Tag Archives: Oxford

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

My relentless progress through my seminar report backlog now finally leaves me looking at the last seminar I went to in Oxford, something of a milestone. The person who had the dubious honour of that slot in my academic life was the estimable Dr Alice Taylor, one of Kings College London’s regiment of Alices and an acquaintance of long standing from the Institute of Historical Research but here presenting to the Medieval History Seminar at All Souls with the title “Lex scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish law compared”. This was a version of a paper she’d given in Oxford the previous year, but I’d missed it then and there was plenty of debate this time round…

Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, fo. 59v

The opening of the text of Leges Scocie, as close as there is to an early medieval Scottish lawcode, in Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, the so-called Berne Manuscript, fo. 59v.

It has so far been Alice’s most widely-recognised achievement to convince people that there even was such a thing as early medieval Scottish law, which she has had to retrieve from contextually-undatable references in much later manuscripts, but when you’ve done that, as she explained, you start to wonder about how the system worked and since, if that was your best evidence, you have no case-law or documentation by which practice might be examined, you have to start comparing. So, after a brief run-through of the different schools of historical thought on how written law relates to what people actually do to maintain social order in their communities, from the minimalist Patrick Wormald thesis that legislators of such law were not after judicial effects so much as the promotion of the legislators’ position above society to the somehow more spiritual one that written law reflects the wider community ideology as it was lived, she adopted a position for debate that written law was in these cases the top of an iceberg of unwritten legal practice, both part of the same corpus of social ideology, but more similar between her areas at the bottom than at the top.1

The three corpora do certainly differ, not least in preservation—Wales has various thirteenth-century redactions of what purports to be a royal lawcode of the tenth century, the Laws of Hywel Dda, Anglo-Saxon England has a large corpus of summative royal lawcodes with additional provisions also largely issued in royal council in what we now recognise as a fairly Carolingian way and in Scotland, as said, there are thirteenth- and fourteenth-century references to laws that in some cases probably go back rather further—but also in the legislative process: Welsh law names a king but its real developers were specialist lawyers, Anglo-Saxon England places the king first and foremost and Scotland is somewhere between the two. Alice argued, however, that all three corpora have references in that imply strongly that the legislators expected the initial action against criminals to come from the communities in which the crimes were committed, and the royal or state process would only creak into operation when that failed. The English laws are full of communal obligations for default of which the king can penalise, at what after the tenth-century is usually a flat fine of 120 shillings; Welsh law has a whole set of pay-scales for abetting crimes, which are charged at the same rate as the crimes themselves but to the state, rather than the victims; and the more shadowy Scottish references still assume posses who might hang a thief if he was caught, in a style quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon laws. All, or so Alice argued, expected the most immediate action to be taken in community, leaving royal justice as a superstrate over a bustle of quite various local enforcement of communal solidarities. For this reason, the main focus of the laws in all three areas is on persons, not communities, who have broken out of their social bonds by reason of their actions.

Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

An illustrated page from the Laws of Hywel Dda in Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

This met with some opposition and refinement in discussion. Paul Brand pointed out that despite the texts’ focus on individual actions, royal enforcement was carried out against whole communities, such as the harrying of Worcestershire in 1041 by King Harthacnut’s orders to pick just one.2 Mark Whittow suggested that the real rôle of law in these cases was to penalise action on behalf of the kindred, i. e. feud, as opposed to action on behalf of the community; and Wendy Davies evinced scepticism that the local community existed in these areas as a group so clearly defined as that it could be expected to act as a body. To the last, Alice (correctly, it seems to me) said that the texts nevertheless envisage such a group with mutual knowledge, though this doesn’t remove Wendy’s objection that it’s hard to show that was really there on the ground. Thomas Charles-Edwards and Tom Lambert both raised the question of change, however, and here there seemed to be more room for modification at least about what the royal law was for: Tom has after all argued something not dissimilar to this but both he and Professor Charles-Edwards emphasised that the lawcodes we have (i. e. the English ones) develop new terms over the course of the tenth century, as the kings try and open up space for themselves in what had previously been community action.

