Tag Archives: place-names

Seminars CXLVII-CXLIX: Chroniclers, Kilwa and Vikings In Normandy

With the usual apologies for backlog taken as read, today’s first post under the new new dispensation should get me slightly more caught up with seminar reports; people keep saying how even the old ones are interesting, and it comforts me to have them done, so, here you go.

Opening of John of Worcester's Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

Opening of John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

First of these was a local speaker, Emily Winkler, a doctoral student working on the image of kingship in Anglo-Norman chronicles. Consequently, her paper, which she gave at the Medieval History Seminar on 22nd October 2012, was entitled “Kings and Conquest in Anglo-Norman Historiography”, and dealt with how two chroniclers in particular, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, both with a strong sense of English identity but working under a régime defined very strongly as Norman, worked towards trying to explain the Danish and Norman conquests of England in a way that left the English some creditable place in the new orders of things. She did this by focussing particularly on Kings Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’, and Harold II, that is, the ones who lost their kingdoms: in both cases, as she argued and as her substantial handout shows, William goes for undermining the skill and character of the English king, thus saving the people themselves from responsibility for God’s subsequent decision against them, whereas John was too proud of the English and their history to accept such a Providential outcome and emphasises ill luck or impossible odds instead, while making the kings heroic and noble, even Æthelred (for which he has to fabricate a reasonable amount). This provoked a lively discussion which centred most of all on the contrast of these texts with the far more negative contemporary portrayals of the English people’s culpability and treachery in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are reasons why that source is that way, of course, but the contrast is still noticeable and Emily suggested that one major factor in the difference is that the Anglo-Norman chroniclers, whether they liked it or not, had grown up amid a kingship that was famedly powerful and effective even when opposed by its people, and that consequently they just had less conceptual space for the rôle of a people to affect the fate of its kings at all…

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE—maybe

The next week, an old sidetrack of this blog was revived when Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones came to talk to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 29th October 2012 about her work on the East African sultanate of Kilwa. My extremely limited knowledge of Kilwa is nothing to do with my medieval study, though I do think most medievalists should at least have heard of the place, but the result of fixing the catalogue entries of some of the relevant coins back at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was also when I first met Dr Wynne-Jones. She has subsequently published a study of Kilwa coinages that raises a lot of interesting problems, but here she was dealing with the other material she’s got from digs there, under the title, “A Material Culture: exploring urbanism and trade in medieval Swahili world”.1 I won’t try and summarise this beyond saying that the amount of standing ruins (largely built of imported coral) at Kilwa Kisiwani gives Stephanie a good basis for working out how houses looked when they were in use, and what she was talking about here was the way in which shifts in available or desired goods could be seen in house decoration and the material culture of the city-dwellers. There were lots of questions here and some day I must type up my notes on them, but today is not that day. It was, however, very informative and interesting, and nice for me to get some sense of what the bigger picture was in which the coins I’d dealt with belonged.

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

The last paper to be covered in this batch was by another inhabitant of the Dreaming Spires, Dr Lesley Abrams, who spoke to the Medieval History Seminar on 5th November 2012 under the simple title, “Early Normandy”. This was mainly an excursus of the problems of knowing anything very much about that principality: the narrative sources are brief to the extreme, telling developingly-less believable stories about the treaty between King Charles the Simple and Rollo the Ganger that established the duchy but not giving us a text of it or recounting its provisions, and the archæology is basically missing. This is not just because it hasn’t been looked for, though that is a factor, but also because, unlike areas like East Anglia or Kiev, the Norse presence in Normandy doesn’t seem to have retained its material culture habits but rapidly to have adopted local ones. We do however have a certain amount of name-change to work with, both of settlements and of people, so it’s not that they were all terribly ashamed of their origins or anything. This is part of a larger complex of situations in which, as we learn it better, we see that the Viking impact was different in every area they went to, and this Lesley has studied in a recent article.2 Making Normandy fit into this picture much before the year 1000 is difficult, however, especially as one may suspect that interest in the duchy’s history and that of its dukes was then a new thing being milked for legitimacy (which would not be without parallels at other parts of the post-Carolingian periphery of course). What we can see, however, suggests low levels of settlement by traders and farmers, and that the Norse were by no means the only ones moving in: Breton and Gaelic influences are also evident on the place-name maps when people look for them. These kinds of subtleties are hard to detect given the evidence, but the subsequent ducal historiography was sufficiently successful that not many people have yet tried! Anyway, I am sufficiently far behind that this paper is now published, so if I have piqued your interest, please see the references below, and next I shall return to more Iberian pastures (though Vikings will continue to be involved). Stay tuned!


