Tag Archives: paganism

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…


1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part II

Recent events are of course discouraging, but if I could take another lesson from Mark Blackburn it could easily be not to abandon a project just because it is hideously, hideously backlogged, and so here we go back on the Horse of Delayed Reportage. Some musing on the issue has led me to believe that on the first evening of Kalamazoo just gone, I went to the Early Medievalists’ Dinner. I won’t do this again, I think; it seems to be a do where old friends go to see each other, and not to meet new people, and since the old friends I have at Kalamazoo I regularly ‘see’ on the Internet, this was not a useful function for me. I suspect I would have done better getting slightly bent at the wine hours or indeed sleeping. However, sleep I did and on the 13th May rose on time for breakfast and the blogger meet-up, which was smaller than last year’s but more genial, and out of which great plans arose. I think it was also the longest I’ve managed to talk with any of the people there except Another Damned Medievalist, especially the Medieval History Geek and Notorious, Ph. D., which was good as they are both people I’m sure I could talk to for longer if longer there were. In fact, as you can read at his, for the first two sessions of the day the former of those two was actually in the same room as me, and his reports are good, but of course there were mostly other people talking. Anyway, despite Mugshots having lost some of their tea-fu since last year,1 I was after all this much better set up than the previous day for the morning sessions, which in my conference experience went as follows:

Session 201. Cyril and Methodius: new research on the Cyrillo-Methodian mission and its aftermath

I have a soft spot for Saints Cyril and Methodius, partly because of their (Latin) feast-day I admit, which is very handily placed for the chronically single, but also because very few people in this world get to originate alphabets even if those alphabets are misnamed. Be that as it may, here I also learnt some things, from these papers:

  • Maddalena Betti, “The Rise of Sancta ecclesia marabensis: the missionary letters of Pope John VIII (872-882)”, trying to take these documents from the first pope really to take an interest in the Balkans to get at his world-view and the concessions he was forced to make to political interests at home and on the frontier. A savvy man with a difficult job; this was very interesting.
  • Roland Marti, “… quasi in signum unitatis ecclesiae: east and west in the Cyrillo-Methodian heritage”, reminding us that although modern politics have made Catholic versus Orthodox into a battle of East and West and assimilated Cyril and Methodius into the former, the real context of their times was both East and West fighting over, and with, the Middle, which may explain the surprising success of their Third, Slavonic, Way; it didn’t mean that either side had won. Marti also pointed out how much the Slavonic liturgy borrowed from both sides, but this was presumably obscure to the people arguing…
  • Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

    Page from a Glagolithic breviary, c. 1225 (British Museum MS Add. 31951, fo. 1)

  • David Kalhous, “Interpreting Holy Men: Cyril and Methodius as saints in the earliest tradition and in the later Bohemian hagiography (ninth to fourteenth centuries)”, which was essentially a paper about reception and use of the hagiography of the two saints that I seem to have run out of attention for.
  • The questions here involved Florin Curta asking what evidence we have for the abandonment of the alphabet Cyril actually came up with, Glagolitic, which has puzzled me too in the past given that it persisted in Croatia till the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Martin helpfully told us there is none: all guesses as to when it went out of use are only that. And yet I feel that the manuscripts in St Catherine’s Sinai may have more to tell us here yet…

Then lunch, which I don’t remember at all, and back to it.

Session 255. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe: hoarding

For a brief moment in 2010 I was known for having thoughts about hoards, so I thought this might help me think more about them.

Avar buckle in Szeged Museum believed to depict the Tree of Life

And those Avars did have some shiny treasures (this one's in Szeged Museum, or was)

  • First up was Marcin Wołoszyn with “Avars, Scandinavians, Slavs, and Byzantine Coins: hoard and hoarding in east-central Europe between the sixth and eight centuries” was an attempt at a comparison over some very disparate modern political areas which was thus consciously hampered by national differences in detection, reporting and publication, but which concluded that Byzantine tribute payments to the Bulgars until 626 are very visible in coin finds (as distinct to Danegeld in Scandinavian ones, interestingly—there’s a point for Mark) but that most such finds are grave-goods, not hoards, which instead are common in Sweden where the bulk of preservation is later. This raised questions about what the Avars did with incoming coin if they didn’t bury it; reminted as their own issues? If so where are they? Converted into treasure then looted by Charlemagne’s troops from the Avar Ring? No answers here but before he started we didn’t even have the question.
  • Bartlomiej Szymon Szmoniewksi,3 “Hoards from the Forest and Forest-Steppe Regions of Ukraine: Pandora’s box in the archaeology of the early medieval Eastern Europe”, reporting on a slow move away from identifying particular kinds of ornament found in this area with particular tribes, but not one sufficient to stop a kind of glorification of ancestors going on with the publication of this material (and I will take a risk and say that if you follow David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, many of the reports of Thracian finds in Bulgaria to which he links seem to sing of this even though some years ago digs there would have been all about the Slavs, so, have things really improved?)
  • Florin Curta, “Trade or Taxes? Hoards of Iron Implements and Weapons in Ninth-Century Moravia”, a tightly-packed and speedily-delivered paper with an obvious big question: why did people bury hoards of tools, keys, scrap-iron and so on in the zone of old Moravia (as far as that can be guessed…)? There is lots of this stuff, and also huge hoards of ingots (into the thousands); why? Votive deposits? Tax? (If so, why still buried?) Mercantile currency storage? There are distinct types of ingots, restricted to certain zones, and some that ran interregionally; some are just long bars, some are axe-shaped. Professor Curta reckoned, and fair enough, that these items were being put to various uses and that design for one use did not preclude use for another, but it looks like there is more to do and he intends to start with analysis of the metal to see what the traffic flow from production to deposition is like. It’ll be interesting to hear!
  • In questions Professor Curta also wisely counselled the use of a third comparison zone to add to the two he’d had (essentially Poland and Moravia), as Croatia (again) does things its own way, and denied my suggestion that the objects could actually be serving as currency as they did in Chur (which apparently he had mentioned but I missed), feeling that the distribution is too polarised for it to be commercial. So, I might think, is that of coin finds in Scandinavia, on a statistical scale, but as we have already said, commercial it still seems largely to have been… deposition isn’t use. He knows the evidence better than I do, though, and I would read about this eagerly even if I have to admit I’m wrong.

Lastly for this day, I parted ways with my fellow blogger and followed my lately-acquired reviewing interest even further east, with:

Session 320. Gendered Borders and Boundaries

Here I was really just here for the first paper, but the others also proved very interesting, which is always a happy result of stepping out of one’s area.

  • Arnold Lelis, “Gendered Myth-Making on the Pagan Frontier: Peter Dusburg and the Demise of the Galindians”. The Galindians were a Prussian tribe who, according to one of our earliest sources for the area, were gone when the Germans arrived because they had cut the breasts off their women-folk to bring down the population (no, I don’t know either), and that those women had then in vengeance led a neighbouring tribe against their men who’d wiped them out. So, there’s obviously a gendered subtext here, but which one do you pick? What the heck was going on with this story was the subject of the paper: it ideologically clears a wilderness for settlement, and clears it of some fairly ungodly people, but who was Peter actually seeing as villain and who as victim here, men or women? This question involved Amazons (fairly obviously different), medieval images of lactation and removal of saints’ breasts, inevitable Freud and speculation on Salvation and it was all really quite learned if also, ineluctably, impossible to resolve.
  • Nancy Ross, “Gender, Journeys, and gammadia at Ravenna”, was one of those papers you can almost only do with visual materials, where someone points out a well-known thing and then goes, “And here it is again in a surprising but very explanatory context” and all you can do is agree. (Some people do do this with text but it is easier, at least, with pictures.) Here the well-known thing was indecipherable letters that appear on martyrs’ robes in early mural depictions of them, the so-called gammadia. These occur especially in the paintings of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, which unusually features as many women saints as male ones, facing each other across the nave on a mutual procession towards a now-lost end-point, presumably Christ (see image below). This is one of only three sites where women are given gammadia and Ross argued that here, at least, it is a mark of honour for virginity, as very few of the men bear the marks (and those young ones or known virgins) but almost all the women do. Once she’d said this it was difficult to see how it could mean anything else, here, but this sadly doesn’t work so well in other contexts… More to do, but a stunning church, which always helps.
  • Rebeca Castellanos, “Gendering the Moorish Invasion: the legends of the locked palace and the rape of Count Julia’s daughter”. You might have expected that I’d have gone for this too, but I know the stories—if you don’t, this is a fairly early topos about the fall of Visigothic Spain to the Muslims, that King Roderick was a bad king who raped one of his subjects’ daughters and unfortunately he ran the African coastal province so could let the Muslims in for revenge, and also that there was this mysterious locked palace in Toledo that no-one before Roderick had opened and he opened it to find only a chest containing a prediction of the loss of his kingdom. Like the worst chain letter ever in reverse, basically. Castellanos was concentrating on the lack of agency ascribed to the woman and it was an intelligent paper, but, I have just finished reading a clutch of Anglo-Saxon documents where the women aren’t even named in their marriage agreements,4 I guess unthinking misogyny doesn’t surprise me in this era’s literature.
  • Esther Liberman-Cuenca, “Telling Stories, Creating Memories: narratives, gender, and customary law in late medieval Colchester”, pulled together a quite detailed picture of [edit: male] community relations in fifteenth-century Colchester from the voluminous notaries’ recordstown custumaries that survive there; these include a number of judicial privileges that were claimed to go back to the Conquest or time immemorial but of which, inevitably, we have few if any earlier signs. Lots of [edit: male] status hung on character and oaths, though, so in some respects we could certainly find earlier similarities. [I seem to have made unhelpfully institutional notes on this and missed the gender angle, supplied by Ms Liberman-Cuenca in a comment below; thankyou!]
  • I think the first two of these papers got me more excited than the latter two because they involved things I didn’t already know; the fact that the latter two did less of this probably shouldn’t diminish their importance and both were certainly clear and carefully-thought.

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna

Panoramic view of the parade of female saints in the mural at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo di Ravenna, from Wikimedia Commons

And thereafter we were off the leash again, and this time on the town. Michael Fletcher was determined that he needed to buy me beer and I wasn’t strong enough (or indeed at all likely) to argue, so I wound up at a certain pizza place with him and Richard Scott Nokes (with whom I was able to talk more this year, I’m happy to say, though as an exhibitor he was kind of a sitting target) and various other non-blogging but good people. But these days I don’t get wrecked at conferences because it makes the next day so hard so we were back quite quick scrounging wine off publishers and I think it was Early Medieval Europe served me my last drink of the night. All praise to them, therefore, and this will resume after the post I meant to post last time. Y’know, assuming no-one else dies. Please don’t.


1. “This is gonna be really hot, d’you want me to put some ice in it?”

2. I have no idea what this huge historical site is doing under that domain name but there are, as far as I can see, no links out from it to the main domain so, dammit, I’m linking to it.

3. I’m not sure that I have the spelling correct here, if not and you know better do say and I’ll amend.

4. For example, Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. nos 128 & 130.

Conversion can be a bit of a lottery

The martyrdom of St Adalbert at the hands of the Prussians, from the doors of Gniezno Cathedral

An unsuccessful Baltic conversion attempt: the Prussians martyr St Adalbert, as depicted on the doors of Gniezno Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

Though no Christian I, I was still firmly schooled in a Christian tradition and every now and then I realise that my preconceptions of religion are kind of Christian unless shaken otherwise. For the early medievalist this can sometimes be an obstacle to understanding: the lord God I heard about most when I was a schoolboy was a jealous god, but many of his rivals maybe not so much, and when we deal with conversion from paganism this becomes relevant. The classic story for most of us is probably Bede’s report of King Rædwald of East Anglia, one of those in the Ecclesiastical History who got it wrong, in his case by being converted only so far as to install an altar to Christ in his multi-denominational pagan temple,1 but there are others, and even where the cults are probably not similar at all the ready acceptance that Christ might certainly be a valid and powerful god, but not the only one, shows up quite a lot.

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200, from Wikimedia Commons

I am currently reading something about Eastern Europe for review (no, I agree, I don’t know why either) and this came up again in a particularly charming case.2 In the context of the Baltic Crusades, circa 1208, one particular group, the Latgalians, apparently found themselves caught between two sets of missionaries, one from the Germans and one from the Orthodox Rus’. Rather than decide their brand of Christianity, as the Rus’ themselves are alleged to have done, on the basis of which looked like more fun,3 they decided that only one source of guidance was appropriate for such a decision and cast lots before their own gods to decide which of these versions of Christ they should adopt. That’s not the best bit: they got an answer, and it was pro-German (or I doubt we’d hear of it). Given the immediate military circumstances that seems to be a politically switched-on god that answered, and he, she or it presumably continued to be on call in the future, though our source, Henry of Livonia, preferred to omit this implication.4 I need to remember about other world-views like this.


1. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, transl. Roger Collins & Judith McClure as “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in eidem (edd.), Bede: the Ecclesiastical History of the English People – the Greater Chronicle – Bede’s Letter to Egbert, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford nd), II.15. I’m beginning to think there is more to be said about teleology in the HEGA, you know; does anyone know if there’s work on this out there somewhere?

2. Alvydas Nikžentaitas, A., “Die Möglichkeiten der alternativen Geschichte. Das Alltagsleben im Baltikum des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region. Papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 397-419 at p. 399.

3. Samuel Hazzard Cross & Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (edd./transl.), The Russian Primary Chronicle, Medieval Academy of America Publication 60 (Cambridge MA 1953), s. a. 988.

4. Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae, ed. †Leonid Arbusow & Albert Bauer as Heinrichs Livländische Chronik: zweite auflage, Monumenta Germanae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXXI (Hannover 1955), online here, XI.7, at p. 55 rather than the p. 59 cit. Nikžentaitis. Hmph. There is an English translation by James Brundage as Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Records of Civilisation (New York 1961, repr. 2004).

Kalamazoo and Back, II: ritual, chronicles and arm-wrestling

Resuming the Kalamazoo blogging, then, as mentioned before, there was no kettle, and before that in reverse order, there had been geese, an electrical storm and a small hours arrival in a room which we will not discuss further. Result, really not much sleep, and there was no kettle. Therefore to become at all coherent for the day I had to negotiate the canteen uncaffeinated, and no sooner had I uncertainly done so than a voice I didn’t know hailed me by name. This turned out to be Michael who writes the Heptarchy Herald, and he was not like I’d imagined him at all (though if I had stopped and thought back over one of his comments, I might have had a better idea). He amiably put up with me while I diluted the blood in my caffeine-stream enough to talk with joined-up words, and then we headed off to sessions.

Session 4. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture I

(Also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • Obviously, having travelled thousands of miles to a strange country filled with people I’d never met, the first thing I did was go to hear an old friend. But Christina Pössel is always thought-provoking. Here, her paper, “Was there such a thing as Carolingian secular ritual: comparing oranges and apples in order to learn something about fruit”, was aimed at tackling the problem in ritual studies (which she tends to prove are still interesting) that circulate round the fact that rituals are usually directed at the supernatural, which pretty much excludes them from secularity. She wound up arguing that non-supernatural rituals did exist, and that several may be in the Salic Law; she also, more controversially, suggested that they might be almost as new as the writing of the code, as they give a large rôle to kings despite supposedly harking from an era when there supposedly weren’t kings in the same way. In particular, a ritual for breaking your kin ties and their rights to inherit your property makes the fisc your heir, which could hardly be the case before there was a fisc… Her general pitch was that these were ways of generating a memorable spectacle that no-one could later easily deny knowledge of, and that makes sense to me and fits with some work of Jinty Nelson’s (which Christina namechecked) about the Franks getting children to witness transactions so that their memory, which should be beaten into them if necessary, would persist in subsequent decades.1
  • Paul Kershaw then presented a paper about a particular one of the poems of Theodulf of Orléans, in fact just a few lines of it (also singled out by Paul Dutton in his reader of such things2) in which Theodulf mocks an oversize courtier by the name of Wibod (and Curt Emanuel has posted Paul’s translation if you’re curious). Paul’s paper, “Membrosus heros: Theodulf, Wibod, and Carolingian categories of secular identity”, went deep into questions of physical versus intellectual and how far our sources let us see the rough side of the court culture, but also put some much-needed context to Wibod himself. This was a paper where the questions actually wound up considerably altering the slant of the presentation, as Paul had left me with the familiar impression that Theodulf was basically being malicious from a safe distance whereas several questioners seemed to think that the joke wouldn’t work unless Theodulf and Wibod were already old sparring partners and Wibod understood the jibe, which lets Wibod a lot further into the court culture than we might otherwise have thought.
  • Lastly in the session, Professor Lynda Coon presented a paper called “Lay Bodies” in which she described the kind of access the lay population had to the imaginary monastery laid out in the St Gall Plan, which was not just extremely schematised (as is everything else in that plan, and some of schemed in much older lists as I had recently been discovering3) but also complete with built-in hierarchy, one side of the church for nobles and friends and one for the plebs4), although still only a sixth of the whole floor plan with lay access at all. This, interestingly, didn’t apply in the crypt where monks and pilgrims might mingle almost ineluctably. Lots to think about with boundaries of secular and religious space here, especially since the scheme of saints’ chapels got more and more male and monastic the further into the church you would have gone if it existed (that last being the fundamental problem with this source of course: I helped by suggesting that recent archæological work at San Vincenzo al Volturno suggests that that site might have been built a lot closer to the ideal than was St Gall).