My notes no longer make it clear to me exactly how the three positions differed here, but the focus of disagreement seems to have been on whether the legislators, in all three cases, were trying to use what the communities over whom they legislated already did, to support it or to change it. I think Alice was arguing for the first two options, but for England the swell of opinion elsewhere around the table seemed much more on the first plus the third. It did seem to me (what my notes do reflect) that the English laws have as a big part of their agenda to regularise and eliminate local variation in custom, and the detailed provisions of the Welsh laws look like that to me also; the Scottish stuff I know much less well, but since we don’t have it as issued (if it was) it’s harder to say. The differences in practice here may not matter very much, but the Oxford scholarship seems even now to be very keen on knowing the minds of rulers, and it does seem as if law should be a way one can do it; to that way of thinking, Alice’s paper was probably more subversive than it initially appeared…


1. Alice here contrasted Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001) with Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia (New Haven 1988). Patrick’s book is certainly where to start for more on any of the lawcodes mentioned in this post. As for Alice, her beacon work so far might be “Leges Scocie and the lawcodes of David I, William the Lion and Alexander II” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 207-288, but this paper itself is out, since last month only, as “Lex Scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Law Compared” in Judith Scheele & Fernanda Pirie (edd.), Legalism: justice and community, Legalism 2 (Oxford 2014), pp. 47-76!

2. So recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for the year 1041. in whatever edition or translation you prefer to use; mine of resort is Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1998).

Seminar CLXXXII: the return (and beginning) of the intermittent monks of Sant Benet de Bages

I find myself, with some relief, advancing into June 2013 with my seminar report backlog, because on the 5th of that month I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford and I was in fact there as the speaker, with the title “Two men and a monastery: clerical involvements in Manresa before 1000″. This was the first piece of work coming out of what then seemed like my new project, and since I am still trying to work out what to do with its findings, it may be worth explaining here what I thought I was doing.

View of the modern Manresa city cenre from the air

Modern Manresa somewhat drowns out its medieval components, but they’re there, even if not of the tenth century.

At a late stage of my Ph. D. research, when I started having access to the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia covering Osona and Manresa and thus basically to more than five documents covering Manresa at all, I noticed that there seemed to have been an awful lot of priests around the town, and that at least some of them seemed to write transaction charters involving land in many places around it, which suggested to me that they were in fact working in the town for anyone who wanted a charter written. At that point, all I could really do was bookmark this thought for future reference, but when I started to meet Wendy Davies’s and Carine van Rhijn’s and others’ new work on identifying and characterising the early medieval rural priesthood, I began to think that the Manresa stuff was the contribution I could make to such an endeavour and so when I shook off the slough of 2012 and tried to start doing something new, that’s what I did.1

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikimedia Commons

Armed then with my own copy of Catalunya Carolíngia IV at last, I started pulling together the relevant documentation and the first thing that became very clear was that almost all of it came originally from the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages. That presented two problems: firstly, it probably meant that where the monastery didn’t eventually get property I had no information (and this was what the third paper out of the project came to be about) and secondly, because Sant Benet itself had priests on staff, I needed to be sure that I was able to distinguish them from priests actually based in the city. And as you have already heard complications arose with that very quickly that made this hard-to-impossible to resolve without access to the original documents, which even at this late stage (and still now) I had not been able to persuade the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, where they now largely reside, to give me. So this paper was largely about trying to deal with this complication.

Santa Maria de Montserrat

An effective set of defences: Santa Maria de Montserrat

I had started by focusing on two particular men whose names I kept seeing in the documents, Baldemar and Badeleu, and they turned out to have oddly parallel career trajectories that both told me a lot about the situation I was looking at. Baldemar seems to have been the better-connected of the two; he first turns up in Balsareny to the north of Manresa, where he had family property, as a deacon in 961. He was at both the endowment, in 966, and the consecration, in 972, of the then-new monastery of Sant Benet, wrote a lot of documents for them during the 970s and steadily acquired property in two areas near the house (as well as from Count-Marquis Borrell II once); it’s not a complete surprise when in his penultimate appearance in 985 he signs as a monk, and in the ultimate one, a strange kind of Gesta abbatum-type charter from 1002, he is explicitly named among the congregation of Sant Benet. So we have a well-connected local priest who had long dealings with the monastery, probably knew the monks well and eventually joined them to live the life contemplative till his surprisingly late death (given he must have been at least 76 at his last appearance).2 This one is fairly easy to understand, although it is worth noting that we have no record of him ever having given any property to the monastery.

Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096, bearing Baldemar's signature in the middle of the witness list

Baldemar is one of the few of these guys whose signature I do have, in pretty much the middle of the penultimate line of this charter, which is Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096.

