaries and national frontiers of the Norman World”, that they’d just been to, they reported on a paper by Ewan Johnson, which seems to have been called “Land boundaries and cultural contact in Southern Italy”, and which talked about boundary clauses in charters. Aside from the matter of what language they’re in, which has fascinated people like Patrick Geary, there isn’t actually that much work ‘On Boundaries’ in this context that I’m aware of.2 Gesta will probably now set me a reading list, and fair enough, I need it. Before they can, however, I just want to say, I have thought about this for my material, and not come up with much. Let me tell you how it goes.

Almost all of the charter material I use concerns land, and it is usually concerned to delineate that land. There’s a small number of schema by which this is done, right across Catalonia. The one that’s commonest in my area is to describe it by compass points, thus, here, from a donation to the cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic from 930:3

Et afrontat ipsa vinea de parte orientis in strata qui pergit ubique, et de meridie in torrente, et de occiduo in vinea de nos donatores, et de circii similiter in vinea de nos donatores.

The which, translated roughly, goes:

And this vine is bounded from the eastern side on the street that goes to everywhere, and from the south on a torrent, and from the west on the vine of us the donors, and on the bit around similarly on the vine of us donors.

The first thing I get from these clauses is a sense of landscape, therefore. These people appear to be in the wilds: there is a castle nearby, we learn from elsewhere in the document, but there are no other people but them on these lands, and there’s only one road and it leads out. This could be misleading, of course; if they’re only giving one tiny corner of a larger estate they may still be small fish in a big pond who’ve just installed St Peter in their garden, in a way.4 It’s very rare for these documents to give lengths of the sides, so we don’t know how much vineyard was actually involved here. But it’s obviously not heavily subdivided landscape; in other areas you wind up with roads on every side, for example, whereas with some where the bounds are just forest or rock you get the idea that they’re your actual pioneers(-oh).5 So it’s not much like this, with its lots of plots:

Vines in the foothills of the Penedès, Catalonia

Vines in the foothills of the Penedès, Catalonia

On the other hand, it’s also obviously formulaic. Almost every charter in the cathedral archive is like this, but not every plot of land can have been square and arranged with its sides north-south-east-west. Sometimes, indeed, you get the same feature turning up on two (or even more) boundaries, indicating that topography didn’t fit the form, but the form is still adhered to, here at least.6

It’s the ‘here at least’ bit that interests me. That’s how it’s done at Vic; but, for example, in a sale to Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de les Abadesses of land in Vallfogona that leaps off the page of Catalunya Carolíngia IV.1 at me, we get this instead:7

… afrontat ipsa casa cum curte et orto de I parte in torrentem discurrentem et de alia parte in strada publica et de tercia parte in terra Reinulfo et de IIII parte afrontat in terra de te iamdicta emtrice.

Or:

… the selfsame house with courtyard and garden is bounded, on one side on the flowing torrent and from another side on the public street and from a third side on the land of Reinulf and from a fourth side on the land of you the already-said buyer.

It’s usually four sides at Sant Joan, too, but they’re not compass-linked, and when necessity drives they’ll go up to five or even six sides, and quite often drop to three.8 This looks as if it reveals more about the land, as well as illustrating that we’re in a more developed zone here: the public street is probably the Camí de Vallfogona which joins up the local area to the strata francisca from Narbonne to Zaragoza and beyond, and the nunnery’s just over the next ridge.9 In fact, if you look at this…

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

… we’re about four or five miles off to the left, and that vague cluster of buildings just visible in the middle distance is where Abbess Emma had her pad. Now this too is another formula, though as I say they do seem to make it work harder here.10 The thing that intrigues me, as a charter scholar, is that they differ at all, because in other respects the documents are formulaically pretty close and so, indeed, is the whole March.11 But these two houses, which are not far from each other, have different institutional practices in the recording of boundaries. (The very few documents recorded in any detail from Santa Maria de Ripoll suggest that they also used this scheme.12) The only formulary we have from this area doesn’t even get as far as boundary clauses, it’s really only interested in how you start documents off.13 So I have no real idea how this stuff is being taught to the scribes except that it’s presumably in-house (and this is why I have, reluctantly, to persist with Michel Zimmermann’s book and obtain various others).14 But in case it also intrigues anyone else, even potentially Gesta or Ewan, I stick it out there.


1. At least, I couldn’t imitate them, and I’ve never heard of it being done…

2. For example, P. J. Geary, “Land, Language and Memory in Europe 700-1100″ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 169-184. Now, if you like frustration, try pinning down some of the Languedoc references from that article. I found one, not where he says it is. Anyway.

3. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueolòlogica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. [hereafter CC4] 367.

4. I unpack that idea at greater length in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), pp. 122-125, and that is the first time I have ever been able to cite a page reference from this book that now has them, rooooaaaarrrrr!

5. For example, CC4 473, a sale of land in Montpeità whose bounds are given as: “… terra qui est a Monte Pectano afronta: de oriente in roca et de meridie in serra et de occiduo similiter de circi similiter in serra“. I figure it’s not lowland fields here.

6. For example, CC4 561, where the bounds are: “de parte orientis in vinea Auria, de meridie in terra Richila, de occiduo in terra Endaleco, de circi in vinea Auria vel suos eres“, which is one of quite a number of documents out in these once-pioneer areas where the principal landholders appear to be widowed mothers.

7. CC4 229.

8. If this really interests you, I give references and a few examples in J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 67-68.

9. I talk about Vallfogona and its social make-up, and indeed the Camí, in great detail in Rulers and Ruled, pp. 30-49 (roar again!), but if you can’t wait that long or want expertise on roads, the Camí is discussed by Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Camí de Vallfogona” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica X: el Ripollès, ed. J. Vigué i Viñas (Barcelona 1987), pp. 449-450.

10. The other thing we see, occasionally, and especially where large properties are at issue it seems, is bounds that are continuous, as if they’d been walked out (which they may of course have been) such as CC4 513, where one property is bounded as follows: “de ipsa casa vel de ipso orto qui fuit de fratri meo Walafonso usque in ipsa strada que discurrit ante domum Sancti Andree apostoli usque in ipsa karreira“. The biggest of these is unquestionably E. Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 445, which sets it out for the whole bishopric of Osona. That goes on for a bit.

11. See J. Jarrett, “Uncertain Origins: Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, I: Formulas and Realities – Did Charters Reflect Real Life?’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9 July 2007, hopefully to appear in the volume of essays we’re putting together from the sessions.

12. For example, CC4 603.

13. It is published as Michel Zimmermann (ed.), “Un formulaire du Xème siècle conservé à Ripoll” in Faventia Vol. 4 no. 2 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 25-86, online here. It is, in any case, from later than any of the documents I’m talking about here: see Jarrett, “Pathways of Power”, pp. 63-68.

14. Not least Peter Erhart, Karl Heidecker & Bernhard Zeller (edd.), Die Privaturkunden der Karolingerzeit (Zürich 2009), he says in paltry declaration of intent. (PDF flyer including contents here.)

Seminary XLVIII: plus ça change, plus c’est la Rome chose

The penultimate (I almost typed punultimate, but I’m afraid I probably have more than one left) gathering in this year’s Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminars took place on the 12th May, and Chris Wickham drove direct from giving one paper in Oxford to give us a different one in Cambridge, in the course of things proving that Cambridge’s tidal one-way system is a form of gatekeeping the University would never have stooped as low as. Anyway, your humble correspondent may have had too little sleep and too much tea so I’ll try and stick to the reportage. The title of the paper was “Social Change (and Complexity) in Early Medieval Rome, 700-1000″.

The paper was divided into three parts, and the first of those went on ceremonial. The focus was on the elaborate adventus ceremonies that Rome mounted for incoming emperors, something which needed doing fairly rarely, and so was always exceptional, but nonetheless had a background going back to the late Empire, and which had been progressively updated to incorporate new social orders like the ex-Byzantine militia (whoever they actually were) in the old hierarchy.1 Rome was in this respect open to change as long as it could package it firstly as antique and secondly as unique; nowhere else went to the same level of elaboration over these things except perhaps Constantinople, one of the few cities bigger than Rome in any of the Empire, let alone the West where it was unrivalled. (This was really the only part of the paper which really went back to 700; most of the focus was on the tenth century, which was of course fine with me.)

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

This led to questions of how such a city supported itself, which are unusually complex because inside, say, 20 miles of the centre, there was no visible peasant landholding. This doesn’t preclude agriculture, of which there obviously was some even within the old city walls, but it must have been tenant farming because all, to an incredible degree of exclusion, of the land visible in the tenth-century charters was Church-owned and had been as far back as can be seen in the record. This doesn’t mean it was full of churchmen because almost all of it was leased out to aristocrats, including for example the Foro di Nerva above, on which in the ninth century private housing was built. Other previously-public spaces developed workshops, housing, gardens, and so on, apparently built for profit, but the land remained the church’s, and there was apparently no guarantee of heredity when the time came for the leases to be renewed, though since most of these leases were made for three lives, a certain amount of future planning was possible. Nonetheless, when laymen give land to the Church in these records, it is land that they had leased; land that they owned was all much further away. Yet they lived in Rome, and leased land to do so, land on which they tried to turn a profit but which they did not own. The rents were tiny, so what the Church got from this was something that Chris had yet to resolve; one assumes, protection and a clientèle but I got the impression that Chris would have preferred an economic rationale, and as he observed, since these arrangements last for generations and are often seen at renewal, they must have been economically viable because otherwise all the leasing churches would have gone bankrupt.

Anyway, Chris’s general point was that there is a lot of change in Rome, especially in the tenth century, a lot of it at the high political level but also a growing change in the development of the economy, artisanal titles becoming more and more visible in charters as the year 1000 approaches, various sorts of associations of clerics and laymen joining the existing ones (often seen through the ceremonial by which they articulated their links to the old and current orders). Despite this, the social structure of the city, most of all focussed on the pope but below him mediated through dozens of links between Church and churches and aristocrats of various grades, with a pre-eminent family (the Theophylacti, family of the Patrician Alberic) not diminishing that variety, stayed more or less the same. The long-term nature of the lease situation and its apparent inherent stability left the aristocrats, who were getting profit from the lands and the social capital of a Roman presence, and the churches who were getting, well, we don’t really know but they kept doing it so there must have been a reason, with no reason to alter things. In the end, Chris suggested, it was Henry IV and Gregory VII who spoiled this equilibrium by really really messing with the ability to maintain this lay-ecclesiastical property-sharing; reform undid Rome’s social networks.

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

That bit sounds a bit glib, but I’m fine with the implication that the tenth century is pretty stable. I’ve seen a few of the relevant charters, however, and the impression I got is that it’s not just the economy that’s elaborating.2 Or maybe it is, but landholders are transacting more, or being recorded more, scribes who used to only be seen working for the pope are seen doing private jobs, this is when at least one of the texts of the papal formulary and general order of practice known as the Liber Diurnus is probably created, and in general Rome is taking part in a much wider economic phenomenon visible all around the Western Mediterranean in which at least, after some hard centuries, the economy is beginning to kick out a genuine surplus.3 An awful lot of the change that’s supposed to happen around 1000 firstly comes from this new availability of surplus, and therefore the resources with which to do things differently, and secondly, is largely seen (because of the nature of our sources) in terms of elaboration and increased preservation of documents. That last makes it hard to tell what’s new and what was already there but just invisible, but as Chris said, in the few places where documents go back further than this period, they don’t show the same concerns and, although formulas changing can obscure or reveal a lot, they also represent a change in social practice that has made the old ones less useful. This is an old argument associated indelibly with the name Barthélemy, though it should as I’ve argued be associated instead with its resolution by Bedos-Rezak, and I won’t do it again here. But it did seem to me that Rome was here partaking of a wider pattern from which its indubitable distinctiveness shouldn’t be allowed to separate it. The wind was blowing on Rome and on, I don’t know, Aigüatèbia de Conflent alike.

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that I wanted to remark on was the behaviour of the `aristocrats’. For Chris’s purposes anyone not farming their own food is an aristocrat, and I thought that in a society as stratified as Rome that didn’t break things down enough. Some of these guys, the Theophylacti for example, were really important people who could make most of the city follow their bidding (no-one can make all of Rome follow their bidding, not since Octavian if then), and some were just struggling people we’d call knights anywhere else, and to imply that they’re all supported by the same system and that that doesn’t change, while acknowledging that they are also changing the face of Rome’s public spaces and embroiled, as we can tell from Liutprand of Cremona, in all kinds of power politics, seems like a disjunction to me. These are people involved in political change and economic agency, and I felt that the link between the fierce competition and change at that level, and the apparent stasis of the social structure, needed exploration. But then, we know so little about what these people did. It’s always amazed me how little work there is on Alberic. A guy starts calling himself Prince of Rome and ruling the city alongside the pope! Apparently no-one can oust him. He can almost ignore the kings! And yet somehow Pierre Toubert seems to be the only person who’s thought him worth writing about in the last century (and I confess, I haven’t read that writing).4 Am I missing something or is that badly out of synch with what people would find interesting anywhere else? So it’s easy to understand why such a story is not yet told, and the story that Chris was telling at system level was equally new to me and equally fascinating, but I did feel that there were these two halves to the story which will only make sense together, and now I’m hoping someone will do the other one.


1. Much of what Chris was saying will, I expect, emerge in his own work in the not-too-distant future, but two references of resort were Pierre Toubert’s Les structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle (Rome 1973) and Roberto Meneghini & Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Roma nell’Altomedioevo: topografia e urbanistica della città dal V al X secolo (Roma 2004).

2. The Roman charters with which I’m familiar are mainly edited in L. Allodi & G. Levi (edd.), Il Regesto Sublacense del Secolo XI, Bibliotheca della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria (Roma 1885) & L. M. Hartmann (ed.), Ecclesiae S. Mariae in Via Lata Tabularium. Partem vetustoriem quae complectitur chartas inde ab anno 921 usque ad a. 1045 (Wien 1895), both of which give a giddying impression of social complexity.

3. The Liber Diurnus is something of a controversy; its function, date and importance are all long disputed. The two most recent contributions to the debate I’ve seen are Hans Hubert Anton, “Der Liber Diurnus in angeblichen und verfälschten Papstprivilegien des früheren Mittelalters” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Teil III: diplomatische Fälschungen (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXIII.3 (Hannover 1988), pp. 115-142, and Hans-Henning Kortüm, Zur papstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 312-318, but I’m sure there’s more since I was up with this stuff. As for the economy, I don’t think the tenth-century growth is widely enough appreciated. It’s somewhat dwarfed by the economic take-off of the eleventh and twelfth centuries but this take-off run unleashes an awful lot of social development and change. The only decent comparative treatment I know arises in a conference volume, La Croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. Toubert, Latium, and idem, “Une révision : le principat d’Albéric de Rome (932-954)” in idem, Études sur l’Italie médiévale (IXe-XIVe s.), Collected Studies 46 (London: Variorum 1976), V.

A conference across the sea

I am slightly torn with this entry, between doing it briefly without saying anything too controversial to what appears to be a newly-expanded readership, because many of you may be the people about whom I’d be writing, and between doing it justice. Since my attempts to keep my posts short never really work, I think I can guess which side will win…

Anyway, this post is about the Haskins Society Conference just gone, where I just went. You may not know what the Haskins Society for Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Angevin and Viking History is, but their full title there given (and punctuated as per UK English I notice, which is odd) and the explanation on their webpages may answer your question:

The Society was organized in May 1982, mostly at the instigation of graduate students from UCSB. Permission was gained from George Haskins of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to name the society in honor of his father, Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), a great force in the development of medieval studies in America, whose Renaissance of the Twelfth Century reshaped our conception of high medieval civilization and whose Norman Institutions contributed fundamentally to our understanding of medieval Normandy.

So there you have it, and as you can tell from the index to their journal, the work that gets presented to them is often of a pretty high order. Quite what I was doing there, given that I don’t deal in any of their immediate spheres of interest beyond a general one in kingship and nobility, is an interesting question, and we could get Aristotelian on it, but the efficient cause was that Matt Gabriele of Modern Medieval asked me to participate in a panel he was chairing, and this was the point at which I realised this whole blog idea might have been good for something after all, and I accepted without counting the cost.

I could just about afford it. The conference fee itself is not too bad, steeper than Leeds (which is pretty steep) but without Leeds’s budget-airline-like hidden charges. The accommodation however, even at a discount rate, was far beyond what was really needed. Leeds is too big to do anything much beyond student rooms, Haskins can squeeze into hotels, but hotels in Washington DC two days after the US public had elected someone whom many seem to hope will be Superman,1 were never going to be cheap, and the cost of the accommodation far exceeded the conference fee whereas Leeds is always the other way about. The food, also, was not exactly budget, though it was easy enough to stomp off somewhere and ensure, at least, that you only paid ten dollars for a huge and nutritious meal rather than twenty for a medium-sized gourmet one (though the hotel food itself was rather poor). The coffee is generally far better in the US than in the UK, at least. Anyway, I’m not going out much till pay-day, and I’m unlikely to go to Haskins again until I can make someone else pay for it, alas; it’s just not viable from the UK for me. Also, if first impressions are to mean much, it was raining when I arrived just as it had been in England when I left, and pretty much the first store-front I saw offered me this failure of intended expression:

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

'I do not think it means what you think it means'

But was it worth doing? Well, ultimately I guess we still have to find out, but I thought it was a very positive experience. It was fascinating to put faces to many names: I used to be able to guess people’s appearances from their writing a bit, but this went wrong in 2003 or so and now everyone I meet in the field comes as a surprise. On the other hand, the first person I recognised was an IHR regular and so were many others; it was very much, in that respect, like the party at which, to your delight, two previously separate groups of friends finally mix and all get on splendidly. In general it was a sociable and friendly conference, and Alan Thacker observed to me how noticeable it was that literature types and hard-history types had all found ground on which they could talk to each other productively. So I would say go if you’re likely to be interested, but only if you have somewhere cheap to stay (next year is at Boston College, which might be cheaper) and eat.

That leads onto the next question, are you likely to be interested? Well, let me give you the program, with one-sentence remarks that should hopefully keep me from alienating any new friends and contacts.

Friday, November 7

Featured speaker: the C. Warren Hollister Memorial Lecture

Paul Hyams, “Reconciling Brain and Backbone: is medieval history still defensible?”
An interesting and anecdotal plea for us to avoid avoiding the past’s analogies with the present, but instead to use them as a way to get the news out that people going through tough times can learn from the fact that other people went through similarly tough times before.

The Legend of Charlemagne and the Negotiation of Power

  • Jonathan Jarrett (who he?), “Legends in their own Lifetime? The late Carolingians and Catalonia”. Apparently the area that would become Catalonia remained attached to the idea of the Carolingians enough to occasionally obey them even up till 986, which is all very well, and (I thought) stylishly demonstrated, but why was this guy saying it here right after the keynote, eh?
  • Wendy Marie Hoofnagle, “A New Look at the New Forest: the rôle of Charlemagne in the Exercise of Royal Power”, arguing that William the Conqueror’s laws about the royal forests of England emulated Carolingian legislation like the Capitulare de villis
  • Anthony Adams, “The Memory of Karolus Magnus and the Question of Power and Privilege in Late Medieval England”, treating Charlemagne as the rather degenerate figure he becomes in later romances where the hero usually mocks him rather than respect him

