Tag Archives: palaces

Seminars CXXXVIII-CXLI: busy in Oxford

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

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

Scylla and Charybdis

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

Basilica of San Nicola di Bari

First-world problems

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

Buildings of opposition

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

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

Twelfth-century monastic xenophobia

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

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

Leeds 2011 report two at last

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

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

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

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

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

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dangerously empty bloviation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should have read this the moment I bought it, VIII


All right, last one of this series as I finally reach the end, blog-wise, of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. The last section, two articles and a commentary paper, is entitled ‘The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art’. It’s led, apart from the McCormick introduction, by the redoutable Mayke de Jong pondering the structure of the upper reaches, quite literally, of Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, the solarium that so many of that family seem to have had problems with in times of evil auspice (as recently mentioned by Magistra et mater).1 Mayke perhaps works too hard to imbue the royal balcony, where few are allowed and from which everyone else can be seen, in Notker‘s Panopticon-style depiction, with symbolic significance, but the political significance of access to the king’s private counsels and the visibility of that access is very sharply drawn out, along with the way Einhard makes it clear in his Translatio Marcellini et Petri that he enjoyed such access. Thomas Noble quibbles about the architectural details in the response paper but is basically in agreement.2

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

The cathedral of Aachen as it stands today

I have to question the importance that both place on the term solarium itself though. Mayke spends a few pages demonstrating that the term is used almost, if not actually, exclusively of buildings that the king might be in, palaces and royal vills and so forth, and Noble compares usages in Rome and concludes, “Perhaps solarium was not a common word”.3 This may well be true for the central Carolingian zone and the ninth century, I certainly wouldn’t want to try and prove otherwise, but on the other hand, it takes me only two or three minutes to find this, from rural Catalonia in 921:

In nomine Domini. Ego Atto et uxor sua Virgilia, que vocant Druda, vinditore sumus tibi Amblardo et uxor tue Eldregodo, emtores. Per hanc scriptura vindicionis nostre vindimus vobis terras cultas et incultas, vineas edificatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis, nostro proprio, qui nobis advenit per nostro comparacione quod nos emimus de te ipso emtore vel iamdicta uxori tue. Et sunt ipsas terras cultas et incultas, vineas edifikatas vel ad edificare, regos et subreganeis in comitatum Ausona, in valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines. Sic nos vobis hoc vindimus hec omnia quod nos de vos comparavimus in predicta valle Ausore vel infra ipsos termines, exceptus ipsos domos vel ipsos solario cum curtes et ortos et terras et vineas et cultum et incultum, qui fuerunt     de condam Geirardo, quod vos ipsos comparastis de condam Geirardo vel de filios vel filias suas, vel de eredes illarum…

Yes, OK, sorry, perhaps too much Latin, sorry, I got carried away.4 (The superscript addition and the gap are in the original, the emphasis is not.) Rendered into breezy English though, a curious tale emerges:

In the name of the Lord. I Ató and his wife Virgilia, whom they call Druda, are seller to you Amblard and your wife Eldregoda, buyers. By this our scripture of sale of do we sell to you cultivated and uncultivated lands, vineyards constructed or to be constructed, streams and pools, our own, which came to us through our purchase that we bought from you the selfsame buyer or your already-said wife. And these cultivated and uncultivated lands, constructed and to-be-constructed vineyards, streams and pools are in the county of Osona, in the Vall d’Osor or within its term. Thus we sell this to you, all these things that we purchased from you in the aforesaid Vall d’Osor or within its terms, except those houses and that solar with courtyards and barns and lands and vines both cultivated and uncultivated, which were       of the late Gerard, which you yourselves bought from the late Gerard or his sons or daughters, or [his daughters'] heirs…

So, OK, it pains me but let’s leave aside the question of why Ató and Virgilia, I mean Druda, are selling back this land that they bought from these same guys, less what sounds like a plum and well-developed little farmstead that had belonged to another guy before that. Mainly I am willing to leave it because I don’t have the index volume of the relevant charter collection to hand so I can’t look any of these people up easily. The point is that Gerard’s old farmstead has a solar, as I usually translate it, an upper storey partly open to the sun; balcony might do but we’re talking a whole floor here, I think. This is not an uncommon thing; it’s uncommon enough that I had to search a bit, and you could, given how rattly and distorted the Latin of this document is, agreements all over the place, orthography varying and so on, argue that this is just a formula. Certainly the word is unusual, but on the other hand it is clear that these things are cut about to fit the circumstances of the document’s issuing. What I mean is, most transaction charters in this area don’t mention houses with solars. When they do, the most obvious reason is, it seems to me, is that there is one, not that the scribe that day has a model charter or a formula which covered that. If that was the case I’d expect a range of other gear that sometimes turns up too, dovecotes, winepresses, sheds, meadows. The fact that these things are not here but a house with a solar is, for me, best explained if they were actually selling a house with a solar. So I think Ató and Virgilia’s house had one, and so did a few other places.5

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, <i>c. </i>950

Map of central Osona and the Ripollès, Catalunya, c. 950

Now, Osor is not an area full of palaces. It’s a bit up in the mountains: on the map there, if you can see Sant Llorenç near the middle bottom right, the Vall d’Osor is the next river valley south-east. So it’s probably two days’ walk to Vic, less if you don’t mind crossing some 800 m-high mountain ridges but it must be 35 km if you stick to the valleys. It’s a decent day’s walk down to the Ter too, and the Ter bends so much upriver that rowing wouldn’t get you anywhere any faster unless you had to cross anyway. Osor seems to have been well-settled at this point, there’s no new land being taken in even if it’s not all being used, but it’s some way off being top-rank.6 There are a couple of reasons to suppose that these are well-to-do people, though, not least because they get 50 solidi for the land they sell back, which gives us a sort of ballpark figure for the worth of what they keep, in as much as the way they’ve described things only makes much sense if the lands that they retain are enveloped within what they sell, so it must be smaller. 50 solidi is a fair bit of money by local standards, but it’s an order of magnitude smaller than what places that get called palaces go for out here.7 The other sign of status is that Ató apparently signs the document himself, which implies a certain amount of leisured education, though around here it’s perhaps not all that far out of the ordinary. Anyway, there really isn’t any prospect of the king or probably even the count turning up at Gerard’s old house. And this is a big one; I could find you other (less interesting) examples that are worth lots less.8

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

View down the Vall d'Osor, viewed from the source of the river of the same name, from the Catalan Wikipedia

So, well, I don’t want to be over simple but I think there may be two things going on here that decrease the significance of Mayke’s royal balconies: firstly, as ever, we’ve just got more data out here and that means more odd stuff turns up, whereas in the north big estates are much more common per charter survival because the little stuff hasn’t made it down to us. Secondly, well, weather, quite frankly. I’m sure they have some lovely summers around the Meuse and Aachen, in fact Gabriele at the Lost Fort will doubtless have pictures of half the relevant areas in blazing German sunshine, but you still might not build for it in the same way as you do nicely south of the Pyrenees. I think we can expect to see more solars in Catalonia than in Francia because there was just that much more sun, to be honest. This doesn’t diminish the significance of Mayke’s points about access to the king and the articulation of power in architecture at all, of course; but it does warn us about arguments that include silence. There is so much dark matter in statistical use of medieval documents, because we never know what we might have if the preservation had been kinder.

(Edit: extensive argument with me in the comments below reveals that several people think I’m being anachronistic here and that what tenth-century Catalans are calling solaria has nothing to do with what the word meant in ninth-century Aachen. I still think plural uses, however far across Western Europe they are from each other, indicates a word that could mean more than just ‘palace balcony’ and don’t think the word itself carries Mayke’s symbolic significance, but I must admit that opinion is generally against me here so you should consider that I may just be being hidebound here.)

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14000, the so-called Codex Aureus

Anyway. The second paper in this section is a lavishly-illustrated one (though colour would have made such a difference here, especially as it features in the argument in places; the above manuscript’s cover makes Kessler’s plate 2, and it may be clearer in grey-scale, but, well…) by Herbert Kessler about depictions of Christ in the Carolingian period.9 This was a sticky issue, as you may be aware, because of the response to the Byzantine controversy over the use of icons in worship. The problem is the Biblical prohibition on idols, of course; is a picture of God, even in human form, really even slightly holy, or is it a graven image that distracts the worshipper from the real divinity that can only be experienced in the mind and the soul? Christ was after all a man, and one can depict that, but can one depict the God that that man also was, or is to draw Christ actually to deny one of his natures? One of the great merits of this paper is that it actually provides a reasonably accessible way into these debates for the laymen by marrying up text and image and showing how the images try to get round the problem or confront it, individual artists making informed choices of presentation such as leaving some of Christ out of the picture, vanishing out of the top of the frame at Ascension as below (the manuscript that sources Kessler’s plate 7, but even this tiny image is more fun to look at than the greyscale) and so on. Not only does one get a sense of craftsmen at work on something highly intellectual, rather than just colouring nicely as medieval art sometimes gets presented, but one also sees how these images were taking positions in a debate of the day and, not least important, genuinely concerned with Salvation and how best to help someone towards it rather than hinder them.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Y6, fol. 81v.