Badeleu is a bit less obvious. We see him as a cleric in 952 then as a priest in 961, in fact writing a sale of Baldemar’s to the founder of Sant Benet, the vicar Sal·la. Thereafter he appears about as much as scribe as anything else, often for property transfers very close to Sant Benet at Montpeità, and himself bought up quite a lot of land in two Manresa settlements called Vilapicina and la Celada, this going on till 995. In 982, apparently in fear of death, he made a big donation to Sant Benet, but reserved the property till he died, a wise move as it turned out. But he also bought land from Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, who was at this point insisting he was Archbishop of Tarragona and wasn’t entirely an establishment figure, and Badeleu also appeared as witness against Sant Benet de Bages in a court case of 1000. Despite that he also entered the monastery the next year, with a compensatory gift made to a son who doesn’t appear mentioned in any of his other documents, and appears among the monks—but still only as priest—in Baldemar’s final document, and probably his own, in 1002.3 Again it seems clear he would have known the monks for a long time but it’s less clear that he was probably always going to join them.

View of Sant Benet de Bages

Another view of Sant Benet. «Sant Benet de Bages – General» per Josep Renalias – Lohen11Treball propi. Disponible sota la llicència CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This got me looking harder at the rest of the monks, because both of these two suggested in their different ways that one could have been a member of Sant Benet in some sense without fully becoming a monk. And that is where the whole question of intermittent monks discussed in a post of last year came up: I’m not sure any of the first monks of Sant Benet actually consistently operated as such in their documents. They all seem to have continued to buy and hold property outside common and often to have written many non-monastic documents. I think, therefore, that the general conclusion of this paper was not about Manresa but about Sant Benet: just because the vicar Sal·la had founded the place, given it lands and so forth in 966, and even though his children then got its church consecrated in 972 did not make it a going monastery.4 Its monks took a long time to turn up. The first ones seem to do so in 979, but even then they seem to have kept their day jobs, being largely people like Baldemar and Badeleu who had important community rôles they presumably didn’t want to leave behind. This is not the stereotype of monastic foundation in this area, a stereotype which crazy Abbot Cesari had actually lived, of first getting your monks together then moving into the wasteland and building your new home yourself as soon as you had a gift of land on which to do it.5 Nonetheless, this one seems more understandable to me, building and building and not quite being sure whether it was time finally to leave the world or if there was still work to be done in it. But the result is that although I can probably identify 25 people who became monks of Sant Benet from my documents, I’m not sure whether they can or should therefore be excluded from the pool of priests working in or out of Manresa in the pastoral clergy!


1 The first of Wendy’s contributions on this score is now out, I believe, it being W. Davies, “Local priests and the writing of charters in northern Iberia in the tenth century” in Julio Escalona & H. Sirantoine (edd.), Documentos y cartularios como instrumentos de poder. España y el occidente cristiano (ss. viii–xii) (Toulouse 2014), pp. 29-43; Carine’s have already produced at least A. C. van Rhijn, “Priests and the Carolingian reforms: the bottle-necks of local correctio” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel & Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 219-237, but I believe that there is an actual volume of essays in process too.

2. His appearances are Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 881, 975, 977, 985, 995B, 997, 1006, 1014, 1032, 1043, 1057, 1059, 1108, 1114, 1115, 1139, 1143, 1154, 1158, 1160, 1165, 1171, 1187, 1193, 1224, 1225, 1236, 1279, 1280, 1281, 1305, 1316, 1320, 1348, 1405 & 1489 & Jaime Villanueva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo VII: viage a la iglesia de Vique. Año 1806 (Valencia 1821), ap. XIII.

3. Badeleu appears in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 692, 881, 884, 939, 1021, 1109, 1156, 1164, 1181, 1183, 1223, 1225, 1267, 1270, 1278, 1286, 1297, 1299, 1335, 1346, 1360, 1401, 1422, 1432, 1448, 1456, 1487, 1514, 1516, 1527, 1544, 1551, 1554, 1603, 1604, 1701, 1702, 1713, 1750, 1777, 1814, 1840 & 1864 & Villanueva, Viage Literario VII, ap. XIII and at least one other document, his entry to the monastery, mentioned but not cited in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), which I don’t have to consult right now and thus can’t give a page number from, sorry, making me just as bad as them…

4. The most recent version of this story is told in Francesc Junyent i Mayou, Alexandre Mazcuñan i Boix, Albert Benet i Clarà, Joan-Andreu Adell i Gisbert, Jordi Vigué i Viñas & Xavier Barral i Altet, “Sant Benet de Bages” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XI: el Bages, ed. Antoni Pladevall (Barcelona n. d.), pp. 408-438.

5. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 543.

Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome

One good paper about travel to Rome deserves another, or something; five days after hearing Lizzie Boyle tell us about Irish clerics whose journies to Rome went awry, on 27th May 2013 I was listening to my old colleague Rory Naismith addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Peter’s Pence and Beyond: the Forum Hoard and Anglo-Roman monetary relations in the Middle Ages”. The hoard in question here is 870 silver pennies and a gold solidus found in digging in the Forum of Rome in 1883. The digger was looking for the house of the Vestal Virgins so went pretty much straight through the later building between Santa Maria Antiqua and San Silvestro in Lacu where the coins turned up, so they have had only the most cursory publication up till now; Rory and colleagues are now changing that and he was in Oxford to tell us more about it.1

I guess about the middle of this picture...

The composition of the hoard first: the solidus is one of Emperor Theophilus (829-842), and among the silver there are five Continental pieces, one of Emperor Berengar I (915-924) from Pavia and the others from Pavia, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Limoges.2 The rest is Anglo-Saxon pennies of all the kings from Athelstan (924-939) to Edmund (939-946) barring six from the mint of Viking York. The whole thing seems to have been in a bag of some kind because also found were two silver hooked-tags that could have been fasteners and seem to bear the garbled name of Pope Marinus II (942-946), and when it came up it was all in a cooking pot.3 A 940s assemblage date thus seems pretty obvious, but Athelstan’s contribution makes up nearly half of the English stuff even though it would have been in circulation the longest, and should, we might think, have been withdrawn by this time.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

London is the mint best represented, and that is where the die-links are most frequent, suggesting that coins from there had circulated less than the others, but a sixth of the coins are from Midlands mints and another sixth from even further afield. Rory thought that this probably represented the circulation available in London or close by around that time, and pointed out that Bishop Theodred of London, who died 942×951, had been to Rome and bequeathed stuff he’d bought in Pavia, among a sum of wealth from which 870 pennies would hardly have been significant.4 Whether that constitutes a smoking gun or not, if this was circulation (and we have very few southern English hoards of this period from which to judge, they’re actually more frequent in Italy!) if this was the coin doing the rounds in 940s London the Anglo-Saxon coinage system was some way off its later level of regulation. I also don’t see how we can rule out that the owner of these coins wasn’t adding stuff or even taking stuff out as he moved, so there are difficulties with interpretation still, but it’s still a good chunk of evidence for money use somewhere!

Inscribed hooked-tags from the Forum Hoard

The hooked-tags from the hoard, inscribed +DOMNO MA and RINO PAPA, a matching pair. Blunt, Okasha and Metcalf, Pl. VIII.

The question that follows, however, is that with any hoard: why did someone bring it where it was found, put it there and then not come back for it? The last one of these can almost never be answered, and here the second one was hard to answer too — opinions varied on whether this was a run-down or busy part of tenth-century Rome and the most that could be agreed was that it would have been hard to be unobserved, while the actual location doesn’t seem to have been part of the precinct of any active churches — but with the first there are two obvious suggestions. The first is that this was a pilgrim’s gift, and the custom-made fastening does make it look like a votive offering; if so, however, it obviously never got given! The second, which has the same problem, connects to the tax of Rory’s title, ‘Peter’s Pence‘, a levy on the English for the support of the papacy which is canonically blamed on either King Offa of Mercia or King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but which is otherwise hard to demonstrate in operation before the time of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). This seems too early, therefore, and in any case it’s nothing like as much as a Peter’s Pence payment would presumably have been: Rory said that it matches about one-third of what Berkshire paid in the time of Domesday Book, in which case where’s the rest?

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

It was the closing points that probably interested me the most, though, sometimes-numismatist as I suppose I am. These were about the use of money in tenth-century Italy. This seems to have been quite restricted. A full quarter of early medieval coins found in Italy have been English ones. The papal coinage is only ephemerally preserved. However, from the 970s onwards the royal coinage of Pavia seems to have had some kind of a renascence; it rises in find frequency to drown out both English and papal issues. This being Western Europe’s most urbanised area, it seems improbable that there wasn’t money of some kind in use in markets; the English stuff however seems to have been what one hoarded (presumably because it was well-known to be better). In that case, should someone have just stolen this bag meant for Pope Marinus from Bishop Theodred or whoever, and then found it full of English coin, stashing it somewhere out of the way where they could take coins from it few by few, and not getting very far with that before some mishap befell them, still seems a perfectly possible outcome. We will never know: but lost precious metal really seems to pique the popular interest, and in cases like this it’s not hard to see why!


