Tag Archives: seminars

Seminar CLII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Seminar CLI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.


1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

Seminar CXLVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archaæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…


1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), historical archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).

Seminar CXLII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.


* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…

Seminar CXL: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

I said a few posts ago that I was teaching at Birmingham last year more or less in imitation of an Anglo-Saxonist, and I meant to link that phrase to the webpage of Dr Peter Darby at Nottingham, because it was in fact very specifically him that I was imitating; he had been on contract to do the teaching I took over before Nottingham made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.1 He has Birmingham academic background, however, so it was a sort of homecoming when he addressed Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar on 25th November 2013, with the title, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and the Codex Amiatinus Christ in Majesty”.

Full-size replica of the Codex Amiatinus

What the BBC confusingly calls “the only full-sized replica in the world of a Bible created more than 1,000 years ago”, raising the question of why someone is using gloves to handle a modern replica (not that you necessarily should even with parchment). Nonetheless, this gives you the size of the volume, and if you imagine those pages being skin, not paper, also the weight…

The Codex Amiatinus is the 75-pound Bible of the title, famously one of a set of three made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow for presentation, in this case to the papacy, the source as Bede saw it of England’s Christianity.2 It was done in Roman-style uncial script, in columns, by at least eight different scribes; it is probably reasonable to see it as the baby Church demonstrating to Papa that it’s all grown-up now. It was taken to Rome, probably by the following of Abbot Ceolfrið, who died on the way there, and by the ninth century was in the monastery of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, whence it gets its name; in 1786 it was moved to Florence, at which point someone for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from Peter Lombard. There is a lot of decoration in the book, including the famous portrait of Ezra that has been reused so many times by people looking for images of medieval scribes. Peter pointed out that most of this decoration is in the first quire of the book now, and wondered if it might have been rearranged, but some pictures remain later on, and his paper was essentially a close-reading of the one below in search of communications of orthodoxy.

Christ in Majesty, from the Codex Amiatinus

Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin parchment. “Amiatinus Maiestas Domini” by Unknown – Internet. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments, thus opening the New, but Peter argued that it also closes it, by invoking in its depiction of Christ in Majesty the throne in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation: against a background of stars, jasper and ruby, a rainbow encircling, four living creatures around it that represent the Evangelists… I was happy to accept that (and indeed to drag the image straight into my teaching materials next term) but Peter also found a lot of fours in this image, numerical and geometrical, including pointing out that if you draw diagonal lines between the Evangelists’ books they intersect at Christ’s book and that even the stars in the background are arranged in quincunxes, crosses of four points around a fifth. The trouble for me here is that there are four Gospels, that’s a given starting place, and I’m not sure that this kind of structuring has to mean any more than a recognition of that as an organising principle for a necessarily four-sided artwork. Peter also argued that the portrayal of Christ as human was very current and correct, because the Church had just (as of 692) agreed that the Lamb of God should no longer be used to depict Jesus, but the Christ in Majesty usually is human, isn’t he, and that might to be honest just be because lambs look silly standing on furniture.

The Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of <em>Revelation</em>.

Not that anthropomorphising the Agnus Dei hasn’t been taken to much less likely lengths, of course! This is from a c. 1200 copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, showing the Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of Revelation.

What I certainly took from this was that the artwork was meticulously planned and laid out, and that once again it as with many another Insular Gospel Book stands as very obvious evidence against anyone who wants to argue that medieval artists weren’t very good. This was difficult and deliberate work, especially with the tools, inks and dyes available, and no effort was being spared to make a top-of-the-range codex. Peter’s case that it was sending an up-to-the-minute communication of theological orthodoxy to the papacy, however, rather than just advertising that its artists and home monastery were world-class… well, I’m still open to it, but this paper did not close it for me.


1. Given that this could be taken as a critical review, I should admit in full disclosure that I was also interviewed for the Nottingham job. I hope that that doesn’t affect my thinking here but I suppose you ought to know it could technically be a factor.

2. If there is a one-stop academic read on these matters it is for now Paul Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus” in Speculum Vol. 71 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 827-883, DOI: 10.2307/2865722. A bigger picture (literally) can be got from George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London 1987).

Seminar CXXXVII: relics, angst and agency

Now that I’m back into reports from the academic year now expiring, rather than the one before, you could be forgiven for thinking that I spent last autumn ignoring everything that was going on in my new home institution in favour of disappearing to London every week. Not so, gentle reader, for Birmingham boasts a CEntre for the Study of the Middle Ages which, at that point at least, t was running a weekly seminar, and on 21st October 2013 Birmingham’s own Dr Simon Yarrow was speaking to it, with the title “Varieties of Christian Materiality: relics and saints’ cults in Anglo-Norman England”. And since Simon’s work was one of the things people lauded when I got this post, I made sure to be there.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Simon’s paper was exploring one of the tensions inherent to Christianity, that between body and spirit, the material and non-material that is indissoluble from a religion that centres on its God becoming a man. Many a splinter from orthodoxy has tried to separate the two but for those who remain orthodox, the material world presents difficulties when objects are held to be holy in some way or other, something that can obviously extend to the bodies of the faithful and therefore reaches a particular point of extremity when one is faced with saints’ relics, physical items that are supposed to be connected to a non-physical soul now in Heaven. Again, the extreme position here is one of schism, a Calvinist rejection of the spirituality or power of such objects, but when you don’t go so far, what options are there?1

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By way of answer Simon took us through the positions of two twelfth-century writers, Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum and Goscelin of St-Bertin’s Liber confortationis.2 Guibert has some scepticism about relics, all right, and stresses that the object that is most real in its holiness is the Eucharist, compared to which everything else in the physical world is rather one- dimensional and of course, may not be real, whereas with the Eucharist you always know it’s Christ. Goscelin was walking a rather more difficult line, in as much as he was writing spiritual fortification to an anchoress, a woman whom he had known before her enclosure; his approach, that she was herself now a living relic, an object made holy and put beyond life in the world by its ‘burial’, does not remove the clear sense of personal connection he felt to her and indeed missed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a lot of the questions were about agency, a theme that Simon had briefly brought up at the beginning of the paper. A living object obviously still has some agency, even if within four close walls it’s somewhat constrained; she could not have written back, for example. Relics also raise this issue, however, as tokens of a holy presence whose whole point is that it retained power to cause action in the world.

Blocked entry to an anchoress's cell in the north wall of St James's Shere, Surrey

Blocked entry to an anchoress’s cell in the north wall of St James’s Shere, Surrey

As a result, Simon’s position that objects only act as wielded by persons seemed to me to butt against his initial and sharp observation that our sources only let us see the psychological effects of objects on our authors rather than any real action, or, rather, to form a circle with it. Perhaps it’s just that I have seen the clever people at In the Medieval Middle invoke Deleuze and Actor Network Theory by way of giving objects agency too many times not to wonder whether the position Simon took gives us a full picture of the way medieval people experienced the material world (and perhaps he would say that we can’t get one with the sources we have). Also it’s that when the agency of relics comes up I think of Charles West’s excellent paper about mystery relics at ninth-century Dijon that threw people to the floor with an invisible force no-one dared identify, a brilliant case because reported to us not as propaganda but as a request for help from the person trying to deal with it.3 Because this interests me, and because I wanted my new colleagues to know I could think, I may have made more of a nuisance of myself in questions than was entirely fair, since this wasn’t the particular point of the paper, but I still think it’s interesting to think about and Simon’s thoughts made it all the more imperative to join in.


1. Simon cited William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (London 1902) here; it’s online, if you want to look.

2. Guibert’s work is translated in his Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades, transl. Joseph Mcalhany & Jay Rubinstein (London 2011); Goscelin’s can be found as Liber Confortatorius: the Book of Encouragement and Consolation, transl. Monika Utter (Woodbridge 2004, repr. 2012).

3. See Charles West, “Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 295-311.

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

My relentless progress through my seminar report backlog now finally leaves me looking at the last seminar I went to in Oxford, something of a milestone. The person who had the dubious honour of that slot in my academic life was the estimable Dr Alice Taylor, one of Kings College London’s regiment of Alices and an acquaintance of long standing from the Institute of Historical Research but here presenting to the Medieval History Seminar at All Souls with the title “Lex scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish law compared”. This was a version of a paper she’d given in Oxford the previous year, but I’d missed it then and there was plenty of debate this time round…

Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, fo. 59v

The opening of the text of Leges Scocie, as close as there is to an early medieval Scottish lawcode, in Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, the so-called Berne Manuscript, fo. 59v.

It has so far been Alice’s most widely-recognised achievement to convince people that there even was such a thing as early medieval Scottish law, which she has had to retrieve from contextually-undatable references in much later manuscripts, but when you’ve done that, as she explained, you start to wonder about how the system worked and since, if that was your best evidence, you have no case-law or documentation by which practice might be examined, you have to start comparing. So, after a brief run-through of the different schools of historical thought on how written law relates to what people actually do to maintain social order in their communities, from the minimalist Patrick Wormald thesis that legislators of such law were not after judicial effects so much as the promotion of the legislators’ position above society to the somehow more spiritual one that written law reflects the wider community ideology as it was lived, she adopted a position for debate that written law was in these cases the top of an iceberg of unwritten legal practice, both part of the same corpus of social ideology, but more similar between her areas at the bottom than at the top.1

The three corpora do certainly differ, not least in preservation—Wales has various thirteenth-century redactions of what purports to be a royal lawcode of the tenth century, the Laws of Hywel Dda, Anglo-Saxon England has a large corpus of summative royal lawcodes with additional provisions also largely issued in royal council in what we now recognise as a fairly Carolingian way and in Scotland, as said, there are thirteenth- and fourteenth-century references to laws that in some cases probably go back rather further—but also in the legislative process: Welsh law names a king but its real developers were specialist lawyers, Anglo-Saxon England places the king first and foremost and Scotland is somewhere between the two. Alice argued, however, that all three corpora have references in that imply strongly that the legislators expected the initial action against criminals to come from the communities in which the crimes were committed, and the royal or state process would only creak into operation when that failed. The English laws are full of communal obligations for default of which the king can penalise, at what after the tenth-century is usually a flat fine of 120 shillings; Welsh law has a whole set of pay-scales for abetting crimes, which are charged at the same rate as the crimes themselves but to the state, rather than the victims; and the more shadowy Scottish references still assume posses who might hang a thief if he was caught, in a style quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon laws. All, or so Alice argued, expected the most immediate action to be taken in community, leaving royal justice as a superstrate over a bustle of quite various local enforcement of communal solidarities. For this reason, the main focus of the laws in all three areas is on persons, not communities, who have broken out of their social bonds by reason of their actions.

Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

An illustrated page from the Laws of Hywel Dda in Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

This met with some opposition and refinement in discussion. Paul Brand pointed out that despite the texts’ focus on individual actions, royal enforcement was carried out against whole communities, such as the harrying of Worcestershire in 1041 by King Harthacnut’s orders to pick just one.2 Mark Whittow suggested that the real rôle of law in these cases was to penalise action on behalf of the kindred, i. e. feud, as opposed to action on behalf of the community; and Wendy Davies evinced scepticism that the local community existed in these areas as a group so clearly defined as that it could be expected to act as a body. To the last, Alice (correctly, it seems to me) said that the texts nevertheless envisage such a group with mutual knowledge, though this doesn’t remove Wendy’s objection that it’s hard to show that was really there on the ground. Thomas Charles-Edwards and Tom Lambert both raised the question of change, however, and here there seemed to be more room for modification at least about what the royal law was for: Tom has after all argued something not dissimilar to this but both he and Professor Charles-Edwards emphasised that the lawcodes we have (i. e. the English ones) develop new terms over the course of the tenth century, as the kings try and open up space for themselves in what had previously been community action.

My notes no longer make it clear to me exactly how the three positions differed here, but the focus of disagreement seems to have been on whether the legislators, in all three cases, were trying to use what the communities over whom they legislated already did, to support it or to change it. I think Alice was arguing for the first two options, but for England the swell of opinion elsewhere around the table seemed much more on the first plus the third. It did seem to me (what my notes do reflect) that the English laws have as a big part of their agenda to regularise and eliminate local variation in custom, and the detailed provisions of the Welsh laws look like that to me also; the Scottish stuff I know much less well, but since we don’t have it as issued (if it was) it’s harder to say. The differences in practice here may not matter very much, but the Oxford scholarship seems even now to be very keen on knowing the minds of rulers, and it does seem as if law should be a way one can do it; to that way of thinking, Alice’s paper was probably more subversive than it initially appeared…


1. Alice here contrasted Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001) with Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia (New Haven 1988). Patrick’s book is certainly where to start for more on any of the lawcodes mentioned in this post. As for Alice, her beacon work so far might be “Leges Scocie and the lawcodes of David I, William the Lion and Alexander II” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 207-288, but this paper itself is out, since last month only, as “Lex Scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Law Compared” in Judith Scheele & Fernanda Pirie (edd.), Legalism: justice and community, Legalism 2 (Oxford 2014), pp. 47-76!

2. So recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for the year 1041. in whatever edition or translation you prefer to use; mine of resort is Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1998).