1. For the coins, see Jeffrey B. Fleisher & S. Wynne-Jones, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 170 (London 2010), pp. 494-506, and now (what I haven’t), S. Wynne-Jones & J. Fleisher, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal Vol. 22 (Cambridge 2012), pp. 19-36; I see from Stephanie’s publication pages at York that not only has she written an absolute shed-load of other things about these and related issues, but what looks like the book of it is on its way out as S. Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: consumption and practice on the pre-colonial coast of East Africa (Oxford forthcoming), so that should excite anyone whom this post has excited about Kilwa still further!

2. That being L. Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; now see also the rather relevant L. Abrams, “Early Normandy” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 35 (Woodbridge 2013), pp. 45-64!

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…


1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

A lightweight one, to get the wheels back on the road! I’d like to dedicate this post to Ted Buttrey, who knows what I mean when I say this: there’s a particular form of academic achievement that is not often recognised as highly as it should be, which is the joke in the footnote. This is a special achievement, not just because one is always up against a word-count and it has to survive, fitter than some other reference you might have put, but also because it then has to satisfy the referees and editors that it’s worth leaving even though academia r srs bizniz and so on. If it does, though, it’s one of the few things where endnotes rather than footnotes are preferable, because it adds distance between feedline and pay-off. For example, when I was putting this virtual exhibition together, I was reading quite a lot because as you can see it’s not about something I really know much on myself, and when I found in Dick Doty’s history of the Soho mint a sentence saying that a whole history could be written from what Matthew Boulton’s correspondence revealed about the world of eighteenth-century art production, with a reference, the faff of having to find my way to the right place two hundred pages further on actually made it funnier when I found that the reference was merely, “But not by me.”1 And on the morning of the day when I first drafted this post I had just found Chris Lewis doing similar, and the passage in question is Quite Interesting so I thought I’d just quote it all.2 You don’t mind, right? The pay-off is in the second footnote, so you have to read to the end.

The origin of the name Englefield… has to be sought… in an English adaptation of the territory’s Welsh name, Tegeingl…. The processes by which ‘Tegeingl’ was Anglicized as ‘Englefield’ are perhaps illuminated by Gerald of Wales in the course of recounting a laboured joke which he alleged illustrated the witticisms of the Welsh. The joke hinged on the coincidence that Tegeingl was also the name of a woman who had slept with each of the two princes, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother, who ruled the territory of Tegeingl in turn. Its punchline was a supposed saying from that time that Dafydd succeeded his brother as prince: ‘I don’t think Dafydd should have Tegeingl. His brother’s had her already.28 At first sight Gerald’s shaping of the story seems to be directed against the Welsh (dirty-minded, not funny), but it also acts in a more sophisticated way to score points off the English too. Teg was the Welsh for ‘beautiful’, and Teg-engl might be (deliberately) mistaken by a quick-witted Anglo-Welsh bilingual, such as Gerald, as meaning ‘the beautiful English(woman)’. Read like that, Gerald’s unfunny joke may have concealed a clever dig at the English: by ruling successively over the province of Tegeingl the two princely brothers had taken turns with a beautiful Englishwoman.29 When English speakers first reached north-east Wales, they may well have heard the Welsh name of of the territory as Gerald later would, as teg eingl, and understood its proper name to be Eingl, particularly appropriate (if misunderstood as a homophone) when they settled in part of it.

28  Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae in Works, ed. J. S. Brewer, James F. Dimock and George F. Warner, 8 vols, RS 21 (1861-91) VI, 153-227, at pp. 190-1.

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

How true those words are, even today. More serious content shortly I hope!


1. Richard Doty, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London 1998).

2. C. P. Lewis, “Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 130-143 at p. 138.

Leeds 2010 Report III

The amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that last time. So, Wednesday. I woke up extremely confused for non-academic reasons and eventually got myself together to head over to Weetwood for some really small-scale stuff.

1003. Landscape and Settlement in Early Medieval England: using the evidence of minor names

This session was mainly about getting down into not just place-names but field names to try and dig down into really old toponymy in various areas of England.