This therefore supplements the somewhat less successful section on religious practice earlier in the book and winds the volume up, after Noble’s few adjustments, very nicely.10 My initial bedazzlement with the volume has worn off slightly after this much detailed analysis and reviewing, but really, it’s still a very worthwhile volume. It’s also physically nice: the paper is gloss and heavy, the binding tough but good-looking and the dust-jacket is glossy and thick too. The illustrations, where they exist, are good (though, yes, greyscale) and there are, as far as I noticed, almost no typoes. There are fully 18 pages of index, whereas with most edited volumes there wouldn’t be any, suggesting that the publishers or the editors recognised that it will have reference value as well as reading value. Furthermore, though some of the papers are not quite there and some areas are definitely less covered than others, it really is a pretty all-round state-of-the-question assemblage of work on Carolingian Europe and so, I continue to recommend its purchase to those who might want such a thing.

1. Michael McCormick, “The Intellectuality of Early Medieval Art” in Jennifer Davis & idem (edd.), The Long Morning of Early Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 275-276; Mayke de Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony: The Solarium in Ninth-Century Narratives”, ibid. pp. 277-289.

2. Thomas F. X. Noble, “Matter and Meaning in the Carolingian World”, ibid. pp. 321-326 at pp. 321-324.

3. De Jong, “Charlemagne’s Balcony”, pp. 282-284; Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 321-322.

4. Text from 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, I doc. no. 232.

5. For example, Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I doc. no. 214, “… vindimus tibi casas cum curtes et ortos, cum solos et superpositos et terras cultes et incultes, nostras proprias…“. But, you say, a solum is not the same thing as a solarium! Check it in the new online Lewis & Short, man! To which I say, firstly, du Cange says you’re wrong, at least sometimes: Charles du Fresne du Cange & D. A. Carpenter, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, ed. G. A. L. Henschel, re-ed. L. Favre (Paris 1886), p. 523, “SOLUM, ut supra Solarium, Locus idoneus solarium ædificando”, and secondly, well, that’s why my first example had “solarium” instead innit.

6. This sort of assessment is much easier for owning Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado (edd.), Atles del comtat d’Osona (785-993) (Barcelona 2001); the map on pp. 44-45 is most useful here.

7. For example, in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV I doc. 419 Bishop Radulf of Urgell and his son Oliba sell an estate at a place called Palau to the bishop’s brother Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona and that goes for 1000 solidi. This isn’t going to have been a royal palace, but given that Abbess Emma also has land next-door it is clearly comital family land, and that and the name suggest strongly that this was a fiscal estate, a big hall and its demesne or similar. For the suggestion that place-names in Palau (‘palaciolo‘ or similar) refer to such establishments, see in this case A. Benet i Clarà & A. Pladevall i Font in Pladevall, J. Sarri i Vilageliu, Benet & D. Arumí i Gómez, “Santa Maria de Palau” in J. Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I, ed. J. Vigué (Barcelona 1984), pp. 230-235 at pp. 230-231, and more generally Ramon Martí, “Del fundus a la parrochia. Transformaciones del pobliamento rural en Cataluña durante la transición medieval” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconnaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 145-166, citing Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Debax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-70.

8. For example, that mentioned in n. 5 above went for only 15 solidi and the solos are only part of the estate there.

9. Herbert Kessler, “Image and Object: Christ’s Dual Nature and the Crisis of Early Medieval Art” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 290-319.

10. Noble, “Matter and Meaning”, pp. 324-326.

Leeds report 1: Monday 7th

I’ve been thinking about this series. I want to say what I did, saw and learnt, even if only briefly, but I also want to give a very general idea of what it’s like to ‘do Leeds’, some of which would not be related to this year; for example, in previous years one of the best things about Leeds has been having a seriously substantial portion of European medieval studies sprawled on the same lawn sunning themselves and whomever you might want to ask about something in your material being right there if you know what they look like. This year, it mainly rained and so the canonical lawn-sprawling wasn’t an option, and yet it definitely belongs in any general post of Leedsness. So what I will do is I will save that one till last, and do the detailed reportage on IMC 2008 in a post for each day here first.

I came up to Leeds from London on Sunday night, carrying far more books than I actually had time to read and one that I intended to sell which was the heaviest single thing I took either way except for my bicycle, which I have over the years found a damn sight more convenient and less frustrating than relying on the city’s buses. It’s not that they’re irregular or unreliable, it’s just that in Leeds the whole traffic system seems to be set up to drip-feed the vehicle flow through its traffic lights in sections of fifty yards, so you actually spend more time sitting at lights than you do moving. This also applies to bikes of course (yes, I believe that, I’m aware many don’t, they will be first against the tarmac when the truckers go berserk), but it still places one’s journey under one’s own control and so on. On the other hand, the route up to the IMC venue is almost entirely uphill, and is quite easy to get confused about in witching-hour mist.

I tell you all this, not as part of the general detail I just claimed I was saving for elsewhere, but because it explains why I missed the keynote lecture this year. I was later up, and very tired, than I might have been, and this year unlike last year, they were not doing admission to the keynote by ticket. This meant that though I could have crossed the campus to get there in technical time, there was no guarantee that I would get in, and the theme didn’t really interest me, so I didn’t bother. Instead I milled around and met people as they arrived, including a very few of my session contributors, which was reassuring, and then got coffee and made my way to the second session.

I had had some trouble the previous night choosing what to go to this year. The conference has a special theme each year, and although there’s no requirement to conform there is an effort to focus by both contributors and programmers that means that that theme is strongly in evidence. This year’s was the Natural World, and this is problematic for me for two reasons, firstly that I am mainly a historian concerned with human endeavours and while you can’t separate that from the natural world, I’m still post-natural in focus (argh! I’ve been reading and listening to too much po-mo waffle) in as much as I’m interested in what happens to the natural world after man has been let in to ruin it. And what sources have we got where he hadn’t, anyway? That’s the other thing of course: for anything with such a strong component of thought-world and mentalités, you have to use at least high medieval sources because there’s so little to go on before, so most of the papers on these themes were focused too late to interest me. I did mean to make it to at least one session on-theme, but in the event more relevant or shiny things distracted me. By and large, however, I could tell that the programme was thinner than usual for me because I didn’t have to choose between two alternatives, not because there was nothing to do.

So I sold the book I’d meant to sell, then bought four more from the same guy which cost me all I’d gained and two fifty extra, but which were still lighter and more useful in combination than what I’d shed, and then for second session I went to this one. Here we got David Rollason saying how strange it was that scholars of Insular and Carolingian palaces respectively tended to ask different questions, the latter in particular seeing them very much as space controlled by the palace owner but Insular scholars tending to see them as meeting places where the king or whoever had to negotiate. Sarah Semple brought this out in the Insular context by relating palaces to settlement and pointing out that the link isn’t always immediate, and Alex Sanmark gave the paper with the best pictures talking about prehistoric sites in Norway which seem to have been seasonally-occupied meeting places. I can’t help wonder who kept them from falling apart the rest of the year though: if I was holding a big meeting of the local pre-Vikings, I’d want to be sure the hall was safe and impressive-looking before I arrived…

Then there was lunch, and then it was showtime. The first of my Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic went well, mainly because Wendy Davies, talking about the length and elaboration of her Spanish charters and whether that mapped to anything useful about the status of those involved (answer, roughly, yes, but apparently only in donations not sales), and Bernhard Zeller, talking about the way that the St Gall scriptorium was organised with the same scribes working not only on each others’ books but also each others’ charters, had a perspective on each other’s material that let them answer each other’s questions in a way that led to a very good discussion. Alaric Trousdale also did sterling work making what could have been a terribly narrow subject interesting (and amusing) to all and I was very pleased with the way that this one just sort of made itself. A good start. The second one I was less happy with, mainly because I was presenting in it. The laptop I’d brought had developed a new and exciting way of crashing, the paper proved to be too long and had to be cut on the fly, which is much more obvious with a presentation because you have to click through things, and I felt that I’d handwaved and not made my impact; I was very grateful to Simon MacLean for asking a question that I could basically answer with the conclusion I’d glossed in order to finish quicker. Charles Insley‘s paper was much better, as we have come to expect, and Allan Scott McKinley had me worried at first but eventually revealed what he was talking about in such a way as to leave us fascinated at the end, which I suppose is better than the other way round. Allan had also worried me by turning up only fifteen minutes beforehand; this, he claims, fails to beat his previous record of five minutes late for his own paper, and therefore I shouldn’t even have started getting worried yet… He claims he had to leave out a lot because we’d already said it, which only goes to show that circulating papers in advance can help; I was the only one this year who did… Anyway, there was again good discussion but I was quite glad it was over and rather annoyed with how much better I’d wanted my paper to be than how it actually turned out.

I had wanted to get along to the Gender round table, if only to see if Eileen Joy talks as she blogs, but inclement weather, distance and the proximity of friends and free wine all overcame me and I prowled bookstalls and gossiped instead. I have in any case been able to read about it instead, which is perhaps better than attending would have been for me. And so the evening ended drinking with St Andrews people, a theme that would develop over the week, largely because there were so many of them there: one St Andrews medievalist claimed they’d brought down eighty people, which can seriously not be true, but it was hard to avoid them if one had had any reason to; I didn’t, some of them are my friends and the others I was happy to meet. So yup. First day down, late to bed, not much sleep, lots of new inspiration, a few books, thick head in the morning, this is how it goes…