Tag Archives: material culture

Seminar CXXXVII: relics, angst and agency

Now that I’m back into reports from the academic year now expiring, rather than the one before, you could be forgiven for thinking that I spent last autumn ignoring everything that was going on in my new home institution in favour of disappearing to London every week. Not so, gentle reader, for Birmingham boasts a CEntre for the Study of the Middle Ages which, at that point at least, t was running a weekly seminar, and on 21st October 2013 Birmingham’s own Dr Simon Yarrow was speaking to it, with the title “Varieties of Christian Materiality: relics and saints’ cults in Anglo-Norman England”. And since Simon’s work was one of the things people lauded when I got this post, I made sure to be there.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Simon’s paper was exploring one of the tensions inherent to Christianity, that between body and spirit, the material and non-material that is indissoluble from a religion that centres on its God becoming a man. Many a splinter from orthodoxy has tried to separate the two but for those who remain orthodox, the material world presents difficulties when objects are held to be holy in some way or other, something that can obviously extend to the bodies of the faithful and therefore reaches a particular point of extremity when one is faced with saints’ relics, physical items that are supposed to be connected to a non-physical soul now in Heaven. Again, the extreme position here is one of schism, a Calvinist rejection of the spirituality or power of such objects, but when you don’t go so far, what options are there?1

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By way of answer Simon took us through the positions of two twelfth-century writers, Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum and Goscelin of St-Bertin’s Liber confortationis.2 Guibert has some scepticism about relics, all right, and stresses that the object that is most real in its holiness is the Eucharist, compared to which everything else in the physical world is rather one- dimensional and of course, may not be real, whereas with the Eucharist you always know it’s Christ. Goscelin was walking a rather more difficult line, in as much as he was writing spiritual fortification to an anchoress, a woman whom he had known before her enclosure; his approach, that she was herself now a living relic, an object made holy and put beyond life in the world by its ‘burial’, does not remove the clear sense of personal connection he felt to her and indeed missed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a lot of the questions were about agency, a theme that Simon had briefly brought up at the beginning of the paper. A living object obviously still has some agency, even if within four close walls it’s somewhat constrained; she could not have written back, for example. Relics also raise this issue, however, as tokens of a holy presence whose whole point is that it retained power to cause action in the world.

Blocked entry to an anchoress's cell in the north wall of St James's Shere, Surrey

Blocked entry to an anchoress’s cell in the north wall of St James’s Shere, Surrey

As a result, Simon’s position that objects only act as wielded by persons seemed to me to butt against his initial and sharp observation that our sources only let us see the psychological effects of objects on our authors rather than any real action, or, rather, to form a circle with it. Perhaps it’s just that I have seen the clever people at In the Medieval Middle invoke Deleuze and Actor Network Theory by way of giving objects agency too many times not to wonder whether the position Simon took gives us a full picture of the way medieval people experienced the material world (and perhaps he would say that we can’t get one with the sources we have). Also it’s that when the agency of relics comes up I think of Charles West’s excellent paper about mystery relics at ninth-century Dijon that threw people to the floor with an invisible force no-one dared identify, a brilliant case because reported to us not as propaganda but as a request for help from the person trying to deal with it.3 Because this interests me, and because I wanted my new colleagues to know I could think, I may have made more of a nuisance of myself in questions than was entirely fair, since this wasn’t the particular point of the paper, but I still think it’s interesting to think about and Simon’s thoughts made it all the more imperative to join in.


1. Simon cited William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (London 1902) here; it’s online, if you want to look.

2. Guibert’s work is translated in his Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades, transl. Joseph Mcalhany & Jay Rubinstein (London 2011); Goscelin’s can be found as Liber Confortatorius: the Book of Encouragement and Consolation, transl. Monika Utter (Woodbridge 2004, repr. 2012).

3. See Charles West, “Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 295-311.

Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…


I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…

Leeds 2012 Report 1

I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between giving a bald itinerary of papers seen I can barely remember or else reconstructing the whole thing at length from my notes. But the only way to find out what transpires is to try, so here goes.

Entrance to Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, adorned with banner for the 2012 International Medieval Congress

The soon-to-be-late and lamented Bodington Hall, entrance thereto

As is by now traditional, I got through breakfast slightly too late to make it to the main room in which the keynote lectures were held and had the weird experience of arriving on the already-full video relay room to see no-one there I knew, which takes some doing at Leeds usually. Luckily this was a misleading omen. The actual lectures, meanwhile, were more or less perceptible if slightly blue-tinged on the video, and were as follows.

1. Keynote Lectures 2012

  • Sverre Bagge, “Changing the Rules of the Game: when did regicide go out of fashion and why?”
    As an early medievalist, I had not realised that no European king was killed by his successor or replacements between 1282 and 1792. That does seem to want some explanation, and Professor Bagge made dynastic legitimacy a part of it, a factor of stability, but other explanations were harder to come by, and there was some difficulty with the sovereign paradox, the problem that the king makes the law and is thereby able to choose if it applies to him.1 Certainly, there is something special about kingship, but why it should only have acquired full force then was not really resolved.
  • Nicole Bériou, “Just Follow Christ and the Gospels? Monastic Rules and Christian Rules in the 13th Century”
    This lecture opened up for us a twelfth-century debate about the worth of monastic rules; in an era when individual concern for one’s own salvation could be put before other’s views of what your soul required for its health, some put the view that the Gospels were the only ‘rule’ that counted. This was not how monastic life had traditionally been envisaged, of course, indeed it rather questioned the necessity or utility of that life for oneself, and such theorists thus started seeing other vocations as monk-like, and society itself as the monastery, which then meant that things like marriage could be seen as requiring Rules too! None of this was ever what you’d call widespread, as we were told it, but it’s interesting to see such thinking in the high era of papal monarchy, which could be imagined as more or less stamping down such autonomous theologising.

Then after that, and after coffee, it was charter time.

133. Nulli… si quis & Co.: sanctiones, corroborationes and penal forms in medieval charters

The number of people who can get excited about a whole session on what set of repeated words scribes used to threaten those who infringed on transactions is probably limited, but no-one would be fooled that I am not among them, and indeed I was not the only one here to hear these:

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “Rules in the document: Carolingian corroborations”
    Few people have seen as many early medieval charters as Professor Mersiowsky, in fact I might go so far as to guess that no-one has, and that means he’s seen a lot of charter issuers signing off by way of confirmation. He took us through the earliest Carolingian monarchs’ chosen ways of doing this, largely with crosses or monograms that he thought were in fact done in the monarchs’ own hands until the time of Charles the Bald (840-877) but whose accompanying phrases suggest older referents, perhaps Byzantine or late Roman. The transition from that is the great gap in the evidence that swallows all conjectures, of course, but it was interesting to see rules being set by these kings of correctio in still another way.
  • Sébastien Barret, “The sanctiones of the Cluniac charters of the 10th-11th centuries”
    Sébastien looked for rules slightly further up his documents, in the penalty clauses already mentioned of the charters of St-Pierre de Cluny in Burgundy, now of course searchable, and found that certain words almost only appear in those clauses, such as, “componat“, ‘let him compensate with’, and indeed more surprisingly “Si quis…”, ‘If anyone…’, though this was something I would also shortly find in my own work, I have to say.2 It was not uniform practice in these clauses: innovation and especially elaboration was possible, even if exact grammar and sense were not, always. Nonetheless, something had to do this job recognisably in these documents, and we may here be crossing the difference between what computers can recognise and what the people of the time could.
  • Arnold Otto, “Nulli… Si Quis and their Copycats: penal forms in later medieval charters”
    The trouble with later medieval charters is that the vernaculars get in and changes everything, so Dr Otto was sensible and went for numbers instead, looking the size of penalties in the penalty clauses of Emperor Charles IV. These, again, varied within fairly regular patterns; though their effect was more deterrent than real, even for a king like Charles, that deterrent was still worth ramping up on special occasions it seems!
  • In questions there was much asked about how many stages these documents were written in and whether penalties were ever carried out, but my notes don’t suggest any patterns emerged from that, not least because we probably only spoke up if we thought we had a difference to add. But then it was lunch and a canter across to Weetwood Hall for some archaeology.

204. Rules for Early Medieval Grave-Goods? Implications for the World of the Living from the World of the Dead

    Set phrases in documents, dead bodies, let no-one say I don’t know where the fun is in medieval studies… This session was introduced by Roland Steinacher, who wanted to remind us all that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I actually passed law allowing the recovery of treasure from graves for the benefit of the state, and then we moved on to the papers.

  • Marion Sorg, “Are Brooches Personal Possessions of the Deceased?: An Empiric Investigation Based on Analyzing Age-Relatedness of Brooches”
    This was a question about an assumption, one that could be more general than just with brooches, that the goods in a grave belonged to the deceased. With brooches in the early Middle Ages it’s even a specific assumption that a woman would own a set of brooches that were almost her identity kit, and keep them all her life, which if it were true would mean that they had an age similar to that of the skeletons with which they are found. Enter the evidence, gathered from 27 cemeteries in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where only about 11·5% of individuals had brooches anyway, but where all age groups could have new brooches but worn brooches were certainly most commonly found with older individuals. This provoked Dr Sorg to wonder whether there might be several stages of a woman’s life where she would acquire such brooches, but I have to say that to me the figures she was presenting seemed to show more or less the same levels of wear in all age groups, so that these intervals would be suspiciously evenly spaced at about 20 years. I asked if we might be looking at object lifespans rather than people’s, I must have been reading something… There’s more work needed to identify what’s active here, I think.
  • Mirjam Kars, “Invisible Rules: the study of grave goods in the context of privately organized intergenerational transmission in families”
    What would mess up such paradigms of course is heirlooms, goods being passed to new owners, and that was the subject of this paper. Women in early medieval cemeteries seem to be buried with fewer goods as they age, suggesting a dispersal of their early kit to younger relatives or friends, which Dr Kars linked with group identification signification. She found very little that wouldn’t be circulated, which itself was interesting given what such analyses show in other cultures; her theory was coming from gift exchange stuff but I wonder now what commodities theory would do for her view.3
  • Stephanie Zintl, “Things to be Taken from the Dead: a case study on reopened graves”
    This paper was about grave-robbing, except that as the speaker said, that’s how we might see it but it’s not clear that the early medieval populations of Francia or Kent did, because it was pretty widespread. She asserted that half of the 600 graves she’d checked had at some point before excavation been reopened, early on as she figured, although this turned out to be on the basis of the very few with several eras of goods in, what is not what you’d call a perfect measure. That half was, however, substantially the ones containing goods, not those without, suggesting firstly that robbery was not the motive and secondly that those opening them could tell which was which still, implying some kind of marker above the surface. The reburiers must have firstly wanted to change the graves somehow and secondly presumably have known that the same would likely happen to theirs. This provoked a lot of discussion and you can see why, a very interesting set of questions despite the methodological difficulties.

325. Post Mortem Problems: Saints, Sinners, and Popular Piety

    Having done murder, confinement, threats and burial what could be left but zombies? I have a space to fill, after all.4

  • Stephen Gordon, “Practical Innovation, Local Belief, and the Containment of the Troublesome Dead”
    This was a study of some of the many English stories about dead bodies found walking, which the speaker suggested might get more common once the idea of Purgatory lengthened the chronology of death rather. Maybe so, but it’s certainly a common thing before that too, even when we have so few sources!5
  • Brian Reynolds, “Dodging Damnation: The Virgin’s Advocacy in Medieval Theology and Popular Piety”
    This paper looked at the development of the idea that Mary will basically be calming Jesus down at the Last Judgement and urging forgiveness of those who appealed to her in life. This placed the real action 1200-1500, but did make the point, probably widely realised, that because Mary was supposedly assumed into Heaven, there are no relics of her body, meaning that her cult is easier to diffuse widely, which I suppose is true.
  • Isabel Moreira, “Hector of Marseilles is Purged: political rehabilitation and guilt by association in the 7th-century Passion of Leudegar of Autun
    If you were a churchman of seventh-century France, as we’ve observed here indeed, you were probably deeply involved in government; escape from worldly cares was basically impossible, and this means that those who would write lives of saints in that era had to be imaginative about their interactions with laymen of less exalted characters. The patrician Hector of Marseilles was such a layman, a rebel against the king with whom St Leudegar got mixed up, and this paper argued that Leudegar’s biographer tried to get round this by giving him a martyr’s death that should have purged any sin, with imagery of being tested in the fire like gold, and so on, an idea that might possibly have been applied to others of the Merovingian-era nobility who lived messy lives with horrible ends.

So that was the first day of Leeds 2012 for me, and that seems worth the writing, both for me and hopefully for you; I guess I’ll do the rest in their turn…

N. B.: alternative coverage of some of these sessions by Magistra et Mater also exists


1. Addressed repeatedly by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, inter alia, all more or less in the same words, but it’s worth reading one of the occurrences.

2. J. Jarrett, “Comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in J. Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Brepols forthcoming), pp. 000-00.

3. That largely because since then I finally read Arjan Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), which is really interesting and will generate a future blog post.

4. The most relevant reflection of that place’s nature being John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560. Why have I never thought before about the significance of putting a piece about the unquiet dead in a memorial volume? I’m pretty sure John didn’t mean any of the things that might be implied by that…

5. Much of the early material gathered either in Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, or Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.

Leeds 2011 report two at last

Sorry! Publication deadlines, as you saw, then admissions interviews (about which I have seriously mixed feelings and may eventually write), then the wedding of a good friend and erstwhile medievalist, at which apart from, y’know, attending the marriage (hic præsens et testis fui!), I learnt a lot about Cassiodorus that will come in useful next term. And then, for various reasons, I’ve wanted to take a good deal of care with this post. But now here it is, my mandated Leeds report, part the two, covering the events of the 12th July 2011.

508. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, III – Romans and barbarians

Since, as recounted two posts ago, I’d realised on turning up in this strand that not only did it have a set of titles long enough to be a monograph series by some German academy, but also that it was where the excitement was likely to be for its duration, I was back in the Mortain Link Room at nine in the morning to see more. That went as follows:

  • Alex Woolf, “From Civitas to Kingdom? Romanitas in the British provinces and beyond”.
  • Alex here raised with his customary sharpness of perception some important questions, not the least of which is what period were the “sub-Roman” British interested in imitating? The Roman buildings of Roman Britain were largely pre-third-century, for example. Does that mean that if someone was continuing to live like a fifth-century Romano-British noble, we would see him in his material leavings as British not Roman? Was public building and sculpture really the mark of Romanitas for these people, as it has been for some modern scholars? (Was it instead stone monumental inscriptions, basically only preserved from outwith the area of Roman government?) Alex also made the excellent point that the Old English wealh, usually translated as `foreigner’, was however not used of foreigners like the Vikings, the Gaels, Syrians, and so on, and that we might therefore do well to think of it as being linguistic, and applying to Romance-speakers only. How far Romance actually describes the language of lowland post-Roman Britain would be one of those questions where fewer people than usual would follow Alex’s arguments, I suspect, but the difference still wants an explanation.1 Lots to think about here.

  • James Fraser, “Thoughts on the Roman and Native Discoveries of Pictishness”
  • The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    This paper came very close to my areas of British interest, as you will understand when I say that James started by critiquing the idea that the Picts were a single people for whom a material culture identity might be detected. In this sense, as he observed, the classic volume The Problem of the Picts has itself become the problem.2 Thereafter the paper became more of a historiographical survey of whom it is that the Picts’ identity has mattered to and how, but there were still some similarly live points, such as the observation that the word Brittones and its derivatives, originally Latin, appears to have been borrowed into the insular vernaculars only after a distinction had arisen between Britones and Picti; James can be found on record saying that probably the only difference between these groups was being inside or outside the frontier of the Roman Empire, which makes for linguistic difficulties as we’ve lately been seeing, but whether or not you buy that, he here has something that appears to need an explanation.3 James finally suggested that Pictishness was really a late construct used by state-building kings to meld a nation of disparate groups of peoples only lately differentiated from a generalised British identity, into a political unity opposed to English or Brittonic or indeed maybe Gaelic, stressing `barbarian’ cultural practices that were identifiable as such in Roman terms, like tattooing, like inscribing stones but not with Latin, and like deriving one’s origins from the Scythians, a reference that only makes sense in a Roman cultural complex.

    I found all this pretty powerful, as you might expect from things I’ve said in the past, and asked in questions whom he thought the agents of this new cultural formation might be; he blamed the Church, which I think makes some kind of sense if we can see the Church as a tool of kings in this area. Before that however the session had been completed by…

  • Fraser Hunter, “Breaking Down the Wall: Rome and North Britain in the late Roman period”
  • This was perhaps the least provocative paper of the three but that was not least because it was by far the best-evidenced, and left much less room for debate: Hunter showed simply that Roman luxury goods got beyond the wall into the lowland zone, and that after these goods stopped coming local cultural innovation attempted to make up the gap, which we kind of know, but that inside the walls a similar transition is happening from Roman soldier’s goods, money and gear to stuff that we would recognise as warband material. Rome, while it was active in the North of Britain, created haves and have-nots, but after it went only some of these people’s centres could keep some kind of supremacy going by continuing to import Romanitas. Thus, Dumbarton Rock and Edinburgh kept going, Birdoswald and others failed, and so the new political landscape was formed.

I don’t mind telling you that after this session was over my head was so full of thoughts that I obtained coffee, or at least the best available facsimile, and tried talking to Alex but had to excuse myself because I needed to try and write something down before everything I was thinking escaped; I couldn’t speak even to Alex in case it overwrote what I was struggling to articulate. After twenty-five minutes I had something like the plan of a paper, restating with extra nuance my thoughts about the regionality of the Pictish kingdom, and was able to put it away confident that some day I could write it (as indeed I subsequently have, though much of that first rush has then turned out to be unsustainable). That was the kind of session this had been for me, the kind that could not be fully contained in my head for the explosion of possibilities. “And I’m not even lying.”

608. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, IV – new narratives in Hispania

Of course I don’t really work on Scotland any more, and if I ever finish that aforesaid paper it will likely be my goodbye to the research area. How convenient for me, then, that Professor Halsall’s excellent contributors also included a number of people interested in the Iberian peninsula!4? They were:

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Fragmentation and Thin Polities: dynamics of the post-Roman Duero plateau”
  • The Duero plateau had been an integrated part of Roman Hispania, not rich but with many villas, but the events of the fifth century turned it into a frontier zone between the Sueves and Visigoths, neither of whom really had much governmental presence there, and as such seems to have localised its identity, with seniores loci mentioned by John of Biclaro and perhaps local coinage being issued. Hillforts grew up, though none have yet been dug so the association is kind of hypothetical. The Visigothic kingdom, when it re-established itself here, seems to have done so not least by giving the local élites rights to tax or withdrawing them, but the lack of towns meant that it was never an integrated part of Toledo’s enterprise. This does not however mean, argued Professor Martín, that it was not part of the state, and he argued that we should recognise this as a kind of `soft hegemony’ that might let us think usefully about how the successor states worked in their own terms, with the kings getting the status that kept them in power and the regions getting the autonomy that stopped them from wanting away from kings. We’ve seen something like this idea expressed here before, I think, so I was right down with this.

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Alfonso Vigil-Escalera, “The Elephant in the Room: new approaches to early medieval cemeteries in Spain”
  • Pretty much everything I know about burial in Visigothic Spain I read either in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations or at Historian on the Edge, so I was keen to hear more from two names I have on several reading lists but have never quite got round to reading.5 The two of them, represented by Dr Vigil-Escalera alone, argued that categories like `Roman’ and `barbarian’ won’t cover this kind of evidence, which has urban `barbarians’, rustic `Romans’ and all kinds of other cross-category burials to accommodate, and that the variation could be explained without recourse to foreign populations, even if those were there; the burial evidence in their eyes neither proves nor disproves immigration. The archaeology instead shows a restlessness that is to be expected from a peninsula in political and economic turmoil. Instead of the stereotypes, they detect in the burial evidence a militarised élite interred in lead coffins, a lower grade of burial with few or no grave goods, and nothing visible beneath. Where there are cemeteries that associate with a settlement, 60-95% of graves are furnished, the figure being lower the later the cemetery runs; by the eighth century (but not till then!) grave furnishing had completely stopped. Beyond these generalisations, however, variation in this mortuary landscape was at the community level, not the level of whole `peoples’, and certainly can’t be broken down as `Roman’ vs. `Germanic’. Therefore, they asked, why blame barbarians?

  • Guy Halsall, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?”
  • In answer to that question came the last paper of the strand by Professor Halsall himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve heard him speak or read him on the Internet, this was the one that really started the war. [Edit: and, indeed, some changes have been made to these paragraphs by request of one of those involved.] The consequences, if not of this actual speech, at least of its subsequent display on the Internet, have been various, unpleasant and generally regrettable, and I don’t want any of them myself. However, I think that what Professor Halsall was doing, which was to demand attention to the way that terms like `barbarians’ and `immigrants’ have been and are now deployed in political discourse, in short, to think who might be listening when we deploy these terms and for what, is something that it’s necessary to discuss. There may be other ways to say what he was saying, though they might be less effective. After all, an old colleague of mine sometimes gloomily observed of his scholarly opponents, “Y’know, you can’t change these guys’ minds, you can only wait until they die,” and obviously that’s not going to do much for public feeling and policy right now, which is where the fight is needed.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron expounding his party's `Big Society` ideology

    Dangerously empty bloviation

    But the issues must not be dropped! Since 2006 I have been on the web proclaiming somewhat casually that when history is used it is almost always misused; glib and untheorised though that was when I wrote it, there is a point there, and it behoves us to keep an eye on what our work may be used for. Some people are more conscious of this than others, as the recent furore over the way that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK appears to have picked up and run with the Conservative party’s campaign slogan in the last UK national elections shows; but this consciousness is usually with the misusers, and we could do with the same awareness from people who aren’t deliberately selling themselves for political funding (although it should be noted that the AHRC have claimed that they weren’t, without responding in any way to pressure to actually alter their agenda). How then do we fight the misuse of history by those with political agendas? Professor Halsall argued in questions that we have to take the fight to popular sources of information, to publish opinion columns, to get on the Internet, to colonise Wikipedia and not to assume that people can’t handle our sophistication. These seem like worthwhile, if taxing, endeavours that would bring us benefit whatever our politics. If the humanities were any good at coordinating our defence this would already have been encouraged in every faculty across the land, as PR for the industry of academia itself, dammit; instead they have successfully set us against each other and this is the result. Party politics, whether left-wing (do we still have one of those?), centrist or comfortable Conservative’s, really don’t signify here: there is no UK political party interested in funding the humanities. But you’ve read me on this before and you’ll read me on it again, so no more here.

The whole strand had been extremely provocative, as you can tell, and events subsequently revealed that it had perhaps been too much so, but I also think that we need to awaken some kind of social awareness about the uses, misuses, impact and importance of history. Everyone in the field must surely agree that that importance currently needs all the acknowledging, emphasising and directing that it can get. The furore over this presentation has unfortunately hidden these issues, which deserved to continue under discussion and not to become so personal as to be swamped in antagonism and threats. I’ll have more to say about this here—probably not very insightful but one should not stay silent—but for the meantime I can only advise you to keep a close eye on Historian on the Edge, for reflection on the social and moral imperatives of our work, whether you agree with him or not. We’d all like to think our work was socially and morally important, I’m sure, so it seems natural to consider how that might work out, doesn’t it?

717. Between Palatium and Civitas: political and symbolic spaces throughout the Middle Ages

Anyway. That was the final session in Professor Halsall’s strand, and things calmed down somewhat after lunch. Since time is short and the backlog long I’m therefore going to tackle the rest of the day in briefer form. I crossed the campus now to Weetwood Hall and there heard these people speak:

  • Martin Gravel, “Built on Expectation and Remembrance: the visitation of kings as the symbolic recognition of palaces in Carolingian West Francia”
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Contestation, Networks, and Places of Power in Grenoble during the Gregorian Reform: Guigues of Albon’s trajectory”
  • Alexandra Beauchamp, “Royal Court and Capitals of the Crown of Aragon in the XIVth century”
  • Originally scheduled for this session had been Josianne Barbier, doyenne of the Frankish fisc, and given how much her work featured in my reading for that dead-stick Kalamazoo paper of a couple of years back, I’d been rather hoping to meet her. Alas it was not to be, but these papers were also interesting, for especially Martin’s, which wanted to look closer at what kings actually do with their palaces beyond turn up, issue charters (not always them of course) and leave. With a few documents of Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer he was able to do this, showing that certain palaces had certain functions and that they weren’t all equivalent. Obvious, perhaps, conceptually, but hard to prove! Martin did so. We subsequently proved to have an almost-inconvenient overlap of interests with regard to the later Carolingians and I’m looking forward to more of his work. Le Coq, meanwhile, I would like to give due honour for using the term “ecclesiamento” to describe the way that Grenoble came to be grouped around the bishop’s properties and interests in his period of study, and Beauchamp’s careful attempt to try and say something about how large the Aragonese court actually was, on a day-to-day basis, from an unpromising source base, was a near-perfect example of how to present a few key interesting things from what was clearly a much larger piece of work.

805. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Different Regions of Europe

I try and go to as much of the relevant archaeological stuff at Leeds as possible, because there’s never very much and I want to encourage it, but also because it’s usually very interesting and full of information I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This time I was also hoping to see and meet Marco Valenti, who is a name that crops up all over what had then been my recent reading, but in this I was disappointed. What we got was:

  • Neil Christie, “Burhs and Defence: assessing the military status of later Saxon burhs
  • Marco Valenti, “Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Italy from the 6th to the 10th Centuries”
  • Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries in Central Europe”
  • You will be observing that Valenti appears still to have been there, but in fact, his paper was read by Professor Christie, a compromise that was certainly better than no paper but didn’t enable the kind of debate it would have been good to have. In short, Christie himself gave the audience a quick introduction to the fortification programme rolled out by the kings of Wessex in their fight back against the Vikings, and asked how much actual use the fortifications, many of which have come to be towns now and may always have been meant to, were. Christie preferred to see them more as exercises in literally building community, while I might prefer to see them as exercises in power demonstration, like Offa’s Dyke; certainly, Asser seems to show us that the relevant communities didn’t necessarily feel it.6 The Valenti paper, next, concentrated on castles in Tuscany, for a long time supposedly part of a major set of social changes just before or in the eleventh century that we know well round here, but by the kind of survey Valenti has been able to demonstrably a much longer-term phenomenon, starting in the ninth century if not before. There has of course been very little digging of such sites but what has been dug has forced this kind of re-evaluation too (as previously reported here indeed). Lastly Hajnalka, whose work I’d met at Kalamazoo the previous year, reintroduced me and introduced everyone else to her extremely interesting élite settlement at Gars Thunau in Austria, which has in its history a ninth-century building programme that seems to be chronologically, but not otherwise, connected to a sea-change in the development of such sites over a wider area, all of which nonetheless show no archaeological connections with each other. There’s something big here which has yet to be identified, clearly; Dawn Hadley asked what and Hajnalka said that the presence of the Church needs to be looked at, but that it will only explain some sites. Nonetheless, paradigms like Martin Carver‘s of a reaction in stone to such new power groups might well help here.7

Now, after this was the blogger meet-up, which was quite odd in the way it worked out. I was late, I forget why but probably not for any good reason, and the Naked Philologist and Magistra were left to coordinate the initial stages without me even though neither knew each other. By the time I arrived, it was busy but not with people I knew, which was good but unexpected. I can now remember only two of these people, Livejournallers rather than deliberate academic bloggers both, so I won’t name them in case they don’t want their personal lives linked to, but it was a pleasure to meet them and others, and I seem to recall that the gathering went on for a long time. I know that by the time I got to the St Andrews reception they’d run out of wine, but I also remember that this had somehow happened far faster than they’d anticipated so it may still have been quite early. In any case, company remained good and chatter plentiful, as afterwards seemed to have been so for a great deal of the conference, and it had been a stirring day.


1. The classic discussion of the term `wealh‘ is M. Faull, “The semantic development of Old English wealh” in Leeds Studies in English Vol. 8 (Leeds 1975), pp. 20-37; Alex’s take on such matters can currently mostly be found in his “Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 115-129, online here, last modified 18th October 2007 as of 10th December 2011, though for the linguistics he largely rests here on Peter Schrijver, “What Britons Spoke Around 400″, ibid. pp. 165-171.

2. Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955).

3. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 785, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 44-49.

4. I probably don’t need to explain the range of circumlocutions I use here to avoid the word `Spain’, or indeed that the paper titles do, but suffice to say that if this seems clumsy to you, the modern country’s name really doesn’t cover what we’re trying to include here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 296-300 & 338-346, but I should add at least J. A. Quirós Castillo and A. Vigil-Escalera Guirado, “Networks of peasant villages between Toledo and Velegia Alabense, North-western Spain (V-X centuries)” in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 33 (Firenze 2006), pp. 79-130 and now Quirós, “Early medieval landscapes in north-west Spain: local powers and communities, fifth-tenth centuries” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 285-311.

6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91:

For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well… to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm. But if, during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the people’s laziness, or else (having been begun too late in a time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet [c. 883] been begun, or else, having been begun late in the day, have not yet been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land or by sea (or, as frequently happens, by both!) then those who had opposed the royal commands were humiliated in meaningless repentance by being reduced to virtual extinction.

This passage doesn’t make me like Asser or Alfred any better, actually.

7. As in for example M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings (London 1998), esp. pp. 52-93.

Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

I realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that time has come. I was reminded by Magistra’s own write-up of it, in which she says:

Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up.

Aha, so you think, but quite apart from anything else I work with Jane, see her most lunchtimes in term, and need her to give a lecture for me on a course next year. The chance of my saying anything that might sound negative is thus pretty low, even if I had such a thing to say, and actually this is becoming more and more of an issue the more embedded I get in academia. I can still aim to be informative, though, and if you find yourself needing to know more Jane has a paper out that covers some of this stuff and you can read it yourself.1 So, OK, the reason for the title is that Jane’s paper, whose title was: “New Insights on the Viking Settlement of England: the small finds evidence”, was about brooches, and specifically metal brooches such as we now have far more of than we used to have because of metal-detecting.2 (Jane estimated that the corpus of Viking-period metal artefacts has multiplied by a factor of 22 or 23 since the last round of major catalogues was published, so we have a lot to synthesize.)

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay, image provided very kindly by Dr Kershaw to replace the less relevant one this post originally had here

The brooches that she was talking about were found in England, between the second half of the ninth century and the second half of the tenth, but were in a Scandinavian style. They are therefore Viking cultural indicators, showing not just Viking jewellery æsthetics but Viking dress styles, as the oval brooches especially only make sense worn on a dress with straps which was not the Anglo-Saxon fashion before the Vikings came. Once they’d come, however, we can’t really tell whether what we have is Danish women who’d been brought over getting stuff made in the style they’d grown up with, or English women dressing like Danes. We can be fairly sure that the brooches were not being traded, though, or at least, not made for export in Scandinavia, because the range of styles found is basically the same as that in Scandinavia, so our notional brooch-seller would have to be working very hard to scoop up a representative sample from all round Denmark… The finds don’t cluster round ports of entry, either, and their distribution is mostly rural, so what we obviously don’t have is someone with a stall in York—in fact, York has thrown up almost none of these pieces, despite being quite heavily dug—getting brooches shipped in by the crate from his contact back in Aarhus, it’s more genuinely popular and incidental than that.

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch, PAS ID NMS-56E967

On the other hand, they don’t really spread outside the Danelaw, and there are some odd patches of non-appearance within it. Distribution is an imprecise measurement, admittedly, but 500+ brooches is a lot, and as Jane wisely said when queried about arguing from silence, even if for some inexplicable reason (I had assumed detector bias, since lots of her sample was coming from Norfolk and Suffolk, much better territory for detectors than anywhere too hilly, but she was ready with a map that compared the brooches to all finds of detected goods and their distribution wasn’t typical) the finds are under-represented in one area, we still have all the others to explain.3 There can be fewer of something found in an area than we suspect there ought to be; but there can hardly be more of something than there should be! This is one of those obvious points that hit me hard in the brain as something I’d never before thought and marks Jane out as an unusually clear archæological thinker (and I’m not just saying that, honest).

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch, PAS ID NMS-9704F0

So that’s one thing that needs careful explanation, and then we start to find imitations, locally-manufactured versions, which are distinguishable by fastening a different way, the way of the Anglo-Saxon disc brooches that had been usual before these Scandy items joined them on the shoulders of the Danelaw’s women. (This is important: the Anglo-Saxon ones continue to be found too. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to a cultural complex.) Whether this marks immigrant women dressing English-style or Anglo-Saxon women wanting to update their brooches to the nouvelle vague is not clear but whatever it is, it’s not clean assimilation; people wearing such items were expressing a new hybrid kind of dress style. Jane was scrupulous about not making easy leaps from clothing to identity, but at the very least, in these communities it’s not necessary to look traditionally English, if there were ever such a thing anyway. And then finally there are new Anglo-Saxon brooches made on a proto-industrial scale in the tenth century, indicating still another change, and it would be lovely to somehow connect this with the English reconquest (campaign buttons?) but somehow I think with this many real women involved it isn’t going to submit to a simple answer, and the fact of the matter is the distribution of these sorts of brooch actually spreads after the reconquest, not shrinks.

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration, PAS ID NMS-463627. I can't get more than four Anglo-Scandinavian brooches out of the PAS database and they all look really scummy, so I haven't used one of those.

So, are these items actually telling us about identities, or does it just tell us, as Susan Reynolds suggested, that the gentry of a certain area know a little man in Norwich who makes these darling things you just have to have, and so on in several other places?4 As Jane finished by pointing out, there are other regional mappings we can make that seem to show a similar story of regional distinctiveness. The province that’s thickest with these brooches is not simply East Anglia, but Norfolk and North Suffolk, as distinct from South Suffolk where, glorious detector land though it be, they don’t show up half as much. Now, this also fits, more or less roughly, said Jane, the distribution of common fields versus unified estates in the area in Domesday Book, the distribution of minor place-names (fields, boundaries and so on) and those major ones in -by and -thorp, classic Old Norse indicators. At that rate, it begins too look as if we’re talking about a cultural zone where being, you know, a bit Danish innit, was pretty much OK.

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk, PAS ID SF-DC3EA7

It also matches coinage zones, said Jane: inside the ‘Viking’ zone, the regular Anglo-Saxon coinage hardly runs, the favourite one instead being the enigmatic St Edmund pennies that anyone studying this are has to get their head round: coins minted by a Viking-identified government established by pagan warriors commemorating a Christian royal opponent they’d killed. It’s quite like how rapidly ‘Viking’ York starts minting coins with Christian symbols on, and indeed these are imitated at Lincoln and circulate in this zone too.5 In South Suffolk, by contrast, the stuff doesn’t get out and the royal coinage is found. Now, this is something you can check yourself, because some years ago a clever chap called Sean Miller whom I’ve mentioned here before put means for you to do so on the web, and I have to admit, when I do this with the St Edmund and St Peter coinages and then with the coins of Edward the Elder respectively from Norfolk and Suffolk, I get a distribution that is (a) too thin to be very revealing and (b) more or less the same for Viking and non-Viking types in the counties. So I don’t know if the money side of the comparison really holds up, and as to the rest of these zonal indicators I am mindful of a wise thing that I once heard said of all arguments made from distribution of objects or sites, that they should also be mapped against the locations of telephone boxes and see if that correlates as well. And we know that bad things can be done with this technique. All the same, I’m not convinced that this was one of them; we do have the brooches to explain, the trend has to come from somewhere, and a kind of proud-to-be-a-different-kind-of-English-with-friends-across-the-North-Sea cultural self-awareness fostered by a persistent local-level government established by a Viking territorial settlement and allowed to remain in place helps explain them and their distribution whereas not much else does. I don’t think we can stop looking for other possibilities just yet, but then I don’t suppose Jane was going to stop any time soon either…


1. Jane E. Kershaw, “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 5 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 295–325, doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.100682.

2. Oh, I’m sorry, you were actually interested in Viking metal? In that case may I suggest Simon Trafford & Alex Plukowski, “Antichrist superstars: the Vikings in hard rock and heavy metal” in D. W. Marshall (ed.), Mass Market Medieval: essays on the Middle Ages in popular culture (Jefferson 2007), pp. 57-73, and if you do get it, and happen to have a PDF somehow, I wouldn’t object if it somehow wound up in my INBOX as Oxford don’t have a copy and I’m not sure I have the force of character to recommend it to any of the relevant libraries.

3. My stock reference for things you can get wrong with archæological distribution mapping is now available to you too, it being Mary 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).

4. On Viking identities in the Danelaw more widely, as if you like the wave on which this work by Jane is one of the breakers, you could try either or both of Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards (edd.), Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout 2000) or James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons (edd.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (2001), or if you prefer a single synthetic view Dawn Hadley’s The Vikings in England: Settlement, society and culture (Manchester 2006).

5. For more on these coinages see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 2. The Two Scandinavian Kingdoms of the Danelaw, c. 895-954″, Presidential Address 2005 in British Numismatic Journal 76 (London 2006), pp. 204-226, soon to be reprinted in the first volume of his collected papers.

Can I see it in the daylight? New visualisation technology

[I'm sorry for the blank few days: there was some marking, I was ill, then there was a man wanting something written fast, then another, then a lecture to plan and write and oh yeah, paid work too. However, I am briefly caught up with blogs and this one has already had to be updated once in its draft state, so, have ye at it and more will shortly follow...]

Obviously, with my main job, I do a lot of squinting at inscriptions. We love digital images because they can be enlarged but the problem with them is that you’re stuck with the same image and lighting unless you redo it. The surfaces are always revealed or shadowed in the same way per image, even if you rotate it. So often as not the first thing I do when trying to read a coin is to take it over to the window of our room and look at it under natural light, turning and tipping it to catch different angles. You can’t do that artificially. Until now.

One of the Aramaic tablets from the Persepolis Fort Archive

One of the Aramaic tablets from the Persepolis Fort Archive

A new technique called Polynomial Texture Mapping that’s been pioneered at the Oriental Institute of the University of Southern California is being used there to examine an under-exploited cache of Aramaic tablets from about 500 B. C. E., found at the Persian fortress of Persepolis in 1933. They’re using a variety of techniques to look at these things, including UV and IR imaging, and learning a great deal, as you can see in this article on the University of Chicago website to which I was directed by this post at Michelle Moran’s History Buff, but I was most struck by the possibilities of this scanning technique, which they are justly proud of:

The Polynomial Texture Mapping apparatus looks a bit like a small astronomical observatory, with a cylindrical based topped by a hemispherical dome. The camera takes a set of 32 pictures of each side of the tablet, with each shot lit with a different combination of 32 lights set in the dome. After post-processing, the PTM software application knits these images to allow a viewer sitting at a computer to manipulate the apparent direction, angle and intensity of the light on the object, and to introduce various effects to help with visualization of the surface.

“This means that the scholar isn’t completely dependent on the photographer for what he sees anymore,” said Bruce Zuckerman, Director of the West Semitic Research Project and its online presence, InscriptiFact. “The scholar can pull up an image on the screen and relight an object exactly as he wants to see it. He can look at different parts of the image with different lighting, to cast light and shadow across even the faintest, shallowest marks of a stylus or pen on the surface, and across every detail of a seal impression.”

I mean, obviously, if one’s actually got the object, there will still be some things you can best do by human eye, but if you haven’t, this might reduce that set of things to a very small number. I guess the files would be huge and the software rare, but I hope they try and tackle that as well as using it to deepen readings of things on site, however important that may be. This is a tool to make sources more accessible as well as everything else, if they want. And it looks as if they do:

By 2010, the collaborating teams expect to have high-quality images of 5,000 to 6,000 Persepolis tablets and fragments, and to supplement these with conventional digital images of another 7,000 to 8,000 tablets and fragments. The images will be distributed online as they are processed, along with cataloging and editorial information.

“Thanks to electronic media, we don’t have to cut the parts of the archive up and distribute the pieces among academic specialties,” said Stolper. “We can combine the work of specialists in a way that lets us see the archive as it really was, in its original complexity, as one big thing with many distinct parts.”

Bravo you guys! Vindolanda tablets next? Tablettes Albertini? Visigothic slates? Come on, you know you want to…

Addendum: Michelle also now links to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate talking about a few of the actual things that have been learnt by applying this technique to obscure inscriptions. Some of it sounds marvellous material…

History and Material Culture (book review)

For reasons explained previously, I want to put this book in front of you.1 I first became aware of this when teaching my class on material culture for historians a while back but it wasn’t then out, and the inspection copy didn’t turn up till some weeks later. I’ve now made time to read it and am glad I did, so I thought I’d explain why.

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

The book is one of a series Routledge are developing to try and make available some methodological textbooks for students that teach by example, without skimping on the theory.2 This is a hard balance to strike, and not all the authors that Karen Harvey gathers in this volume get it quite correct to this reviewer’s mind, but the overall success is remarkable and while a couple of the contributing papers serve mainly to make the Industrial Revolution period quite interesting, most of them make the objects with which they are primarily concerned make much large points not just about their periods but about how historians approach their evidence.

Harvey’s introduction is the place where these agendas are most clearly set out, and is a particularly pellucid explanation of the values of alternative evidence that cannot easily be summarised: honestly, I recommend that you read it.3 It ends with a short section on available resources for students and a rather simplistic breakdown by stages of an approach to a source, but the heavier section at the beginning is a challenge to all of us who are primarily occupied with texts as our evidence (though the construct, of a historian solely concerned with archive material to the exclusion of archæology or marginal and undocumented populations, may seem like a straw man to medievalists; more on that perspective later). The various papers drink more or less deeply of these methodological concerns but the best ones, in this reviewer’s opinion, are those that manage to bring the methodological dilemmas, questions and potential out of identifiable evidence.

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

The best example of this is perhaps Giorgio Riello‘s explication of an eighteenth-century stomacher.4 The unlikely Rosetta Stone was found in a house in Hampshire, UK, concealed with a waistcoat in the chimney-breast. Riello explains that this practice of hiding clothes or other personal belongings in entry-points to the house is actually not uncommon, but it is almost if not actually undocumented. There is a project in Winchester databasing all such finds (and they have the stomacher on the front page of their website), and basing himself on their work Riello shows how the stomacher can tell several stories and how the historian brings as much to the object as the object to the historian. The most obvious one is that of its concealment, and the beliefs and social practice implied by it; but the garment is also a source for enquiries about textile manufacture (it is almost the earliest British printed linen surviving) and fashion, about images of the body (and more specifically the idealised female body), about bio-dioversity (the whalebone in it is from a previously-unrecorded subspecies of the North Atlantic [right] whale, a species previously thought not to have any subspecies) and about commodification (it had been cut down from a corset and heavily re-used) and the transition to capitalism. When I add that the article goes from there to Chinese pottery found in Williamsburg Virginia and finishes with flying machines that never were, you can see that it covers a lot of ground, and never without losing the point of explaining to the reader what these things can tell us that, perhaps, other evidence could not.

William Samuel Hensons Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

William Samuel Henson's Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

For this writer Riello’s article is the star of the volume, but the others can be separated as, firstly, those which take particular sorts of evidence: Marina Moskowitz with landscape (which involves the junction between manmade and natural and opens not just the category of material culture but the timespan over which objects, so often used as snapshots of a culture or merely as illustrations, out a great deal); Beverly Lemire illustrating underside aspects of colonialism through dress; Anne Laurence on architecture of the stately home in Britain and Ireland; Helen Berry using Beilby glassware to pull the industrial north-east forward in the London- (and, I would add, Birmingham-)led historiography of the Industrial of Consumer Revolution; and Sara Pennell on cookware as a source for social prescription for women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.5 Perhaps more powerful are the essays that instead take a theme and develop it around several different sorts of object; this approach is distinguished from the other as ‘object-driven’ rather than ‘object-centred’ by Harvey in the introduction, indeed.6 It is epitomised by, as well as Riello’s paper already mentioned, Karin Dannehl explaining how object biographies and object life cycles can be used as complementary methodological frameworks since the two approaches distinguish themselves by approaching the object for what is unique about it and for what is generic; by Frank Dikötter writing of the uptake of foreign culture in modern China and the agency involved in its adaptation to Eastern and entirely novel uses; and by Glenn Adamson asking, apropos of an eighteenth-century footstool, what we can deduce from an object that does not appear to exist where we would expect it.7 Adamson’s conclusion, that the British distinguished themselves from their contemporary French opponents by not just politics but also by their sitting posture, is surprising but hard to challenge from his evidence, which nicely illustrates the power of the medium to bring up aspects of social history that could not otherwise be reached.

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

In what is a pleasantly slim and economical volume some omissions are inevitable, but two in particular struck this reader, the noting of which is not intended to diminish the great value of what has been included. In particular, the fact that certain sorts of object have not been addressed can hardly be held against the editor however important the reviewer may think they are. However, to a medievalist the chronological bias of the volume towards the Industrial Revolution is inescapable, albeit partly explained by Harvey’s account of the development of field out of the history of consumption, which is inevitably tied up with the development of consumerism.8 All the same, it would have been salutary to have had one paper from a period where archival sources are rare enough that historians have been embracing alternative sources for a while, not even necessarily the Middle Ages: Antiquity or even prehistory would have done. The conscious distinction of this field of enquiry from archaeology (seen by the authors as focussed on typology and chronology in the same way as history is seen rooted in the archive) may not help the breadth of the approaches here, and Harvey’s initial premise of inherent interdisciplinarity is somewhat belied by such careful definition of the boundaries of the field in question.9 As it is only Lemire and Riello venture as far back as early early modern, and Dikötter and Moskowitz surprise rather more by being the prinicipal contributors to come as far forward as the twentieth century. Dikötter is also notable for being the only person included working on a non-Western area, and even here his approach is to ask how the West impacted China. While, therefore, this book is easily the best of several now available for its purpose of waking up students to the possibilities of objects as sources for the historian, the reviewer feels that another and quite different one could also be written, and perhaps should be, to stand on the shelf next to it in the right-thinking historian’s library.


1. Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London 2009).

2. Also published in the series: Miriam Dobson & Benjamin Ziemann (edd.), Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from 19th and 20th Century History (London 2008), and Sarah Barber & Corinna Peniston-Bird (edd.), History Beyond the Text: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2008).

3. Karen Harvey, “Introduction: practical matters” in eadem, History and Material Culture, pp. 1-23.

4. Giorgio Riello, “Things that Shape History: material culture and historical narratives”, ibid. pp. 24-46, at pp. 26-32.

5. Marina Moskowitz, “Back Yards and Beyond: landscapes and history”, ibid. pp. 67-84; Beverly Lemire, “Draping the body and dressing the home. The material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500–1800″, ibid. pp. 85-102; Anne Laurence, “Using buildings to understand social history: Britain and Ireland in the seventeenth century”, ibid., pp. 103-122; Helen Berry, “Regional Identity and Material Culture”, ibid. pp. 139-157; Sara Pennell, “Mundane materiality, or, should small things still be forgotten? Material culture, micro-history and the problem of scale”, ibid. pp. 173-191.

6. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 2-3.

7. Karin Dannehl, “Object biographies. From production to consumption” in Harvey, History and Material Culture, pp. 123-138; Frank Dikötter, “Objects and agency. Material culture and modernity in China”, ibid. pp. 158-172; Glenn Adamson, “The case of the missing footstool. Reading the absent object”, ibid., pp. 192-207.

8. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 8-9.

9. Ibid. pp. 3 & 6-8, esp. p. 8 where: “While a discipline may have a core, it will also feature variety, interdisciplinarity and areas of work that are in some tension with one another. When scholars work on material culture, the variety within disciplines – and also the connections between them – becomes [sic] plain” but also there: “All the contributors to this volume are historians.”