Women and Lordship

  • Lois Huneycutt, “Adeliza of Louvain, Queen of England, Countess of Arundel, and the Flemish Connection”
  • Heather Tanner, “Cyphers or Lords? The inheriting countesses of Boulogne and Ponthieu (1173-1260)”
  • RaGena DeAragon, “Two Countesses of Leicester: Petronilla de Granmesnil and Loretta da Braose”
  • A very coherent session in which several high medieval noblewomen got their 15 minutes of fame, but I was most struck by the last paper which compared two successive countesses of the same honour who could hardly have been more different, one joining her husband in rebellion and the second spending most of her adult life as a widowed anchoress.

Historical Narrative and the Problem of Authorship

  • Thomas Bredehoft, “Wulfstan the Homilist and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, arguing that more annals than have previously been reckoned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be attributed to the pen of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, with knock-on implications for the history of the ‘D’ manuscript
  • Nicholas Paul, “Les livres, les gestes e les estoires: the authorship, function and proliferation of dynastic historical narratives in the twelfth century”, looking at the sudden and brief flurry of genealogical historiography among the nobility of the West in that period, special mention for being the second person that day to talk about the Catalan dynasty myth

Saturday November 12th

Men and Masculinities at the Courts of the Anglo-Norman Kings

  • Kirsten Fenton, “Men and Masculinities in William of Malmesbury’s Presentation of the Anglo-Norman Kings”
  • Simon Yarrow, “Men and Masculinities in the Writings of Orderic Vitalis”
  • William Aird, “‘The Wild Bull and the Old Sheep’: images of masculinity and conflict at the courts of William Rufus”
  • Again, a session so coherent that any of the speakers could probably have written both the others’ papers, but all leaning towards the idea of a conservative church literature decrying men of the latest fashion they found to be long-haired and sexually ambiguous so as to get the girls. For some reason this possibility confused some of the audience, who therefore we know do not work on goths…

Personal Names and Cultural Identity

  • Francesca Tinti, “Names, Miracles and Witnesses in early Anglo-Latin hagiographies” pointing out that Bede drops a lot of his sources from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert when writing his own and substitutes his own chain of authorities, and discussing that’s effects
  • Regan Eby, “Personal Names and Identity in Eleventh-Century Brittany”, showing that families did not divide between French and Breton identities in the border zones of Brittany but in fact used both name-stocks for their children equally
  • Chris Lewis, “Cultural Identity and the Changing Personal Names of the English in the Twelfth Century”, arguing that English names persist a long time but that some Norman names become so common as to effectively be identifiers of English origins by this time

Featured Speaker

Mark Gardiner, “Can we quantify the area of assarted land in twelfth-century England?”, complicating the idea of land clearance by reminding us that uncleared land is often still under quite heavy use for grazing and forest pasture, which eventually clears land itself, as well as other solid observations.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bede

  • Alan Thacker, “Bede and his Martyrology, arguing that the venerable author was doing something different, a kind of collection of little-known saints, than what the prevailing trend of such writing wanted
  • Sally Shockro, “Bede and the Rewriting of Sanctity”, analysing the use of Biblical material between the Anonymous and Bede’s Lives of St Cuthbert and feeling Bede’s to be much cleverer
  • Lin Ferrand, “Atmospheric Phenomena in Bede’s De nature rerum“, checking Bede’s record of weather to show that he was not above modifying Isidore of Seville’s text when what went for Seville really didn’t at Jarrow, but that he didn’t always bother

New Perspectives on the Bayeux Tapestry

  • Elizabeth Pastan, “Questioning the role of Odo of Bayeux”, seeking to remove Bishop Odo from a position of compositional control to that of general patron, unbending many circular arguments
  • Stephen White, “Harold’s Oath on the Bayeaux Tapestry”, discussing the context of Harold’s oath in those other oaths between lords that we don’t call feudalism, and again deflating some rather distended assumptions about Odo’s and Bayeux’s involvement

Workshop

Deborah Everhart led a workshop entitled, “A Workshop on Learner-Centred Medieval Studies Course Design”. This was useful to me in generating ideas for teaching but didn’t necessarily contain much that was new to those already in the classroom. Here it seems worth diverting to notice that there was in general a lot of talk about teaching, and a lot of comparison of strategies, situations and solutions. You wouldn’t get this at a UK conference, or at least I haven’t noticed it: in the UK teaching is seen as a danger to one’s RAE score first and foremost alas, and this is a fault of the RAE really, as quite a lot of us like teaching I think. The actual session was not as much use to me as it might have been, I guess, as my teaching training covered a lot of the same ideas, but if you see my notes:

haskinnotes

… you can see that I was at least thinking as a result of it, even if not actually paying it much attention. And yes, they did give us notepaper, which would be one expense to cut, and yes, my longhand really is that bad. Anyway. To someone with more teaching experience I understand that the workshop was even less worthwhile, but Ms Everhart has a pitch to make of course and there was genuine good intent here as well.

Sunday November 8

The Thought and Practice of Religious Life

  • Bruce Venarde, “Robert of Arbrissel and the Mainstream”, in which the man who probably knows this mysterious preacher better than any living tried to explain that although his tactics were unorthodox, his general reformist and theological strategy was genuinely quite the opposite
  • Erin Jordan, “Monks, Nuns and Anniversary Masses: the importance of gender for thirteenth-century Cistercian abbeys in Northern France”, which showed to the speaker’s apparent surprise as much as our own that despite supposedly being less spiritually ‘effective’ because of the inordinability of women (something which was questioned in part in comments for the period before the twelfth century), Cistercian nunneries in her area and period attracted as many requests for commemorative masses as did their male equivalents
  • Maureen Walsh, “‘All Will Be Well’: universal salvation in the theology of Julian of Norwich”, an account of the resolution of confusion between Julian’s own Church-taught view that we’re all damned to Hell and the Word she received that we would all be ‘well’ and how she stayed inside orthodoxy while saying that the Church had it wrong

Now, at this point, I stepped out to try and get to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks rather than have spent my entire time in Washington at a conference venue. It looks like a lovely place to visit, and because it contains the other portion of Philip Grierson’s coin collection, I feel I have some small connection with it. Unfortunately, although I had a quick look at the Museum website to work out where it was, I didn’t read closely enough, and it was shut when I got there.

The <em>outside</em> of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

The outside of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum


So I did some shopping, had a wander and came back for the concluding round table discussion, which to my delight involved someone talking about Randolph Starn’s idea of history as genealogy, meaning I was able to get my oar in as keen readers might expect. I was quite keen on making it clear to people that I could think in a discussion, and I may have let this get in the way of actually contributing much. I hope not though.

And then by the great kindness and automobile of Another Damned Medievalist, it was to the airport, and home eventually, as on the way there a few seats in various directions from the plane’s entire complement of squalling infants, but, such is life. It was enough like a very bad night’s sleep that I managed to balance out the jetlag quite quickly, but I am still trying to go to bed at three a. m. even now. Oh hang on, that’s normal. When do you think I write these things, after all? Evidently not when I’m awake… Still, that’s a report for you, and if I’ve mentioned you, hullo, it was interesting to meet you… I have come home with a renewed sense of confidence in my own work and ability, which I’m managing to retain despite life assailing it with criticisms and dying rock drummers, and that is worth quite a lot of money.


1. I should maybe make myself clear on this. I think the election of Mr Obama is a grand thing for the reputation of the USA, but from an outside perspective, this enlightened and probably very noble man is still going to push my government into buying a hugely expensive and completely unnecessary upgrade to our nuclear deterrent, now, isn’t he? So I’m not quite as invested in him as my readership may largely be, yet.