Then there was lunch, by which point I had located the estimable Another Damned Medievalist, or rather she me, and so I was able to let her take over my social calendar for the day, which was just as well given my disorientation. Over lunch we spotted and accosted Mary Kate Hurley and she of the Rebel Letter, one of whom I knew was charming and about the other of whom I was proved right to suspect similarly, and I avoided the book exhibit until more rational. After that, it was back to Carolingia!

Session 59. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture II

(This one also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • The second of these sessions was led off by Jennifer Davis, whom I turned out to remember from her time in Cambridge unbeknownst to me, and she was talking to the title “The Court of Charlemagne: lay aspects in the aula renovata“. Here again we met the problem of largely ecclesiastical sources for a project, the Carolingian court, that was also or even more meant to involve the lay population, and she negotiated those problems to suggest especially that the assignment of persons to tasks was probably done by their particular skills and connections more than by any office or rank they might hold, and also that quite a lot of Charlemagne’s reign was spent reacting to crises so that a fully-developed and implemented policy is probably too much to expect anyway. Obvious, you may think, but often someone first needs to say these things before they seem that way.
  • Cullen Chandler is of course my officially-appointed nemesis or arch-rival or something, though this has been a lot more difficult to maintain since we were actually introduced and got on OK. He was presenting to the title, “Königsnähe and Rebellion in the Ninth Century”, and suggested that the long string of rebellions on the Spanish march by Frankish marquises could not be seen as a struggle for Königsnähe but as a means of forcing the king to open negotiations around which power might be rearranged in this or other areas. I wasn’t really aware that people had seen it the former way, because as usual my perspectives are formed from the local scholarship where sometimes a more global perspective would be useful. The Catalan historiography isn’t interested so much in vindicating the marquises, since out of their forfeitures comes the success of the local dynasty, but it is pretty clear that Barcelona is not somewhere one runs to to get people’s attention, but because it’s a long way away and damned difficult to reduce.5 It’s not at Barcelona that Charles the Bald finally catches Bernard of Septimania, after all, but his notional home capital of Toulouse… But anyone else who is pointing out that interesting things happen in this area that affect the rest of Carolingian history is fundamentally OK with me and that was certainly happening here. There is more I could say about a particular theme of Cullen’s and one or two other papers, too, but I’ll come back to that separately.
  • The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

  • Lastly, and heroically defeating transport difficulties to be there at all, came Helmut Reimitz, speaking on “Ethnicity, Identity, and Difference: the future for lay people in the Carolingian Empire”. There were some very interesting takes from the social sciences on what constitutes an identity deployed here: the most cynical, but also useful, was one from a chap called Hall to the effect that identity is a cover story to assert continuity during an episode of change,6 but Helmut pointed out that over time this cover story also changes, noting it especially in the fact that when Charles the Bald gets a kingdom of Alemannia in the fateful divisio of 829, it’s not an Alemannia with any historical or ethnic basis, but one with which, nonetheless, Walahfrid Strabo goes on strongly to identify. Interesting stuff, and Helmut pulled it out to an Empire-wide successful formulation of the Frankish identity as Christianity-plus-membership-of-the-Frankish-polity, wherever its constitutents had come from. I think it might be interesting, in a full version of this paper, to look at some areas where this identity doesn’t triumph, for example, northern Italy or, indeed, the Spanish March though there things are a lot more complex. But I would say that wouldn’t I? This was a good paper and that’s what matters.

Session 129. Accessing the Medieval in Nottingham II

  • Refreshed by further coffee, I now struck out, because there was developing a danger here that I do what can be done at Leeds with the Texts and Identities sessions and listen to nothing outside my own field of study; there was enough Carolingiana all conference that I thought breaking out would be a good plan. Instead, I went to a session some way off in an incredibly huge lecture theatre that I didn’t then realise I’d be presenting in two days later, where sadly Dayanna Knight was no longer going to talk about “Cultural Contact in the Norse North Atlantic AD 800-1500″, which I’d thought might hit some of this blog’s less common interests, but John Quanrud was still there and presenting on what I thought was a title full of potential, “Annals, Scribes and Kings: revisiting the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, and which did not disappoint, either. His pitch was basically that there has been quite a lot of work on the possibility of precursor texts to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as supposedly assembled somewhere near King Alfred c. 892, by Janet Bately and Frank Stenton especially, but that they were all working in different directions.7 Quanrud’s paper brought them all into line, or at least a number of them, and demonstrated that there is a particular point around 878 when all of the models seem to emphasise a discontinuity in the texts. He proposed that the solution to this was that there were two precursor texts, an annalistic compilation from which most of the bald annals come and a dynastic propaganda text covering the sons of Egbert, 825-878 basically, which he supposed was done for circulation when Alfred was on his uppers in the marshes that autumn and which may have helped motivate support for the king against the Danes. I was less convinced by the stylistic arguments that these two were distinct than I was by the argument that this was the best way to resolve the apparent oddities of focus by region and person that the earlier work was picking up on. But whether you credit it or not, it just goes to show that there is no such thing as a worked-out source…
  • Follow that, you may think, but Malte Ringer did a reasonable job with, “Heathendom in the Laws of Medieval Norway”, which took a very sober and careful view of what the Old Norse laws actually say about paganism, wisely refused to entertain any of the extreme interpretations that have been placed on this material, and separated a number of different senses of the word ‘heathen’ in them that don’t want to be confused for each other, ‘unbaptised’, ‘idolatrous’, ‘inclusive of anyone who might not be Christian’, ‘unchristian’ in the sense of needing to be excluded from Christian society by reason of ill conduct, and ‘foreign non-Christian’. It sounds like a dry paper but it wasn’t; maybe I just have a high tolerance for social philology or maybe it was just that Malte is a good speaker who prizes accuracy enough to be interesting about it; I thought the latter, myself.
  • I would have liked the third paper too, but these two were worth coming across the site for.

Of course there were more papers in the evening, but at that point I let society overwhelm me. First there were wine hours (and was it perhaps then that I met Michelle of Heavenfield? I did this at some point that day) and secondly there was an excellent early medievalists’ dinner arranged consummately by Deborah Deliyannis. I didn’t perhaps meet as many new people as I should have but I got to introduce separate sets of friends to each other and talk Tom Waits and that’s a definite success as far as I’m concerned. Then there was, after a while of getting there, entry into the élite circles of the blogosphere in as much as there was an after-party for the launch of the book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. This has been reported elsewhere, of course, with claims of arm-wrestling and generally decadent comportment, but who are you going to believe on a matter of fact over interpretation, me or Jeffrey Cohen? Don’t answer that… Instead, let me merely say that In the Medieval Middle stock a mean beer fridge, that Eileen Joy has some impressively strong students, [edit: that it was delightful at this point to meet Adrienne Odasso of Lost in Transcription, whose fame had reached me long before and who was quite frightened to discover this—she should have been in this post from the beginning, I apologise—] and that just because I’ve met Brantley Bryant doesn’t mean I have to stop referring to the Chaucer blogger as Chaucer does it? It was fun. Thankyou guys.

Quote of this day of the conference, a toss-up between the following:

  1. “Of course! Literature is left-handed!” (Eileen Joy)
  2. “A corner of tenth-century whoop-ass!” (Brantley Bryant)

I invite judgements in comments! Of course, some might have said that I needed an early night. I think I did say this, in fact, but it was obviously wrong.


1. I think this is Janet L. Nelson, “Gender, Memory and Social Power. Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Macmillan, London, 1999). Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: women and power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (Routledge, London, 1999)” in Pauline Stafford and A. B. Muller-Bakker (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages, Gender and History Vol. 12 Pt. 3 (Oxford 2000), pp. 531-771; repr. separatim (Oxford 2001), pp. 722-734.

2. Paul Edward Dutton (ed./transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), p. 106.

3. I need to mail this to Professor Coon, in fact, and ‘this’ is: Wolfgang Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 26-45, which is ostensibly about the Brevium exempla but also uses the St Gall Plan as one of the texts that he shows were using late antique plant lists to source their supposedly contemporary lists of crops and garden patches.

4. I remember being very surprised when I first discovered this word was singular. Now I surprise other people with the fact.

5. For this reason I still think the best and clearest account of the politics in southern France during the second half of the ninth century that I know comes from Josep María Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 91-127, because he places the rebel magnates in both their regional and central contexts rather than just the latter.

6. Apparently Stuart Hall, “Ethnicity: identity and difference” in Radical America Vol. 23 (Somerville 1989), pp. 9-20.

7. Quanrud’s excellent handout allows me to list these as especially: Janet M. Bately, “The Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 60 B.C. to A.D. 890: vocabulary as evidence” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 64 (London 1978), pp. 93-129; R. Hogdkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (Oxford 1935); and Frank Merry Stenton, “The South-Western Element in the Old English Chronicle” in A. G. Little & F. M. Powicke (edd.), Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925), pp. 15-24, repr. in Stenton, Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 106-115.

Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

When the first e-mail on two successive days has to be an apology for something that went on the blog the day before, which you then have to edit, and you’re getting people’s names wrong in comments, many would advise that you should step away from the keyboard for a short while and get some sleep. I heard this advice “that I giv’ meself”, but I have so much stuff to write up… So let’s see if I can recover some generosity of spirit and discretion of approach with a seminar write-up, to wit, John Blair presenting to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title “Can we know anything about the beliefs of the laity in pre-Christian and early Christian England?” on 27th April just gone.