Map of field names circa 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire

None of these field names, recorded c. 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire, were harmed in the course of this session

  • Simon Draper, “Minor Names as Evidence for the Roman to Medieval Transition”, focussing on Wiltshire about which he has a book out, argued that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate Roman site survival into the Romano-British and Saxon periods, and among sites where this has been demonstrated those with names containing the elements ‘wic’ and ‘chester’ feature strongly, as we might expect, and thus encouraged us to look at them suspiciously. I raised awkward points about whether it would not in fact be unusual for an Anglo-Saxon site to be on virgin ground, given how densely the land was settled under the Romans, and Dr Draper conceded there was a point there, but his technique was still fairly demonstrably valid, as far as it went.
  • Susan Oosthuizen, “Early Medieval Land Use and its Wider Context”, was working on areas local to my current home, which made it especially interesting to me; she thought that areas of pastoral agriculture could be differentiated from those where arable farming had been carried out from the names for the fields that survived, and these names matched the geology and flood area of those lands quite well. So another proof of concept, but perhaps questionable how much it told us that wasn’t obvious; I suppose the point is that we can check things haven’t changed and that the landscape isn’t misleading like this.
  • Chris Lewis, “Field Names as Evidence for Dispersed Settlement: an example from East Sussex”, was why I was really there, because Chris is always interesting whether he’s working at tiny scale or national, largely because he is capable of both. Here he was also trying to prove a concept, which was what can we do with this sort of evidence in areas where there is almost no other, and picked an area of the South Downs about which this is the case to try it with, the villages of Medehurst and Heberden, the latter of which is the older name, meaning ‘Hygeburgh’s swine pasture’, but which appears to have been a dependent of the older which looks like a hundred meeting site even though it’s not attested till 1120. From this he teased out strings of history of dispersal and agglomeration of bits of settlements like a slightly tentative conjurer, all very hypothetical but certainly a valid demonstration of his exercise.

I quite like this stuff but it’s arguable that I don’t learn very much from it, I just like seeing the little picture drawn out by people who care. The big picture remains the one that offers the chance of making big connections, though, so after much-needed coffee I admitted necessity and went and rejoined the Texts and Identities sessions, which had now stopped talking about Modes of Identity and started talking about Louis the Pious, a subject on which they have been fruitful for many years now. Additionally, now the Hludowicus project have all got themselves t-shirts, identifying them with notable figures of the era in football-player style. I approve of this, mainly. I see that no-one has got Bernard of Septimania, which is tempting, but Mayke de Jong has the Judith shirt (of course) and that makes the ultimate Barcelona-based Carolingian bad boy an awkward choice. Anyway, I’m not part of the group, so let me talk about people who are.

1105. Texts and Identities, VIII: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), I

  • Stefan Esders, “Missi and Inquisition Procedure under Louis the Pious: a new style of government”. I should make clear here for web-searchers that this is not inquisition like Monty Python and Torquemada, this is inquisition in the sense of inquest: Stefan was talking about the representatives of the court, missi, who were sent out to settle cases by holding inquiries. Stefan saw these as the hands and ears of the general initiative of correctio that formed so much of Louis’s royal policy, although he stressed that they only dealt with cases where ‘public’, that is royal, property or persons were involved, not often enough realised I think; monasteries and churches were allowed to conduct their own such proceedings. There is a particular flurry of these enquiries in 829, though they had been running since the beginning of the reign and never clearing their own backlog of cases. His main point was the sheer disruption that all these suits, enquiries and threats to office-holders would have caused; it could not have aided the smooth running of the empire to question all its operators like this, and so Stefan asked what kind of crisis Louis and court thought they were in that it might actually be better to do this. Not for the first time, parallels between the way people are thinking about Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready were unavoidable for anyone who’d been at both this and my session, I think.
  • Martin Gravel, “From Theory to Practice: top-down governnance and long-distance communications in Louis the Pious’s ordinatio of 825″ added to this by tracing the manuscript context of the so-called Programmatic Capitulary and including the second half of it that isn’t very programmatic, usually separated, what are cc. 25-28 if you care about such things, seeing the whole thing as a set of instructions for the operation of the Empire’s system of long-distance reporting, pragmatic as well as programmatic. I thought this was perfectly convincing, though I don’t know the text half as well as some so other views would be interesting.
  • Philippe Depreux, “Videte ut nullam negligentiam habeatis: reception of the King’s missi, tractoria and the Carolingian sense of proportion for hospitality of travelling agents”, took this a stage closer to the ground by looking at how much the royal agents of this sort were allowed to demand by way of hospitality from the king’s subjects when about their business. He stressed that while such provisions go back to Marculf’s Formulary, and therefore this was a seventh-century mechanism, it was being used much more heavily by the Carolingians, and so Louis the Pious was engaged in an ongoing effort to restrict the opportunities within the rules for venality and thus for corruption.
  • Whether this all actually worked would be a project for another time of course: it was stressed in question that though we have a lot of orders for how this was supposed to be done we have very few documents showing it being carried out, though Mark Mersiowsky predictably knew of a few. I offered to explore the early Girona documents for this question for them next year but was rebuffed with polite confusion; I might still do it for Kalamazoo. Rosamond McKitterick made the last, excellent but somewhat acerbic point, that Charlemagne and Louis both wanted people to be able to reach them to complain of malpractice,1 but that the officials those people had to go through were not necessarily so keen, especially the ones in the local positions who were likely to wind up ‘corrected’.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

This then continued after lunch, with a slightly less administrative and more ideological bent.

1205. Texts and Identities, IX: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), II

    Here we had hoped to see Steffen Patzold, who had been so thoroughly invoked two days previously, but though we must have said his name five times, he was still unable to attend so instead things went like this…

  • Jens Schneider, “Louis the Pious on the Road”, which was an old-fashioned attempt to map Louis’s itinerary. This has of course been done, and big problems since found with the technique because we are no longer half so sure that the charters that are issued in king’s names with places of issue on them necessarily indicate any presence of the king, even if the dates are to do with the grant rather than whatever occasion, maybe weeks later, that the document was actually drawn up. Jens elected at the outset to ignore these problems, and so I thought it wasn’t surprising that he found that charter issue locations didn’t look the same as the spread of recorded assembly locations. He wound up with a further methodological problem, in as much as we don’t know how far the king was able to set these locations or how far they were guided by events: I was minded of Jennifer Davis’s argument at Kalamazoo that most of Charlemagne’s so-called policy was a reaction to immediate and present crisis. So as you can probably tell I thought that any charter historian would find big problems with this and so it may not surprise the attentive reader that Mark Mersiowsky stood up in questions and basically tore the method to pieces, allowing as a saving throw the fact that the documents still allowed us to show a connection between king and subject. Stuart Airlie, who was moderating, said he was cancelling his subscription to Archiv für Diplomatik forthwith, which would be a pity if he meant it as I’m in the next one. Anyway…
  • Between these questions and that paper was a rather calmer one, Eric Goldberg, “Hludowicus venator“, which asked what we should take from the unusual attention that is paid to Louis the Pious’s hunting in the sources. It’s not that Charlemagne, who built a huge deer park around his palace and so on, was immune to the thrill of the case, but the chronicles and biographies that cover Louis’s reign do largely pay a lot of attention to his hunts. It has been suggested that this was a way to engage a military élite who were having to come to terms with the fact that there would be no more big conquests, a means of continuing to supply victory, albeit on a smaller scale. Eric balanced the sources that make so much of this with others that don’t (Nithard and Thegan for example) and suggested that though it was plainly only one strategy out of many for leading an imperial-style court lifestyle, it might well be one in which Louis was a greater success than his father.
  • Because we’d only had two papers, Dr Airlie as moderator gave us an improvised “Response” to fill some of the time, reminding us that the court authors and even the legislators of the Carolingian era were often aware of each other’s work, and that while Aachen might well not be the be-all and end-all of Carolingian power, as it sometimes seems, it is still a pretty big deal, a centre of tension and above all suspicion. (Dr Airlie’s vision of ninth-century politics is often darker than many others’.) However, he also said, people were not just passive consumers of Aachen: the audience who beheld it also thought about it and interpreted it to their needs, and they evidently did interpret it as the key centre even though perhaps, in realpolitikal terms, it wasn’t. This seems like a good point, though somehow cheating in a way I can’t pin down.

By the later afternoon, I was flagging. I’d been up too late the night before, it had been three fairly intense days, and caffeine was becoming vital. Also, the rain impeded use of the silver machine, which is the only way I can explain why I was late to the next session, which was a pity. It was this one.

1302. Medieval Monuments as Technologies of Remembrance, II

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

  • So I came in in the opening minutes of Niall Finneran, “Subterranean Memories: rock-cutting Ethiopian churches as commemorative practice”, which meant that although I got to enjoy the pictures, which were fabulous, I didn’t get the paradigm he was setting up that he then spent the part of the paper which I saw contesting. We were talking about churches actually carved from the living rock, hollowed out chunks of cliff or cave, so it was easy to have fabulous pictures. I got to hear about the Axumite culture, which carved its churches so carefully that they look like wood, and had subterranean tombs in their centres just like the pagan shrines they replaced, and the slower process in which the same change-over happened in rural areas, so that Axumite features were still being replicated a millennium later 400-500 miles way. This sounded pretty amazing and then I thought, wait, what about a religion that likes its places of worship with a long hall, let’s call it a nave, crossed by another one with a place for a choir beyond the cross… how far could that spread? But the proof of the continuity of ideas is still worth something, especially when some of these buildings are in such inaccessible places. Who’s the audience? Someone who can replicate it, apparently…
  • Second paper was Meggen Gondek, “Revealing the Pictish Stones: carving ritual, memories, actions and materials”, which was why I’d chosen this one: Dr Gondek’s stuff is always very engaging and deeply thought-out. I was very glad to hear her say that the Picts weren’t one group, as you might expect, and tried to encourage her towards saying that the stones were an élite means of self-identification in questions; she wouldn’t, but did admit that the stones define the region, at the same time saying wisely that their use might not be uniform. The most interesting part of the paper was where she outlined a small group of supposedly Pictish stones which are in fact reused prehistoric standing stones, Pictishly carved, spread over the whole Pictish symbol zone. Whether this was an adoption or an erasure of the previous heritage, given that these things are displaced and arguably disfigured, however, is a lot more tricky to say. If you thought you might say, pairs of these stones in which only one is recarved, like Nether Corskie below, might then still mess up your theory. She instead chose to argue that the process of carving may be the important thing, which we are left trying to read from its results as if they were the thing the act had been focussed on, when in fact it may not have been. You see what I mean when I say her work thinks deeply…
  • The two standing stones at Nether Corskie

    The two standing stones at Nether Corskie, one of which shows Pictish symbols still in the wet

  • Last up was Howard Williams, “Technologies and Transformations in Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, which was exactly the sort of theory-driven paper that might get certain blog acquaintances’ backs up were they not friends of the speaker, but which was focussing on temporary structures, buildings for example that went on top of funeral pyres, built only to be burnt, and in that to be compared to funeral boats or the pyres themselves. Again the focus was on process: we get to see a body, a burial, and the stuff that is buried with the body, and so that’s what we think is important, but we don’t get to see, as it might be, the three or four days that the elaborate room burial is left open to be viewed by visiting relatives; by the time it’s filled in, Williams argued, its purpose might well be over, so intuiting things about belief from its durable contents might be trickier than we’ve so far imagined. The other end of this scale, of course, is the re-use of much older structures, forts, burial mounds, and so on. All this has something to do with memory, but the nature of that memory may be very little like what we think it was; it certainly wouldn’t have to be actually remembered or in any way correct to have a working effect among its holders. The ultimate point of the paper as Professor Williams pitched it was to remember that architecture is built for many more reasons than just settlement, but what I was mainly left with was the urgent need to actually conceptualise the process of burial when dealing with graves. Burial’s always kind of been the archæological focus I don’t have, though, so others may have heard different parts of this rich paper more loudly.

Now this evening was the dance. I actually nearly didn’t go, so tired was I, but I recognised from long experience that giving into that urge is a sure-fire way to feel wretched and friendless so instead I went, drank enough beer to loosen my legs and gave it some. There were enough people who wouldn’t normally dance dancing that I didn’t feel I could really claim it wasn’t my thing, after all. But some mention needs to be made of Kathleen Neal, who if there were prizes being given for enthusiasm ought to have won one, I don’t think she stopped dancing all night and this was no small reason for my also doing such as I did. This is supposed to be a point in the proceedings when you can let your hair down (in my case quite literally) and have fun, after all, it has a cathartic function, and while it’s never going to let me lose it like something where they play the music I actually own would, it’s so much better to join in than to be snotty and aloof. I went back to my room long after I’d meant to leave, reasonably happy with the state of things and much more relaxed than I had been when I got up. Now this entry has been brought to you by Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei and Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, so don’t worry that I’m losing my élitism, but I can put it down for occasions such as this, and just as well really.


1. Would you like an example? Here’s a good example because of the extra complications about how people might not have wanted the plaintiffs to reach the emperor. One occasion in 839 sees Louis the Pious make a restitution to a trio of fellows whom the Abbot of Notre Dame de la Grasse brought all the way north and east to Frankfurt, modulo my concerns about the truth of such information, where they told the emperor a sorry tale of oppression by evil men, at what comes over as very great length. The thing that makes this especially interesting is that the three men, whose names were Gaudiocus, Jacob and Vivacius, were Jews, and moreover Jewish farmers or at least, rural landholders. Presumably they were also clients of the abbey of la Grasse or they wouldn’t have got that kind of representation, so although Louis or Louis’s scribe find some good Biblical cites for not being les nice to non-Christians than to Christians, there’s really no obvious way in which these men aren’t part of the usual network of patronage and landholding in their area. People are conscious there’s an ethnic, or at least a religious, difference, but with the right intermediary they get their hearing and the verdict is just what you’d expect, albeit with a lingering impression that Louis might have given them anything just to get the lead guy to shut up: his speech is reported for some time

I guess this is in E. Magnou-Nortier & A. M. Magnou (edd), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse Tome I 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), but I know it from the rather older Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. II (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading