Tag Archives: monograms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

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

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


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

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

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

Signs of the times: early medieval ‘graphicacy’

It has already been remarked that I really shouldn’t be having time to blog. And, well, yes, good point actually. But I can’t give it up so instead I shall have to write shorter. This is after all something I need practice with.

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

So, okay, on 6th October Ildar Garipzanov was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar, to the title, “Graphicacy and Authority in Early Medieval Europe: Graphic Signs of Power and Faith”. In case you’re wondering what graphicacy even means, it is a term of art which runs parallel to literacy, referring to an ability to understand information presenting graphically, not figurally or in text, the way, for example, that you know what a pie-chart or similar is demonstrating or what a map is showing you. I arrived late, because someone wanted to dance on the train tracks outside London Paddington as I was coming in, but I understand from Ildar that in the first part of the paper he was explaining all this and that this theory has so far largely been used to study exactly that, people’s ability to understand graphs and charts, and that he wanted to apply to something he knows a lot about, monograms and other sorts of ‘encoded’ text.1

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Broadly, he sees an increase in the use of this sort of information from the fifth century to about the twelfth, and then a decline in favour of text once more. He stressed that the background of all this was principally Classical, from an era in which people scratched initials onto their property, and distinguished conceptually between this, where a few letters are used to signify a greater word, and monograms, where all the letters are combined into something more recognisable for itself than for the letters. The obvious case of this for the Middle Ages is of course the Chi-Ro symbolising Christ, which goes back to before Christianity was even legal, precisely so as to indicate allegiance to the banned sect: the catacombs of Milan, for example, use this and the now-ubiquitous fish to signal membership in a hopefully-secret way. And, yes, it’s the first two letters of His name in Greek, but how many people using it read Greek?2 The Alpha and Omega pairing is also a case of this phenomenon, where something is recognised in these symbols that is not just their lexical value, and there is of course the sign of the Cross, by which most people sign documents, in various more or less elaborate ways…

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram; Fitzwilliam museum, PG.13806, Grierson Collection

Most of the questions were about monograms, which I guess is because they’re sort of like crossword puzzles, demanding to be solved. I predictably asked about coins, because it seemed to me that the fact that across the tenth century, when most of France is striking coins with a KAROLUS monogram on whether the ruler’s name is Charles or not, implying again that the word is not the thing itself, literacy was probably not declining by that much and so the two phenomena can’t simply be opposed. Ildar wasn’t claiming that they could of course, but it struck me as worth saying so explicitly. Alice Rio asked if these were really using the same methods of comprehension as, say, charts, which seem like very different animals. There’s a point there, but there was also a point in Ildar’s response, which is that the audience for these things varies hugely, no doubt, but the same is also true, including the different mechanisms of comprehension, for different sorts of text, warning noticeboard versus Scholastic theology for example, and that though the parallel wasn’t exact neither was its failure destructive of the thesis. He is just starting out with all this, although clearly from a position of considerable knowledge, so we can all expect to hear more, which I for one will be interested by.


1. See, for example, his “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464, which has loads of monograms to puzzle over in it.

2. After all, as he observed, in Genesis it says, “Deus erat uerbum“…