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Blair started by asking, as a framing question, whether we can say what was in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon convert to Christianity. There are of course Bede’s famous exempla, the sparrow flying through the hall and so forth, but Blair wanted to use archæological and anthropological evidence to put flesh on the bones, or in some cases add bones to the flesh I suppose. Starting with pre-Christian beliefs, he was suitably circumspect but pointed out the pronounced focus on animals in ritual and art from that period, especially animals fighting each other, birds and snakes, birds and fish, zoomorphs at each others’ necks, etc., which he suggested might be good and bad principles of violence locked in combat, and also their presence in ritual deposits.1 (This included a nice instance from the letters of Saint Boniface condemning interlace, the same sort of interlace perhaps that has been found carved into the portals at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, indicating that views differed.) The animal focus led him to parallels with shamanic religions still or recently recorded, though he stressed firstly that the parallels are inexact, and secondly that those religions are (as m’colleague T’anta Wawa would doubtless insist) much altered by exposure to modern society, his example being a Mongolian (I think) shaman woman photographed rolling up to a ritual in the 1960s in her chauffeur-driven car. All the same, the idea of mediating supernatural forces expressed as animals may provide a parallel.

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

He next spoke about shrines, of which we know very few, and which may have been solely vegetational in many cases, but he suggested that there was an increasing trend to monumentalisation by 600 or so, barrows, burials, cairns and so on, and also to development of complex sites, such as Yeavering, as well as the adaptation of older monuments like Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows.2 This, to me, sounded very much like what Martin Carver‘s been saying about Sutton Hoo since the early 1990s and it was odd not to hear him name-checked; certainly the same idea came up, that this might be a reaction to an incoming, coherent and monumentalising Christianity.3 Another change that Blair highlighted from this same sort of time was an increased manufacture of amulets (though this bothered me: surely the evidence is of increased survival, which isn’t the same thing) and a shift in the amulets’ cores from carnivore teeth to beaver teeth, especially in women’s graves.4 This struck me as really interesting, but mainly because while apparently demonstrable it seems almost inexplicable in any terms we can so far reach. It does illustrate that there is source material for beliefs in this kind of study, though. Some of these amulets are Christian, too, as demonstrated by Scriptural inscriptions in them, and here of course obvious parallels came from the Staffordshire Hoard’s gold strip.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

The next section of the talk focused on Viking evidence, for which Blair relied pretty much on Neil Price‘s book The Viking Way; this seems well-regarded, but I hadn’t heard of it before, I must fix this.5 From that Blair drew us a picture of women seers, women authoritative within the household; if this went for pagan Anglo-Saxon England too, Blair wondered, how does this affect convert-period monasticism? He mentioned double monasteries under women like Barking Abbey, but one could also think to Bede’s Letter to Egbert about family monasteries, and that would seem to support this picture less well.6 The possible rôle of some women as mediators with the supernatural however had a darker side, as revealed in burials that contained bodies bound up so as to be unable to walk, staked through the heart and so on.7 He drew a parallel between these bodies that, it was apparently feared, would not die properly, and the incorrupt bodies of some saints, in particular two roughly contemporary cases, none other than St Æthelthryth of Ely, found incorrupt at translation with great celebrations huzzah huzzah &c., and a 12-year-old girl put into a barrow at a cemetery of the same period just down the road, on the perimeter of whose attendant burials was a decapitated disjointed woman whose legs had been tied and who had been buried with a load of amulets, the disjuncture apparently having happened after she’d been in the grave some time.8 There is a reasonable if small literature about such ‘walking dead’, of course, to which Blair himself has just contributed, but the parallels with Audrey would never have struck me otherwise, and as he said, there would have been people in Ely who were aware of both exhumations.9

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003; the webpage insists this isn't a deviant burial, and it's centuries too early, but by gosh it looks the part

Words like ‘witch’ and ‘vampire’ are of course hanging all round this, and shouldn’t really be used because they only get defined in the way we now understand them in the sixteenth century, and it’s not clear that we’re talking about any of the same complex of beliefs here, even if there is a clear relation. It is however clear in the evidence that most of these burials, not all but most of those where it can be checked, were young women. This, as with the beaver teeth, seems to me to be real evidence of something of which we haven’t yet got clear sight. The other thing, though, is that they increase in incidence at about the same period as the other changes Blair had focussed on, monumentalisation, ‘beaverisation’, and so on. Blair’s overall picture, then, was that in the conversion period disruption to earlier religious practice, most specifically burial, rises towards the end of the seventh century and reaches a peak, after which it almost disappears. A scholar called Dunn, whose work I don’t know, apparently suggests that this may be related to the plague of those decades,10 but Blair adduced parallels from anthropological work in Greece where the cause of upset was changes to family structure, because a lot of importance was placed on the flow of blood within families and that was now being constrained. In Anglo-Saxon England the result of this pressure, on whatever we choose to blame it, seems to have been manifested as fears about the dead, which could obviously be tied up with ideas of resurrection in the body and so on but might have equally been a crystallisation of non-Christian belief needing to make itself evident, if Carver be followed. Interesting stuff! And it will be really interesting to see how far Blair can make this stuff go, because after reading Nancy Caciola’s article I would have said there was little more that could be done. In fact, it would seem that, as I should maybe already have known from Andrew Reynolds’s new book that I haven’t yet had time to read,11 the answers may yet lie in the soil…


1. Blair’s cite for this, which I crib from his really useful bibliography handout, was Tania M. Dickinson, “Symbols of Protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 49 (London 2005), pp. 192-239.

2. Blair’s handout suggests that we should read J. Blair, “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and their Prototypes” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 8 (Oxford 1995), pp. 1-28. All I know about Yeavering, meanwhile, I got from the original excavation report, Brian Hope-Taylor’s Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), but a recent conversation at Heavenfield alerts me to the fact that there is more recent work, though I don’t know what to recommend from it. Michelle may be able to add more…

3. Most obviously in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998, repr. 2000, 2005), but there is a swathe more indexed here along with some classic pictures of the man himself through the ages.

4. Blair cited Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 96 (Oxford 1981).

5. Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford 2002), currently being revised after at least some critical adulation, or so it seems from this page.

6. Bede’s harangue about false monasteries does seem to include some that were occupied by members of both sexes, indeed by married couples, but there’s nothing in it that seems to me to justify any idea that women ruled these mixed communities; he sees them as entirely secular ventures of implicitly male landholders (Bede, Letter to Egbert, cc. 12-15).

7. Here Blair’s cite was himself, J. 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 (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-559. I do wish Patrick could have seen some of this stuff.

8. Published by Sam Lucy, Richard Newman, Natasha Dodwell, Catherine Hills, Michiel Dekker, Tamsin O’Connell, Ian Riddler and Penelope Walton Rogers, “The Burial of a Princess? The Later Seventh-Century Cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 89 (London 2009), pp. 81-141, the ‘princess’ in the barrow pp. 84-91 and the teenage vampiredeviant pp. 91-94. Told you this bibliography was good!

9. I would first think, always, of Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here, but see now also Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, obviously. Caciola’s article also uses lots of juicy evidence from the Continent.

10. Blair’s bibliography gives this as M. Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons (2009), and full details appear to be Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. 597-c. 700: discourses of life, death and afterlife (London 2009), as you can see from this review by Barbara Yorke at Reviews in History, where the work is called “erudite, but sometimes controversial”.

11. Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford 2009), which is one of the few things not in the bibliography.

Bandits and witches in Asturias: what do enemy priests get called, again?

I am, as the sidebar may still report by the time this post actually goes up, still slogging through Barbero and Vigil’s Formación del Feudalismo for the Aprisio paper that is hopefully also not any longer mentioned there. I have expressed myself on how heavy going this book is before, and I am torn between urging that its considerable importance makes it compulsory reading for any scholar of early medieval Christian Spain (and even non-Christian Spain, though there maybe only one chapter), and the unshakeable feeling that, if it was so set, the field would be reduced by about ninety per cent as most people gave up the will to study. That all said, and it’s nice to have it off my chest, I’ve just found something interesting. See this little nugget:

Another notice relevant to the era of Ramiro I makes manifest the great difficulties that this monarch endured in consolidating himself on the throne. These difficulties were of orders both political and, more markedly, social. Ramiro I deployed great energy against all his adversaries, members of the nobility who disputed the throne with him. The Albeldense informs us that this king found himself confronting various latrones whom we may consider as peasants in rebellion, that is to say, something similar to that which took place in the reign of Aurelio, and, combined with them, there were also persecuted wizards who were condemned to the fire; these magicians would have been practitioners of the indigenous non-Christian rites and whose roots are to be sought in the ancient organisation of society.1

In some ways this is typical for Barbero and Vigil—you can already see in my fairly close translation perhaps that this is not the most mellifluous prose ever committed to the page—but in others it is not. Most of this book is very careful much-chewed-over consideration of the evidence, but there are certain preconceptions that they had which meant that occasionally they saw something that fitted and it got straight through without critique. I’m afraid this was one such curveball. Some background first of all.

Statue of Ramiro I of Asturias outside the Palau Reial in Madrid

Statue of Ramiro I of Asturias outside the Palau Reial in Madrid, photo by the author

Ramiro I was King of Asturias between 842 and 850. Some sources say he was son of Bermudo I (789-791) but Barbero and Vigil show good reasons to be suspicious about such claims in the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which is among other things very concerned to show a good long ancestry for its namesake monarch and seems to have pedigrees that no other source retains.2 Also, he lived a long time before succeeding if he was born during Bermudo’s reign, and since Bermudo allegedly abdicated because he was persuaded that his having entered the diaconate a long time before barred him from royal power, it is perhaps less likely that he was having kids after abdicating. So anyway, whoever he was, Ramiro was not unopposed, and he first had to defeat a rival king called Nepotian, supposedly a relative of Alfonso II (791-842) whom they were battling to succeed. Had Ramiro not won, I imagine it would now be clear that Nepotian was the closer kin and therefore rightful heir, but Ramiro defeated and killed him and so it’s Ramiro who got written into the succession. Not that things got easier for him: two years later Vikings made one of their few descents on Spain, though Ramiro was tough enough for them, and in 846 the Muslims captured the southernwards city of León, though it is a very long way from clear that Ramiro actually controlled that area despite Alfonso III’s chronicle’s claims, which are a lot more to do with the fact that he did.3 Anyway, Ramiro was unable to laugh that one off and it stayed lost to Asturias for some time.

Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, previously the royal palace of Asturias, probably built for Ramiro I

Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, previously the royal palace of Asturias, probably built for Ramiro I, image from Wikimedia Commons


Now most of my cynicism about the sources here is straight out of Barbero and Vigil, so you can tell I get on all right with that, but when it looks as if the sources might support some assertions about long continuity and ancient indigenous custom, which was kind of their deus ex machina for Asturian peculiarity, such careful sifting of evidence seems to have gone out of the window and we get things like the paragraph above, where to read it you would think that Ramiro’s opponents raised the earth and woods against him in the forms of their inhabitants. It’s like what the Telmarines must have thought when Narnia came back to life, isn’t it? So, what does the source actually say? Here’s a translation, with the Latin in the footnote:

Ramiro reigned seven. He was a rod of justice. He tore out the eyes of bandits. To wizards he put an end by fire. And the tyrants ranged against him, with amazing speed he overthrew and exterminated. Firstly he overcame Nepotian at the Bridge of Cornellana and thus came to the throne. At the same time the Northmen first came to Asturias. Afterwards of the same Nepotian along with a certain tyrant Aldroito, he blinded the eyes of both of them, and, the victor, killed the proud Piniolo. At Liño he built a church and a palace vaulted with wonderful artistry. There he passed away from this world and rests buried in Oviedo. On the day of the Kalends of February in the Era 888.4

So, er hang on, where’s this unified rural opposition again? I had Nepotian all drawn up with an army of dwarves and hags already, and that just looks like a fairly generic statement of harsh justice meted fairly to me. At the very most it’s a “no-one could kick King Ramiro’s behind! No sir! He kicked theirs! And how!” level of panegyric, not a detailed analysis of his opposition. Unlike in the slave revolt under Aurelio that Barbero and Vigil reference, I don’t see any sign here that there was any genuine peasant uprising in this note; I’m sure Asturias had enough badlands, most notably to the southern edge through which traders might be going to and from Muslim Spain, to keep a fair few bandits going. I don’t think banditry always has to indicate peasant reactions to oppressive rule, I see it more as a reaction to opportunity to make it rich quickly and run away safely, and a border land like there certainly had that.

But what about the wizards? Well, two possibilities spring to mind. Firstly, as Yves Bonnaz whose edition of the Chronicle of Albelda I’m translating there points out in his commentary, regulations against witches and wizards is a good old Visigothic tradition from when the Christianization of Spain was a lot more shaky, and if you’re writing up a good old-fashioned just king in the ninth century, that template probably appeals enough that you invoke it. In that case the chronicler is just trying to say “he enforced law like the kings of old (and thwarted all the causes of social ill mentioned in their laws as I will now list)”. In fact he may be upping the ante, as the Visigoths ‘only’ prescribed 100 lashes and scalping for wizards. Tough times call for tough justice!

Memorial stone from the church of Santianes de Pravia, capital of Asturias during the reign of Ramiro (note the <em>interlace</em>)

But the other possibility involves taking the threat slightly more seriously, and this the kings of the time appear to have done. In 856 King Ordoño I issued a charter to the monastery of San Julián de Samos giving them power to punish “blood-letters, bandits that have fled from the monastery and magicians” (“samguimistios, latrones refugas monasterii, magicos”—’blood-letters’ probably isn’t what that first word means but I can’t do any better with it, can you? and if you can, what about those bandits fleeing from the monastery?)5 The fact that this mission is given to a monastery shows how worldly Church power can get but also associates the missions of moral and spiritual order. We are, as Bonnaz points out (and here he has got some Barbero and Vigil on him I think), in an area where pagan practice was probably still widespread: “Crimes, vols, fuite d’esclaves sans doute, pratique de la magie ne sont-ils pas des phénomènes liés à l’instabilité persistante de ce pays?” he asks,6 because of course as we now see demon-worshippers spring up wherever political order gets a bit wobbly don’t they? Or maybe not. I think this tells us more about Dr Bonnaz and his politics than about early medieval Galicia, to be honest. So what this made me think of was, again, the seminar the other day by Celia Chazelle and her suggestion that priests who were a bit ‘local’ in their liturgical practice might be regarded as magicians by strait-laced reformers. I wasn’t too sure about that, but if you’re asking me what a monk calls or a king called priests who were in political opposition to him, and who probably entreated God against you in ways that might well have appealed to local superstitions, well, ‘magician’ or ‘wizard’ would be one answer I could accept, especially given Dr Chazelle’s various instances of the use of the Christian mystery in charms and spells by apparently sincere believers. So maybe this is what we’re looking at. Or maybe it just is staff-bearing wizards standing on mountain tops after all, but I thought that was a more modern idea…

Hat tip to Modern Medieval there, and oh look it’s the footnotes…


1. Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1978), pp. 262-263, translation mine.

2. Ibid., pp. 300-302 and several points thereafter. See also Amancio Isla, “Monarchy and Neogothicism in the Astur Kingdom, 711-910″ in Francia Vol. 26 (Sigmaringen 1999), pp. 41-56.

3. Barbero & Vigil, Formación, pp. 279-285.

4. Y. Bonnaz (ed./transl.), “Chronique d’Albelda” in idem, Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), pp. 10-30 with commentary 67-104, cap. 45. Latin, following Bonnaz’s collation: “Ranimirus regnauit <annis> septem. Virga iustitiae fuit. Latrones oculos euellendo abstulit. Magicis per ignem finem imposuit. Sibique tyrannos mira celeritate subuertit atque exterminauit. Prius Nepotianum ad pontem Narceiae superauit et sic regnum accepit. Eo tempore Nordomanni primi in Asturias uenerunt. Postea idem Nepotianum pariter cum quodam Aldroito tyranno, oculos amborum eiecit, superbumque Piniolum uictor interfecit. In locum Ligno ecclesiasm et palatia arte fornicea mira construxit. Ibique a sæculo recessit et Oueto tumulo requiescit. Sub die kalendas februarias era DCCCLXXXVIII.”

5. Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño (ed.), Diplomática Española del Periodo Astur: estudio de los fuentes documentales del reino de Asturias (718-910) (Oviedo 1949), I p. 271 as cited by Bonnaz, Chroniques, Alb. 45 comm. n. 2.

6. Ibid.