Tag Archives: Robin Fleming

Leeds 2011 report 1, with bonus apology

I have to start by saying sorry for the long silence here. It’s no shortage of stuff to say, but shortage of time to write. The end of term has been more punishing than it should be, as we gear up for admissions interviews next week as well as trying to get reports done and send everyone off with revision instructions. I drafted this with only one essay left to mark this term and one tutorial to give on it, these now done with great relief and now there’s nothing but hect for a few days and then wondering why nothing is organised for the holiday. (Actually something is, but not all the way.) And as you may have gathered, there’s a paper I’m supposed to have written by now and just had to beg an extension on, albeit from myself and collaborators. Obviously things could be worse; but squeezing in those visits to the library to collect the data I need has resulted in a great many small-hours bedtimes and the pressing need, every time I get as far as the blog editor window, to admit that there just isn’t time today. And this took several goes, too, but it’s done. I am still reporting on Leeds, a mere four months ago, and dammit, I may be briefer than usual but I will do it. So herewith the first day.

The Stables pub, Weetwood Hall, University of Leeds

The Stables pub, location of the occasional pint during the Congress

Actually I think I ought to start with the previous evening, when I arrived back from Lastingham and very shortly afterwards actually met she who is the Naked Philologist, who was more clothed and less immediately philological than advertised but still a splendid person and one whom it has been great to get to know then and subsequently. She was entirely surrounded by fellow female research students, and when I broke away from this gathering, to go find food or something, I got accused by a senior male colleague at the next table of departing “my harem”. My harem? My harem? Damn heteronormativity everywhere. Anyway; not very academic but it got the drinking started in good order and the academia followed next day. As to that, I skipped on the keynote lecture, which I’d already heard a version of one half of when Robin Fleming gave it at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and in the other half of which I wasn’t for some reason very interested (not sure why, as Sam Cohn is always interesting), but if you are, Magistra was there and wrote a blog post about it. Thus, the day started with this.

108. Small Worlds, Wide Horizons: local powers in the early Middle Ages

If there was a theme to this Leeds for me, other than always being among friends new and old, which I was and which was great, it was “sessions that felt like part of the Texts and Identities strand but weren’t”. Instead, this session was the extension, I think, of a conversation between Carine van Rhijn, Wendy Davies and myself at Leeds in 2009 about probably actually having the material to say something about local priests and their role in organising their communities in our respective areas. This was not that work, but it was in the same vein, and the people who were participating had all been in Texts and Identities at some point I think, though two also in my charters sessions of yore, so obviously I had to be there. The running order was:

  • Steffen Patzold, “Priests and Local Power Brokers, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Bernhard Zeller, “Of the Lives of Centenarii and Related Local Powers in Early Medieval Alemannia, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Wendy Davies, “How Local was the Power of the Saio in Northern Iberia around 1000?”

This was all really interesting regional comparisons. Steffen had several pieces of evidence that appeared to show Bavarian and Italian cases of local communities effectively appointing their priests, and used this to vary the picture of the sorts of priests we could have found in Carolingian localities, appointed by people, princes or several kinds of power in between. Bernhard was looking at a layer of local officials in the St Gallen charters he knows so well who have titles like “centenarius”, “vicarius” and “centurius”, which as you’ll understand from last post interested me considerably. The last he only sees around Zürich, and they seem to be quite junior, whereas vicars were more serious contenders than anything less than the counts; Bernhard figured that these guys’ small range probably suggested they belonged to localities rather than being put there by the counts. This is not much like what I see but then where I see any of these terms but vicarius it’s where there aren’t really counts, and when they’re about to be the last ones using the word, so this may give me some idea of what an early Carolingian local administration looks like before you take its lid off and bake it for a century or so. Wendy, meanwhile, who as usual explicitly excepted Catalonia from her remarks, was looking at the closest early medieval Spain had to policemen, though a more accurate simile might be court bailiffs; she found saiones working for all sorts of judicial officials, from kings downwards, far from the Gothic origins of the title as armed followers, and all over the north of Spain, confined to areas of no more than 40km2, or at least, not appearing outside those areas using their title. This gave me a lot of context for my own limited observations about saiones in Vallfogona.1 All of this was right up my street, down my alley and in my grills, as it were, so I thought I’d started well.

221. Gift-Giving: gift-giving and objects

I then followed a sense of obligation; I used to work with Rory Naismith, and have somehow never managed to catch one of his papers at Leeds, so now that he was on alongside Stuart Airlie I wasn’t going to miss it. Here, however, Magistra has beaten me to the blogging (not hard) so I shall save some catch-up time by referring you to her post again. The running order, though, was:

  • Irene Barbiera, “Offering Brooches to the Dead: the changing gendered value of a gift between Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”
  • Rory Naismith, “Making the World Go Round? Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900)”
  • Stuart Airlie, “The Star Cloak of Henry II”

The only thing I’ll add to what Magistra says is that I was pleased to see Rory finding a way to respectfully step round Philip Grierson’s venerable article, “Commerce in the Dark Ages”, that I love so much, without losing its essential point, which was that coins are not enough to prove trading links because they can travel in other ways too.2 Now, as Rory pointed out, we have incredible amounts more finds evidence than Grierson did in 1959, so we have to give more space to trade than he did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about the alternatives. Rory then went on to note various coinages and references to coinage that make more sense viewed as gifts than as currency. With the other two papers I think I have nothing to say that Magistra didn’t already so I’ll move on.

308. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman World and its Neighbours in late Antiquity, II – Changing Minds?

This strand looked, from the outside, like another Texts and Identities strand under new colours, though somehow including Guy Halsall, but a closer look revealed that something more challenging was going on; Guy had organised a strand with some real heavy-hitters on to ask serious and sometimes dangerous questions about how we as historians should deal with the supposed barbarian invasions that have for so long been supposed to bring about the end of the Roman Empire in the West, given the loads of work there has been suggesting that this is too simple, or even outright wrong. So either way it was a must-see, and in the first one I made it to I saw this.

  • Walter Pohl, “Ethnicity and its Discontents”
  • This paper was substantially a pained but wry self-defence against what Professor Pohl felt was misrepresentation of his work by Walter Goffart in a recent publication, and misunderstanding of it in exactly the opposite direction by Marco Valenti; he therefore disclaimed belief in stable ethnic groups, the shared common cores of élite traditions proposed by Reinhard Wenskus, the culturally-constructed imaginary communities that extreme dissolutionists hold to (which Professor Pohl would accept if it were allowed that they can be actively created by people), and groups with no self-identification. Instead he argued for groups of persons that felt and acted with common interests, however recently-created, entry to which was to an extent governed by an in-group and recognised by out-groups, as a necessary basis for a self-identification. I understand how this concept is misunderstood; it kinds of slips from one’s hands when you try to press it to explain historical events, but that isn’t, I think, what Professor Pohl holds it for; he holds it as a working account of ethnicity. That is quite an important thing to have, if we can get one…

  • Tommaso Leso, “Shifting Identities and Marriage in Ostrogothic Italy”
  • This drew out the various categories of marriage choice for the women of the Ostrogothic royal family and went through them in detail. This was one of those ones where if you want to know about it, you want to know more than I can tell you, but if it matters and you can’t get in touch with Signor Leso I’m happy to type out my notes in an e-mail.

  • Roland Steinacher, “Response”
  • In the absence of one of the originally-planned papers, Herr Steinacher gave a response, and observed that political correctness makes the necessary argument difficult to have here; these things still really matter to people, and some writers are selling to those people without due care for the facts or opinions of their peers. He named names but I won’t, not here; he was far from the last to do so in these sessions, and I’ll say more about that in the second day’s report.

It’s hard for me to take a position in these debates that are about both the field and the people in it, especially on the open Internet, but you may deduce something if you choose from the fact that now I knew where the action was I stayed in these sessions till they ran out. More on this, therefore, as soon as I can. Presumably I did something in the evening; I remember that whatever it was kept me away from the Early Medieval Europe reception until all their wine had run out, so it must have been good, and probably involved good people and average alcohol. If you were one of the people, I’m sorry four months have blurred you out of my memory of the day but trust me, I remember you out of context…


1. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 42-43.

2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Collected Studies 96 (Aldershot 1979), II.

3. Here my notes suggest he named Guy, but I don’t think this can be right!

Seminar LXXIX: “recycling after Rome’s fall”

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

If you are like me, or if gods save you this blog is your main source of history information, you will largely think of Professor Robin Fleming as an expert on the Norman Conquest and Domesday Book, and so it will have been with some confusion that you (in the former of our cases there) learnt of her new book, Britain after Rome, which, I am told, decides that no meaningful history of the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain can be done from the texts, and therefore ignores them completely in favour of seeing what the archæological record alone tells us.1 This is a weird departure for someone whose stock in trade thus far has been making one particular immense text give up its secrets, but the archæologists I’ve heard talking about it are all delighted by the book, so it was with great interest that I made it down to London against the weather on the 15th December to hear her present to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, to the title, “Recycling In Britain after Rome’s Fall”.

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone (from Wikimedia Commons)

My reactions to this paper were twofold: one, that it was incredibly interesting, and two, that I wanted to go and get all the references because the amount of stuff Professor Fleming had that I’d never heard of set off the alarm bells that ring when conspiracy theorists bring together a huge range of unrelated sources and string links between them. This was not because she was doing that! It was just because it seemed too damn rich to be instantly believable. I will admit that some of the assertions about quantity seemed to me to be very unlikely to be, well, quantifiable, but she had plural examples for most of what she was asserting, which is better than some do. What was she asserting, Jonathan, I imagine you’re saying, so, well, for one thing, that there was massive re-use of Roman building stone, which we sort of knew but no! more massive than that, quarries out of use for centuries massive, building still being raided in the eleventh century massive. And raided not just for stone, but for the metal bits of their structure that held the stones in place, these going into smiths’ hoards along with tools, cutlery, coins, anything that could be melted down and used again. There’s [edit: almost] no evidence (she said) of iron production in Britain between about 370 and the seventh century because of this second-hand supply. Pottery gets reused, too, intact stuff where it can be and otherwise bits used as moulds. This, for Professor Fleming, is how to explain a quantity of separated pot bases found especially in Oxfordshire settlement sites (she named Barrow Hills): they were serving as moulds for the plates in composite brooches, she reckons, the metal for those presumably being scavenged too.2

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset, from English Wikipedia

As that example suggests, there was a lot of regional variation in this presentation. That’s what they were doing with old pots in what would be Oxfordshire, break ‘em up and make Saxon-looking stuff with the bits, but when the fort of South Cadbury (which was of course Camelot as any fule kno) was reoccupied in the fifth century one of the things this left for us is Roman cinerary urns, being used in domestic contexts. That is, it was important enough to these guys to use fine Roman ceramics, in a world where those were now basically unobtainable, that they would raid cremation cemeteries and take the urns to put food and drink in. (Yes, we’re still on mistreatment of the dead, sorry.) You see, then, why this rings like fantasy and yet I asked her where this, at least, was written and it’s in a book I’ve read, so I guess that I, like everyone else apparently, must have missed the significance.3) Some places obviously had more building stone to reuse than others; a lot of Professor Fleming’s examples of this stuff came from Bath, which is not really surprising. Closer to Kent, they were reusing Roman funerary ceramics as, well, funerary ceramics, going into the ground next to Merovingian finewares and local pottery. And again, you see, I’ve read more Kentish cemetery reports than some, especially this last few months, but I had not noticed this stuff there and I must go back and look again.4 Everywhere was reacting differently to the new shortages in supply and loss of technical skills, argued Professor Fleming, but the general picture is one of rapidly-developing material poverty being met with manifold and baffling ingenuity as each community made its choice between staying some kind of Roman or becoming early medieval. No Saxons necessarily required, you’ll notice, though of course there were ‘barbarian’ soldiers perhaps around who would now have been important in times of trouble, perhaps important enough to be imitated…5 Even if the quantities don’t add up to the kind of picture I seem to have come away from this paper with, that is a powerful paradigm for the so-called adventus, that is, and one which needs really very few immigrants to make it float.6 Once this gets out, we’re not going to be able to ignore it, so it merits attention, and I was glad to have been attending.


1. R. Fleming, Britain after Rome: the fall and rise, 400-1070, History of Britain (Harmondsworth 2010), to which compare for example eadem, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991) or Domesday Book and the law. Society and legal custom in early medieval England (Cambridge 1998).

2. Barrow Hills is not yet actually in print, it must be said, but it won’t be long apparently, Oxford Archaeology’s website advertises it as: Richard Chambers & Ellen McAdam, Excavations at Barrow Hills, Radley, Oxfordshire, 1983-5, Volume 2: The Romano British cemetery and Anglo Saxon settlement (Oxford forthcoming). By that time, of course, I guess that they will have been able to take Professor Fleming’s interpretation into account, since she obviously talked to them, so her source may wind up citing her. Is that actually circular? I’m not sure.

3. It being Leslie Alcock, S. J. Stevenson & C. R. Musson, Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The Early Medieval Archaeology (Cardiff 1995), though on inspection I discover that I actually read only Alcock, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 68 (London 1982), pp. 354ff, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987) pp. 185-213, so I could very easily have not got this level of detail.

4. Though, again, I must recognise that what I’ve read has very largely been the work of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, who wrote mainly sober catalogues of finds mainly interested in Saxon material that might be diagnostic of date or ethnic affiliations, in what we might call the old tradition, and indeed that was substantially what I was reading for, so maybe I would again have overlooked or she thought unimportant the Roman material reused like this. I’m much readier to blame me than her, though, and there is an incredible amount more publication than just hers as the link above starts to make clear.

5. I am primed to think like this at the moment by finally making it urgent to read Guy Halsall’s excellent Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which covers the barbarisation of the Roman military at pp. 101-110 with copious references.

6. Although, again, I’m conscious that there is out there a very similar invasion-free acculturation and fashion-change argument out there about the creation of Muslim al-Andalus in Spain, which has been basically dismissed as the work of a madman, and I can see the scope for a similar reaction to this work too (referring to Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), which dammit used to be online for free but seems no longer to be, and to which see the stinging rejoinder of Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513, which is online for free, here.

Fleming’s Normans (and her Danes and her English)

Once finished with ‘pope month’ on the course, we had ‘Normans fortnight’, and I used the opportunity to read Robin Fleming’s Kings and Lords in Conquest England, which I’d wanted to do for, er, well more or less since I first read any of her work as an undergraduate I think, so quite a long time, in none of which time had it ever been quite relevant enough.1 But now I have.

The manuscript of Great Domesday

The manuscript of Great Domesday

In some ways I guess this doesn’t read as innovative as it did when it came out, or at least as the author pitches it, but that would be because she’d blazed the trail of using Domesday Book for really big-scale social history of England and a lot of other people also started doing it once she’d shown them how it could be done. I was very conscious while making notes that there has been an awful lot of work since she wrote, but hadn’t been that much on relevant subjects before: a great deal of what’s in her footnotes was thirty or forty years old even then. Anyway, the elevator pitch of it would be: using Domesday over many areas, we can see that the patterns of lay land-holding were hugely changed between 1066 and 1086, and that only a small part of this can be seen as continuity from an Anglo-Saxon landholder to a new Norman one. Small estates were clumped together by means fair and foul, but big ones were broken up and the result was a much more divided and controllable nobility for William I in 1086 than Edward the Confessor had in 1066, when Harold and his brothers actually held more land than the king, a pattern set up by Cnut’s consolidation of the nobility. That process is discussed in the first part of the book, and one of the things that makes this so interesting is the long comparison 1016 to 1086, albeit mainly studied through the 1086 telescope of Domesday.2 It’s at that end where the real argument lies, and figures like this really knock the difference home:

Proportions of land held by Edward the Confessor and his earls as per Fleming

Proportions of land held by William the Conqueror and his barons, 1086, as per Fleming

The timing of all this is also crucial: she sees a turning point around 1075, when the last English landholders to whom a new Norman landholder can be allowed to succeed are dying out. From there on land has to be acquired by other means, although that was never the only one. This means that a lot of estates had probably assumed the form that Domesday shows them in only very recently in 1086, and that we can fit the acquisition of land into a slow change that also appears in William’s domestic and ecclesiastical politics of initial accommodation hardening into subjection. This is all anchored with masses of detail, I mean masses. She never uses two or three examples when six exist, and this is effective. It sacrifices something on accessibility: the language of English land tenure is somewhat unusual and if you don’t already know what soke is or what berewicks are you will need a dictionary because there’s no help coming here, and no glossary either which might have been a kind gesture. But the upshot of it is all to convince, with the sort of mass of data that only Domesday scholars can really marshal for this period.3

Shires in which the different English magnate families dominated in 1066Spread of landholding of William the Conqueror's baronage by family 1086, as per Fleming

Three things only bug me about the arguments here, and these are three carps in a whole pool of beautiful goldfish, if you see what I mean. You know by now that this is my way of showing I really read the thing, to try and argue with details, right? So. The first thing is, a point she makes several times but which is easily lost sight of, that we are dealing here only with lay land, which is between a third and two-thirds of all land in England perhaps. So although if you’re studying the lay aristocracy we have indeed got 100% of their known assets under consideration, if you were interested in the peasantry then we’re looking at rather less. The second thing is another that she admits but I don’t think she really allows the reader time to see how it might affect the argument: Domesday does not record Anglo-Saxon subtenancies in as much detail as it does Anglo-Norman ones, so the fact that tempus regis willelmi land tenure appears to be split between many people and tempus regis eadwardi rather fewer may not all be the fact that Harold of Wessex and brothers and Leofric of Mercia had most of the country sewn up between them, undeniable though that probably is, but partly that we are not seeing the people over who they were lords. That said, it could be argued against that since Domesday is mainly interested in tenants-in-chief, this doesn’t really affect the upper level and might even militate towards better representation of Anglo-Saxon tenancies whose nature didn’t match the categories that Domesday‘s surveyors were working with. So maybe that doesn’t matter.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

The question that really seemed uncovered to me is one that I kept asking, especially during the penultimate chapter which tries to document how much of the new lords’ landholdings were simply stolen or extorted. This is a really interesting chapter, and contains fascinating hints of collusion. What happens, I wanted to ask, having had this conversation with Matthew Innes several times in the past,4 when land changes hands? Do we really envisage the people who had owned it packing up their bags and leaving? Was England, or indeed Europe always full of migrants of purchase like this? Well, sometimes perhaps, especially in my area where they sometimes come to the frontier and start a new life, but more often surely they stay put, they just don’t own the land any more. What is happening with some of these cases is surely primarily a change of revenue flow; someone new gets to take the renders and the people working the land stay the same. A lot of the people we’re dealing with here likely weren’t working the land before, of course, and they may now have to. But all the same I think there is not only a great difference between physically expelling people from their lands and simply taking possession, in terms of title, tax and rights, of it while they stay in place with lessened status. I also think that envisaging the latter rather than the former makes it a lot easier to imagine how this whole process could be carried out without the whole of England essentially becoming wasteland and all the English fugitives.


1. Robin Fleming, Kings and Lords in Conquest England, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 15 (Cambridge 1991).

2. In this I think she, as with very many other people in fact, owes a lot to the similar perspective of Pauline Stafford, Unification and Conquest: a political and social history of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries (London 1978) and I don’t know if this is one of those I-internalised-it-so-good-I-forgot-it-wasn’t-mine things I described the other day but I find it very weird that that book isn’t cited or in this one’s bibliography.

3. It ought to be noted, however, that Fleming’s figures above differ quite a lot from the results that Mark Lawson got doing the same sums, or at least attempting to: see his “Edward the Confessor’s England” in James Campbell, Patrick Wormald & Eric John (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (Harmondsworth 1982), pp. 226-227 at p. 226.

4. You can find Matthew discussing the like in his “Land, Freedom and the Making of the Early Medieval West” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 16 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 39-73.