1. I suppose it depends what you mean by cursory: there’s D. M. Metcalf, “The Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 62 (London 1992), pp. 62-96, online here.

2. These details, except the attribution to Berengar, are from ibid.; Rory mentioned the Theophilus solidus but called the others ‘Frankish'; the Berengar attribution came out in questions.

3. The tags have been published in James Graham-Campbell & Elisabeth Okasha, with Michael Metcalf, “A Pair of Inscribed Anglo-Saxon Hooked Tags from the Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 221-229.

4. His will is edited in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge 1930), no. 1, and translated in eadem (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 106.

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.


I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and idem, “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, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9


1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth': examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

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

Bringing Scotland to Oxford: the O’Donnell Lectures for 2013

The medieval history of Britain outwith England is not terribly well covered at Oxford. I got into the habit of saying that by virtue of my appointment there I was now England’s only professional historian of the Picts even though I haven’t worked on them since last century: this was to stupidly forget Dr Meggen Gondek, but it was still far truer than it ought to have been, especially in the largest history department in the world outside Moscow.1 And this is all very mystifying, because every year in Oxford there is a lecture series on just such matters, the O’Donnell Lectures, in 2013 they were on the theme of Early Medieval Scotland, and they were absolutely packed with interested Oxonians, including of course me. This was a half-day event, organised by Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and the running order was as follows:

Alex kicked off with a typically controversial paper that opened with a typically controversial statement, which was that the term Celtic Scotland was rubbish: when it was Celtic it wasn’t Scotland and Scots is a dialect of English anyway. He went on from there to argue that in fact the whole concept of national languages is anachronistic for this period and area: while everyone would agree that there must have been many dialects across the area we now call Scotland, what was missing was any acrolect, the ‘official’ or master language of which they formed versions. If there was one of those, after Christianization it would have been Latin, effectively disconnecting the vernaculars from each other. Alex argued for Pictish as essentially being several dialects in a P-Celtic continuum of various sorts of Brittonic that had nothing to bind them together, yet still shared changes due to pressures from Old Irish or Old English that didn’t come from any controlling centre. Some kind of British acrolect seems to be evident by the seventh century that may have been centered on the Severn basin in the fifth, when that was the richest and least affected part of the old Roman province and apparently also generating pennanular brooches, but even that had lost its centre to the Anglo-Saxon culture by the time we can see it in names and texts. There was lots to think about here, and many parallels from elsewhere, but the lack of simple categories is not going to make it easy to work with however accurate it may in fact be.

A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Badge of an acrolect? A Romano-British pennanular brooch now belonging to the Shrewsbury Museums Service

Professor Broun, whom I’d not met before, followed in the noble tradition of G. W. S. Barrow (who I now discover sadly died a few months later, unconnectedly) by looking at the high medieval Scottish kingdom’s structures and wondering how old some of them might be.2 He focused particularly on the officer known as a mormaer, who from a Carolingian perspective looks a lot like a count: he seems to have held a court with a bishop, collected fines, coordinated military service, or at least he seems in the twelfth century to have done such things. This was not part of their family status but it was that status that made them appointable to the rôle, and they could be quite hard to manage without. On the other hand, the kingship provided a centralised aspect to this system that nothing else did, which meant that the king was important to these people as a link to any wider importance. Again, this all looks pretty much like a thinly-resourced Carolingian system and as tenth-century as it is twelfth when you look from across the Channel, but how tenth-, or even eighth- or ninth-century, might it have been here? Well, we have basically no evidence, but we can see firstly that Pictish kings could raise large armies, and secondly that mormaers had rights and lands that were not associated with kindred in an age when almost everything else was, suggesting that these were relics of some older system into which new leading (and presumably Gaelic-speaking) kindreds had moved.

If that was true, then (argued Professor Broun) Pictland would arguably have been more of a state than Scotland for a good while!3 And that is so, I guess, but it means we have a picture of a system running on ‘public’ obligation to rulers who had nothing to offer to their distant subordinates except not drowning them, which shouldn’t be a sustainable model without some kind of pull factor too (which is probably what is marked by the symbol stones, as Professor Broun and I seem to agree,4 but what significance travelled with their masons dammit?) Here, questions mainly raised the possibility that in the phases of either Pictish or, let’s call it Alban kingship that were less successfully centralised mormaers would probably have been able to be kings or at least reguli of their regions, especially (said Alex with good reason5) if that region was Moray, whose ruling line eventually became kings of the whole kit and caboodle. But I still feel as if we are missing a mechanism that attached those regions to the centralising operation: I think that mechanism is the development of what we classify as Pictishness, and I don’t understand how it worked. At least by the end of the day I could be sure that Professor Broun shared this frustration…

The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside

Monuments of membership? The Pictish stones of Inveravon, Speyside (Moray)

Then there was Thomas’s paper, ably if sometimes sceptically read by Richard Sharpe. This was much more agonised about our state of knowledge than the other two. Basically, it argued for a plurality of competing churches in what is now Scotland in the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish, Northumbrian and Pictish, although the sources that tell us this are arguing about things we just can’t see and are overweeningly concerned with purely local matters when they talk about Scotland, all of which sounded very reasonable to me of course, but that then between 800 and 1100 we just know nothing. Even the very few hints of structure or change we have in the exiguous sources are more confusing than helpful: royal involvement in the tenth-century Church is later claimed by Dunkeld and Abernethy among others, but is there anything in this or were they just then competing for the earlier origin myth? By the time our sources speak again, the Celi Dé, an ascetic monastic order who nonetheless tended to run in families, are obviously very important, and the reform movement is busy trying either to stamp them out or co-opt them, but when did they start to become influential, or even start at all? When we see bishops turning up in this area in records of the tenth century, what or whom are they bishops of? We just don’t know. About as far as we can safely get is that the kings of the tenth century back some Church foundations and that the Celi Dé may be part of this.

There is some hope for a better texturing of the local church, too, by better, finer-grained work on place-names, especially hagiotoponyms, place-names based on the names of saints, and names in Kil- and Eccles-, both of which seem to be specific to areas where Old Norse and Old English influence was felt, respectively. But even then it’s not simple, because of how late they are recorded and what their other components are: we wind up with Old English names Gaelicised under Old Norse influence, which is hard to think about. It all suggests that the system was still varied in the ninth and tenth centuries, and that any royal system of big houses (dare we say minsters? the paper did) is bigger dots in a landscape full of other dots of older or newer and different colours. Alas, even after so long working on this stuff, Thomas felt he had much more still to do.

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait

The nineteenth-century church building of Logierait, probably on top of the medieval church of Laggan Mochaid, attested in 1214 but probably older since two Pictish stones have come up here…

As you can probably even tell, part of the problem we seem to be facing here is that of Scotland as an early medieval entity. The current national division encompasses rather a lot of cultural zones and the divisions between dominant cultures, languages, Church organisation and whatever else were not just shifting throughout the early Middle Ages but did not match up at all. Indeed with the Church structures a distribution map might be the only way to catch it, not anything zonal. When we know that there were, nonetheless, kings of Scots and of Picts who apparently ruled these areas, one is forced to ask how such a disjointed uncharacterised polity could be ruled at all and what stuck it together, and at that point one either does as Professor Broun did and argue for a very very light-weight definition of ‘polity’, or remember that there were also subordinate rulers we hardly see and worry that the whole thing is probably a tombola of variegated and mingling relationships between the powerful that didn’t stay put for two minutes together. Both are in fact possible! But one of the nice things about studying early medieval Scotland right now, as Professor Charles-Edwards pointed out in his introduction, is that the field has advanced as far as it has in the last decade or so—even if what that means is that our ignorance is so much better constructed now—largely because it’s being led by these three people and a few others all of whom talk to each other a lot and get on, without which we wouldn’t have even this much of a coherent picture. There’s a lesson here for the Academy at large, but there were also lots of new things to think about early medieval Scotland! Just, a strange place to be hearing them…


1. Such, at least, had been the claim of Chris Wickham at my induction. But seriously, folks, the Picts and Catalonia before the year 1000! How did I manage to wind up with two specialisms about which no institution in England gives a stuff?

2. Referring mainly to G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century (Edinburgh 1973, 2nd edn. 2003).

3. Cf. Wendy Davies, “States and Non-States in the Celtic World” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 155-170.

4. Largely, it seems, on the basis of Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967) and “Primus inter pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture” in Sally Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 97-167.

5. See Alex Woolf, “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2000.79.2.145.