Tag Archives: Peter Sarris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altar and sculpture in the Asturian church of Santianes de Pravia

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

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


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

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

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

Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard