Tag Archives: settlement archaeology

Seminar CLX: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, III

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

Returning to a thread after our short diversion to Lotharingia, the next paper I went to in my massive backlog of such reports was the third of John Blair’s Ford Lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, this one entitled: “Why was Burton Built on Trent? Landscape Organisation and Economy in the Mercian Age?” and occurring on 1st February 2013. Here John was propounding a really quite simple theory that has big implications. Starting by setting out the assumption that other kingdoms would have imitated the practices that had made Mercia successful during the period when it more or less dominated Anglo-Saxon England, he reminded us of his last week’s proposition that at this time the functions of central places were decentralised across wider zones and then asked, more or less, what then is to be read from the place-name ‘Burton’, burh-tun, more or less ‘fortress settlement’? What do these places in fact have to do with fortresses and what would that mean?

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air. Note the cropmark near the pylon! Probably modern, but if not, could it be the ‘Wall’? No, OK. For more such conjectures, read on!

The scale of John’s project made him uniquely able to try and answer this; as he put it, by now he had “gone for pretty much every Burton there is”. And there are a lot! And John’s contention was that they mostly, perhaps almost all given the incomplete state of our knowledge, stand upland from and within sight of an Anglo-Saxon burh, and should be seen as supporting settlements, watch-places or similar. The best example, because actually documented, is Bourton-on-the-Water (unrelatedly, the town I have been to with the highest concentration of teashops—there is a part of the High Street where you can stand and see seven, knowing that two more lie just round a corner—and a really quite good motor museum, but I digress), which King Offa gave to his thegn Dudda in 779, and which is is explicitly said to be “portio ruriculi illius attinens urbi qui nominatur Sulmones burg”, ‘the rural portion belonging to the town named Salmonsbury’, but John had many others, as well as regional variations (Boltons, in Northumbria, relating to Bothals, Kingstons in Wessex, Newtons relating to Roman sites that could be described as “ealde geworce”, ‘old earthworks’).1 The biggest of all, subject of his title, is actually only one of five on the Trent, but relates most probably to Tutbury, an old Iron Age fort facing the Peak District and close to the Mercian royal centre of Repton and Breedon. Littleborough, anciently a Roman site (and in Anglo-Saxon times known as Tiowulfesceaster, ‘Theowulf’s [Roman] fort’) boasts two Burtons and two Strettons (Straet-tun, ‘settlement of the [Roman] road’), spread out on either side of it, and Burcot in Oxfordshire seems to link Badbury and Lechlade, being equidistant between them.

View of hilltops from Burcot, Oxfordshire

View from Burcot towards I-know-not-what hilltop, but maybe one of the right ones. Now we are dealing in sites that are below the burhs, not above them, but then this is a -cot, not a -tun

By this stage, while the number of examples was hard to dismiss, the idea of a system was getting harder to hold on to. John had found many many different ways to relate Burtons to burhs, but I began to wonder whether the choice of which one they related to was always clear, especially since some of the burhs in question were so much older than others, Roman or even Iron Age sites to which names of equally unclear date were being related. One, Black Burton near Bampton, has at least been dug, and produced exactly what John wopuld have wished, Middle Saxon buildings and Ipswich Ware pottery pinning its activity reasonably to the late eighth and early ninth centuries and I expect he will have more, but as ever the work of Mary Chester-Kadwell leaves me bothered about making these links by pure geographic association.2 What if there were just enough burhs in the landscape that when you put a new settlement down there was one nearby it could be defined by? Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. But particular concentrations of Burton-names are still suggestive: John saw a line of them in the Peak District more or less delimiting it, a different pattern of burhweord multiple estates down the Welsh border and a row along the edge of the semi-independent enclave of Hastings with which Offa had trouble.3 (One such site, Bishopstone, relating to the burh at Lewes, has also been dug and showed an eighth-century hall with an associated church over-writing an old minster that Offa seems to have repossessed.) Even if not all of this matches up as neatly as John was arguing it does, quite a lot of it could still be some kind of deliberate organisation.

View of hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire

An obvious-looking candidate, the hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, now topped by a modern ‘Topograph’ but who knows what lies beneath, inside those rampart-like ridges? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways this ought not to be a surprise: we do after all accept that the Mercian kings could enforce, to a reasonable degree, obligations of military construction on their subjects, and even if John were not right about centres being decentralised in this period, a fortress network still needs links and watchposts, something which I very much observe in the similar roll-out of a network in Catalonia.4 Something like this system should have existed, and it may be that John has in fact demonstrated it. There is a space for factual realism here that lies somewhere between my wish for a clearer pattern and a readiness to accommodate all possible variations; after all, the landscape itself is very various, and incorporating legacy elements like Roman and Iron Age fortresses would obviously make sense, both in terms of investment cost and the likely defensibility of their locations. Nonetheless, I suspect I will not be the only one who will want the publication of this theory before them before they can shrug off their modern discomfort over accepting a system so authentically ready to be unsystematic, at which point such a publication may indeed do us a power of good in terms of helping us think in Anglo-Saxon terms, not our own…


1. The 779 grant is printed in W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885-1899), 3 vols, no. 230, and indexed in the Electronic Sawyer here as Sawyer 114. Anything else in this post which is not linked or footnoted to a source is coming out of my notes, and will therefore presumably be found in John’s publication of these lectures.

2. M. Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

3. The defeat of the Hæstingas by Offa in 771 is recorded only in Simeon of Durham’s Historia Regum, trans. Joseph Stevenson in his The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Church Historians of England III.2 (London 1855), online here.

4. It remains a pleasure to invoke Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but we should also add Stephen Bassett, “Divide and Rule? The Military Infrastructure of Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mercia” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 53-85, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2007.00198.x.

Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.


1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

Turning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013 were covered at Magistra et Mater long ago already, and so was the second, and thus I find myself leaping forward to 18th January 2013 and back to Professor John Blair, who on that afternoon gave the first of his lectures as Ford Lecturer for 2013.1

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The Ford Lectures are an annual series of public lectures in history that have been running in Oxford since 1896. They are given by a historian elected by a board that administers the relevant bequest, and they are what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’. They are attended by a whole range of people, by no means all historians, and they consequently have to be pitched for an intelligent but non-expert audience. Probably as a result of this some fairly important books have resulted from them that hold their value even today.2 Given this audience and opportunity, Professor Blair opted to showcase his latest work, the early outcomes of the project that had left yours truly holding the fort for him while he was on leave, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and the first lecture was called “Defining Anglo-Saxon Landscapes”.

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

One recent high-profile excavation, the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The starting position here was basically that the massive availability of new archæological data accumulated since digging became a normal part of building and development work permits a new survey of what we know about settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, but very little has been done to take this chance, not least because of the sheer volume of material.3 But John evidently likes a challenge and has read really quite a lot of it, and talked to a great many people in various places. Not all these people had talked to each other, of course, so sometimes there was work from places very near to each other which no-one but John had seen all of; even where this wasn’t the case, the construction of a national framework offered new meanings for it all at a higher level. In the lectures John focused most notably on Mercia, but the book will apparently offer more (and he has already covered some of the gaps by publishing his recent Chadwick lecture).4

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Even what we had involved considerable diversity, however, of settlement and of evidence and investigation: coins, sunken-featured buildings, post-built houses, portable artefacts and grave-goods have all been found and indeed been sought differently over the years and from place to place. John also laid considerable stress on what we cannot see, of which the most obvious thing is wooden artefacts, tools and possessions and indeed in some cases buildings; he used examples from modern Karelia, here among many other places, to make the point that, “fugitive things can be very elaborate”. Not just wood, of course: my notes also mention tapestries and tents as examples of things that we know could be very splendid in the Middle Ages but which almost never survive archæologically. On top of this, but consequently hard to detect, are genuine regional differences in Anglo-Saxon-period practice, which might be matters of fashion or identity but might also in any given case also or instead be environmental as much as anything, and lying around the landscape are things that are very evident but impossible to date, like earthworks, which lately have been getting more and more likely to be Anglo-Saxon in date in at least some cases but usually only might be.

A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

Last signs of an identity crisis? A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

The purely environmental factors can be differentiated from more cultural ones because the latter change, however. For much of this period, for example, the South Coast was apparently not as important an area in trading and settlement terms as the North Sea coast, despite the former’s greater proximity to the Continent.5 Trade is one thing, however, and settlement is another and harder to get at; it doesn’t seem to reliably coincide with coin finds or cemetery evidence, for example, so that a complex model of culture and materiality is needed. John hypothesized that for the earliest part of the period, where furnished burial seems to be the main cultural expression we can recover archæologically, Anglo-Saxon society was going through a crisis of identity that makes the very phrase `Anglo-Saxon society’ problematic, but that once it was through that things like buildings, coins and ceramics became a a more likely sphere for material investment. Filling out that suggestion had to wait a week for the next lecture, however, and so I shall leave it to another post having hopefully whetted your appetites for more!


1. The ones I’m not covering, just for completeness, are: Edward James, “Visualising the Merovingians in Nineteenth-Century France”, paper presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 12th December 2012; Éienne Rénaud, “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”, ibid., 9th January 2013; and Rob Houghton, “The Vocabulary of Groups in Eleventh-Century Mantua”, ibid. 16th January 2013.

2. I suppose the ones that matter most to what I do are J. Armitage Robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1922 (Oxford 1923); Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1929 (Oxford 1932, repr. 1961); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1943 (Oxford 1946, repr. 1998); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1970 (Oxford 1971); Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980, Education and Society and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 16 (Leiden 2004); and Peter Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2013), but there are lots of others covering other periods.

3. An Oxford determination to address this is already evident in Helena Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2012).

4. John Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013).

5. John here made considerable play of distribution maps emphasising the relative wealth of an area he described as “the Wash catchment area”, a sort of Greater Great Ouse reaching down to the Chilterns, but in terms of the coastal areas the importance of the North Sea compared to the Channel is a conclusion one could also find in Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982) and Chris Loveluck, “Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence” in François Bougard, Hans-Werner Goetz & Régine le Jan (edd.), Théorie et pratiques des élites au Haut Moyen Âge : Conception, perception et réalisation sociale. Theorie und Praxis frühmittelalterlicher Eliten: Konzepte, Wahrnehmung und soziale Umsetzung, Haut Moyen Âge 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 21-68.

Seminar CLII: Thames Valley oddity over several centuries

Oxford Archaeology, frequently in the news for some new exciting dig or other, are not actually anything to do with the University of Oxford, but while I was at the latter it was repeatedly evident that both parties saw the advantage in talking to each other anyway, and this was again manifest on 26th November 2012 when OA’s Senior Project Manager, Paul Booth, came to speak to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title, “‘Roman’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Settlements and Burials at Horcott, Gloucestershire – Continuities and Discontinuities on the Thames Valley Gravels”.

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott

Horcott is an exciting site for two reasons, the first being that although it’s been fairly extensively dug it wasn’t a major place, so it gets us unusually close to the level of the everyday population, maybe not as exciting as yet another princely burial but in some ways a lot more use. The other reason it’s exciting is that it has a substantial Iron Age phase, clear signs of Roman-period occupation and then also Anglo-Saxon features, which raises the ever-intriguing possibility of continuity between the Roman and post-Roman uses of the site. It is also a vexing site for two reasons, however. The first, a looming factor over everything I say that follows and some of what I’ve already said, is that the site has long been quarried for gravel and lots of the surrounding archaeology has therefore gone. With many a site (I suppose Flixborough is the one with hottest debate around it, and Sutton Hoo perhaps the most obvious uncontested example) there is the possibility that if one just dug a bit further in one direction one would get details that seriously change how the site should be interpreted; if that was the case here, we’ll never know, as any potential palaces, princes, churches, etc. have long been dispersed as roadstone and so on.

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during the Horcott dig

The second vexation though is that when you have a site where continuity might exist you really have to think about what would prove that. Simply showing structures with finds evidence from different periods isn’t enough: abandoned ruins can be fixed up by newcomers. Even old field boundaries may remain to be reused: here, there are Iron Age divisions still detectable in the gravels but other features of that era have been over-written by subsequent buildings. There is also the possibility that in fact there was continuity, but because the slowly-reidentifying population was shifting its building location every few generations and because social and religious practice was changing, you can’t tell it’s a continuity in the archæology because when they come back into view their material culture profile is changed. All these difficulties were rehearsed by Dr Booth before he let us at the actual evidence, so we were warned.

Foundations of a Roman farmhouse at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Foundations of the Roman farmhouse

So, in brief, what they have is an Iron Age landscape showing quite a lot of buildings (or at least a lot of postholes, much confused by later building), enclosures and trackways, and then what may be best summarised as a small Roman farm, centred around a solidy-built but small house (three rooms along a corridor). This began in one of the Iron Age enclosures in the mid-second century and seems to have been out of use by the end of the fourth century, but from about the middle of the third century a cemetery had started to develop across the stream from the farm and that went on after the farm buildings were out of use. The Anglo-Saxon settlement is scattered over much of the site, distinguished not least by overwriting earlier things but also by building type (dug-out, ‘sunken-featured’ buildings with four timber ‘halls’ of uncertain but unimpressive size) and material goods, pottery, bone and craft debris that speak of late fifth- and early sixth-century dates. None of this, you see, establishes continuity: the site is obviously still an attractive location but nothing is really staying in use. Except, as it turns out, the cemetery.

Excavation of an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Excavation of a sunken-featured building, paused for photo-op

The cemetery is the interesting bit. There were 59 late-Roman burials, more men than women, mostly older people and no children, largely oriented north-south and buried with knives and no other goods (which is all normal for the period).1 A full quarter of these burials were somehow ‘deviant’, however: ten of the men were buried face-down and on the edges of the enclosure (because it is enclosed), but four older women were buried, decapitated, in the very centre, and there were three other decapitations as well. The radio-carbon dates of this group came out between 350 CE and 560 CE and the whole group was disposed close to a division ditch. Then there was a later group, radio-carbon dates between 640 and 780, buried east-west in a different part of the enclosure, comprised of three adult females and otherwise entirely children (I didn’t write down the numbers, annoyingly, sorry). Of these children two were buried prone.

'Deviant' burial from the late Roman cemetery at Horcott, Gloucestershire

‘Deviant’ burial from the late Roman cemetery

Initially it’s hard to see this as continuity: the burial populations are quite different and they’re buried in pretty different ways, but the intriguing thing is that firstly they are in the same enclosure, even if separated, and secondly both groups are unusual for their eras, the former because of the number of deviant burials, suggesting some marginal group here gathered for burial, and the latter because of the absence of men. Although nearby Fairford might, it was generally agreed in questions, have been where the Anglo-Saxon men were buried, that still leaves the population here as being selected for some reason or other, and put to rest in a place where a previous selective population had been buried. What remained here and what was known about it that marked the site out for this kind of use after probably a century of disuse? Since the whole area (as John Blair pointed out in questions) was only really seeing Anglo-Saxon material culture from the beginning of the seventh century, it’s maybe not surprising that settlement of that era looks that way and settlement before doesn’t really show up, as Romano-British settlement is characteristically difficult to find archæologically, but while nothing else links the phases of this site together in an obvious way, this common marginality of burial population suggests that despite that we might be missing something that was durable here in a way that we would struggle to get from material remains alone.2

Saxon pottery from settlement excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Saxon pottery from the settlement site


1. Although I haven’t read it myself, I believe the go-to on Late Roman burial is R. Philpott, Burial Practices in Roman Britain: a survey of grave treatment and furnishing A. D. 43-410, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 219 (Oxford 1991).

2. The question of the invisible Britons is taken up and debated from a wide range of perspectives in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007). There doesn’t seem as yet to be any publication of Horcott so it will clearly be something for interested persons to look forward to!

Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:


1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005), http://www.heroicage.org/issues/8/cessford.html, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period

2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.

3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.

Finally, Kalamazoo 2011 can be told, Part I

Yes, I know, it’s September and I’m dealing with things that happened in May, it bodes badly, but I’m doing the best I can and since there were complaints from venerable parts of the blogosphere that people weren’t doing Kalamazoo write-ups any more I don’t want to let the side of obsessive completism down. So, a few scant days after the last paper I reported on I was, courtesy of the British Academy, in the USA for the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, yet, already. I can’t hope, at this remove, even with my notes, to give a very comprehensive summary of what I saw and did, but then I hardly have time so that’s probably OK. I’ll talk about papers for the first three posts and then say something more general after the shorter paper sum-up from the fourth day.

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Coming in from Detroit was an easy journey, albeit expensive due to an empty but mendacious change-machine, but it badly mucked things up when I forgot, on arrival in Kalamazoo short of sleep, that I had changed time-zone again. The result was that for the first few hours on Thursday I was running an hour later than everyone else, meaning that I missed breakfast and a meeting and arrived late into…

Session 39. Generational Difference and Medieval Masculinity, I: fathers and sons in the early Middle Ages

This was a shame as it meant I missed most of Paul Kershaw‘s “Louis the Pious, Attila the Hun and the Problem of Filial Honour”, which was quite a lot of what I’d gone to see. My very short notes remind me that he was cunningly reading the Hildebrandslied and the Waltharius against each other for how fathers and sons react to each other in those texts and that it sounded as if it would all have been fun to hear. Oh well, my own silly fault. The other papers were:

  • Mary Dockray-Miller, “Glory and Bastards: Godwin, Tostig, Skuli, and Ketel”, which talked about using foster-families on the North Sea world of the eleventh century as an alternative sort of status to less-than-shining origins of birth, either because that birth kindred was still on its way up or, in the case of Earl Tostig of Northumbria‘s sons, very much on its way down
  • and Allen J. Frantzen, “Fathers, Sons, and Masculinity in the Anglo-Saxon World”. This was an erudite and eloquent but also very political paper, in which Professor Frantzen argued that feminist scholarship had, well, emasculated study of masculinity by constraining it into categories from the battle of the sexes rather than what was actually going on at the time we study, which was a combination of both extremes. I thought that the aim here, to combat or at least recognise assumptions both in our sources and in ourselves that male = power and female = weakness, was laudable, but it was a difficult paper to listen to because of hearing it as a feminist maybe would as well as as a scholar should. I also thought that the Romans should have got a bigger part in defining masculinity since the whole rationality-and-moderation topos, here instanced from Ælfric, surely goes back to them, which raises questions about our assumptions about the sources… but it was one of the richer and more stimulating twenty minutes I’ve spent sitting listening, all the same. He actually has a web-page up, apparently in preparation for the session, which sets his fellow participants reading; you may find this interesting…

So, OK, I must write less about the rest, but this will be tricky as I then stumbled on my subject area, sort of, in:

Session 75. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, I: claustrum and sæculum

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

This was the first of a set of sessions arranged by, among others, the very excellent Albrecht Diem, and it was tempting to treat them as one can treat Texts and Identities at Leeds and just sit in familiar territory for as long as the strand ran. I didn’t, but I saw these papers, which were:

  • Hendrik Dey, “Before the Cloister: monasteries and the ‘topography of power’ in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”, an account of the arrangement of processional spaces in late Roman cities and early medieval monasteries, finding numerous interesting parallels in the more elaborate (Carolingian) cases like Lorsch, where the monks seem to have done a lot of walking.
  • Hans Hummer, “Family Continuity and Christian Monasticism in late Antique Gaul” was a complex paper questioning work that has seen either family or lordship as the basic structures of early medieval society by showing monasticism as both or neither, determined to escape such structures but made to serve family or political agendas all the same. This also made the point that an early medieval monastery about which we know is, by and large, exceptional; how many passing references have your documents got to communities that we just can’t identify? I know mine has lots, and Hans’s too apparently.
  • Valerie Ramseyer, “Cave Monasteries in Early Medieval Southern Italy and Sicily: centers of isolation or population?” was an eye-opening paper, not least because of the scenery in the presentation, about monasteries, and in fact whole villages, built in cave networks in Southern Italy. A few of these places still function or function again as restaurants or curiosities but the paper argued that they were never, as they have been pitched when they’ve been studied at all, mere refuges or somehow a subaltern choice of habitation but elaborate, and often luxurious dwellings; the ideological assumptions and the elusiveness have left them under-studied, argued Professor Ramseyer, and I was certainly persuaded.
Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

That had all been such fun that I stuck with the thread for:

Session 122. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, II: status and knowledge

This session had been somewhat demolished, as one speaker (sadly a friend of mine—there was a lot of this this year) had puilled out and the rest reorganised to make a reasonable programme. This actually made the session more interesting than I’d expected, and we got:

  • Matheus Coutinha Figuinha, “Martin of Tours’s Monasticism and the Aristocracy”, which argued, simply and effectively, that Sulpicius Severus, biographer of Saint Martin, was basically making up the nobility of the first monks at Marmoutier in that biography, because he cared a good deal more about such things than Martin apparently did.
  • Julian Hendrix, “Defining Monastic Identity: the Rule of St Benedict and Carolingian Monasticism”, looked at the different ways various commentators used the Regula Benedicti in the Carolingian age and therefore questioned whether complete Benedictinisation was ever the aim. This has been a bit of theme in this scholarly neck of the woods, lately, as further demonstrated by…
  • Albrecht Diem, “Negotiating the Past: reform and conflict in early meieval monasticism”, which pointed out how legendary St Benedict had become by the Carolingian age, that Gregory the Great did not apparently know that Benedict had written a Rule, and that in fact the first person known to associate Benedict of Nursia with the Rule we now claim to be his was Bede; even in the ninth century, in fact, it was feasible for Hygeburc to claim that her subject, St Willibald, had introduced the Benedictine Rule at Benedict’s supposedly own Monte Cassino. Albrecht has been a Benedictosceptic for a while and I’ve heard him say parts of this before but this was a fairly devastating assault.
  • Something I also want to remember from this session is Julian Hendrix saying in question that monastic rules tend to travel together in manuscripts, and adding, “They’re cenobitic in tendency, I guess”, which is the kind of throwaway I wish I came up with more often. It should also probably be observed that of late Albrecht has been putting all kinds of resources about monasticism, bibliographies, databases, lists of bookmarks, online, and that these are all quite useful things to know about if you’re in the field.

By this stage I think I was more or less caught up on the time zones but a drink was very welcome. I have since lost such information as I had recorded about whom I met when—kids, always have backups—so I won’t try and recapture that, but I probably ought to thank Michael Fletcher straight off as he was invaluable throughout the Congress as a willing driver, orchestrator and drinking companion and I’d have had much less fun without his help. So, that covers the first day in some sort of fashion, next there will be yet another post about a Catalan stone with a funerary inscription on it then I’ll return to the report.

In Marca Hispanica XIV: l’Esquerda, city of helpful archæologists

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia, from above


You’ve heard quite a lot about the site of l’Esquerda here by now, and more if you braved the numbers at the Kalamazoo paper indeed. I haven’t finished, however, as I was there a couple of months back as part of this trip whose telling I am still unwinding, and firstly it is one of the best-displayed archæological sites I’ve ever seen, secondly it is highly photogenic and thirdly and most importantly it has given me a heartening story, which I will now share. But first! The obligatory scenery photo!

The end of the l'Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

The end of the l'Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

I won’t try and explain once more why this place is important, I’ve done it before.1 So, just the travelogue here. The first thing is to explain that I hadn’t even planned to go to Roda de Ter, where it is, next. I had been meaning to go to Sant Pere de Casserres, but couldn’t face planning it at the end of the previous day’s labours and so woke up next day to find, on inspection, that there was no public transport there at all. I could have got halfway out on the bus back to Folgueroles from market, but it wasn’t market day in Vic and even had it been I’d still have had to walk the rest and would have arrived late and then had to walk all the way back too. Really, the only way out was a hiking route, which despite the previous day’s experience I would have been prepared to chance if I’d had time to do it; but by the time I’d made sure of this, I would have arrived just as the museum shut and had to come back in the dark. No. So instead I took the next day’s plan instead, which was to Roda de Ter and l’Esquerda, and because Roda is quite big and new-industrial, I could just hop on a bus to it and be there and back in half a day. So I did.

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, Roda de Ter, 1973

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, 1973, which I must have walked straight over

The view on the left, which I got by hauling up onto a hill to see if I could work out what direction I needed to go in, didn’t impress me much with the town. It seemed a lot as if the most important thing in it might be the trucks. This just goes to show what lies hidden though. You will observe that I have been able to find an older photo of exactly the same vantage, and this is because although all I could see up on this hill was a reservoir and a pylon, when they put that reservoir in in 1973, they found a set of stone-lined tombs that probably dated back to the seventh or eighth centuries. I must have been standing practically on them; I got quite a shock when I downloaded the article from which that picture comes a few days later apropos of something else I’d read by complete coincidence.2 So, as has been remarked elsewhere lately too, people do go on living where the archæology is. But anyway. I saw nothing useful from here, as I then thought, but when I got into the town I found the archæological site well signposted, and furthermore that the route to it led me over this:

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The lower course of this bridge is Roman; the upper is Romanesque, but how would you tell? They just wanted a bridge that worked, and they wanted this because this road is on one of the main routes north through the Pyrenees, the strata francisca.3 There may have been several routes called this, but the one through Roda is predictably mentioned in a lot of its charters; this may be the only place left where I could be sure I was actually standing on that route, and I walked up into the town with a certain kind of connected smugness going on, crossing the river…

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l'Esquerda

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l'Esquerda the same afternoon


… which was extremely high this spring…

… and eventually arrived. This was one of several moments of recognition this trip gave me where I realised I was looking at something for real that I knew only from pictures in books, and you too have seen the wreck of a church just visible there on the blog. But up close it is more impressive even if it is only half there:

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

More below the cut… Continue reading

In Marca Hispanica XI: climbing castles

The top of the Castell de Gurb viewed from inside the ruins of its tower

The top of the Castell de Gurb viewed from inside the ruins of its tower

Of old crumbly castles it is hard to find the trace
(Dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear oh dear no)
Without decent web help you could never find the place
(Dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear dear oh dear no)

The Turó de Gurb viewed from the side of the C25 highway that separates it from the modern community

The Turó de Gurb viewed from the side of the C25 highway that separates it from the modern community, early-day mist still coating it

Climbing castles can be somewhat challenging ripping fun
Last time I tried I couldn’t reach this one!
Climbing castles in Ca-ta-lun-ya
Inca-stella-mento català!

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop

Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed from the castle hilltop, just up from the building dead centre of the picture

You all know how beastly their lords are
Inca-stella-mento català!
They watch, they loom
They drop people in cells

Remains of a cistern (not actually a cell, sorry) dug into the hilltop of the Castell de Gurb

Remains of a cistern (not actually a cell, sorry) dug into the hilltop of the Castell de Gurb

The best thing you can do is pay and say, “well well”1. So!
Climbing castles in Ca-ta-lun-ya
Inca-stella-mento català!

Flag, cross and triangulation point on the site of the Castell de Gurb

Flag, cross and triangulation point on the site of the Castell de Gurb

(Some historical and topographical details below the cut, along with more pictures of course. With apologies to those “Mephistophelian engines of pleasure”, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.)
Continue reading

Seminar XCIII: in the tracks of the Celtic Tiger

So, where have I got to now? According to my notes, this blog’s content is now up to the 7th March 2011. Not exactly impressive given the date today but let’s carry on, because on that day Dr Aidan O’Sullivan of University College Dublin was presenting to the Oxford Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title “Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlement in Ireland: perspectives from archaeology, history and palaeoecology”, and quite apart from the fact that words with four consecutive vowels in are quite fun in themselves, the paper was also really interesting. The basic situation in which archæology in Ireland finds itself at the moment is that up to the economic collapse of 2007, in the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years, it was an incredible growth field, driven by massive road construction projects (not least the infamous one that never quite wiped out Tara) that piled up incredible amounts of new data, of which however there was very little time to publish any. Now that the profession in Ireland is approximately a fifth of the size it was then, and there’s almost no money left, those who are still in jobs like Dr O’Sullivan are trying to get that data out there, and now even as then his means of doing so is a project called EMAP (Early Medieval Archaeology Project) which is putting it all on the web for free. This is, he said with calculated irony, the only archæological project in Ireland still receiving state funding. It includes a database of 2208 sites, dug anywhen between 1930 and 2004, several published gazetters, 241 detailed site reports and a bibliography of 5,500 items, plus a general synthesis.1 The bibliography and the project reports are all up for free download, as are those of their publications so available, and they even have a blog, which I gather is all the rage these days! So there’s that, just for starters; they are colouring in the grey literature, if you like.

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

However, Dr O’Sullivan hadn’t just come to advertise; he briskly got that out of the way first and then tried to give us a balanced synthesis of how archæological thought in Ireland has changed as a result of all this new data coming on-stream, and since very few other people can have read all this data yet, not least since much of it was commercial project reports rather than anything more widely available, this was more or less straight from the horse’s mouth. It messes with quite a few generalisations about Irish settlement and life in the early Middle Ages, too. For example, it is something of a topos that early medieval Irish settlement was all enclosed, be it in a ringfort or a dún, in so far as there’s a difference between the two; but now we have an awful lot of sites that are not enclosed, far from a majority (you may recall that there are fifty thousand known or assumed ringfort sites in Ireland!) but still enough to count. More categorisation is obviously needed, so it seems worth pointing out that some of these supposed ringforts were actually empty when dug; that is, they were not settlement sites. The major work on these sites proposes a distinction of status between double-walled (bivallate) ones and single-walled ones, and places the known ones in a network of relations based on this, but this has come under fire from Dr O’Sullivan since, increasingly, radio-carbon information shows that not all sites in such networks were occupied at the same time, or even close to it, and so at least the earliest ones cannot be related to the others.2 Those that do exist for a long time—and some sites were in continuous use from sixth to eleventh centuries and beyond—tend to have been very much modified over the course of their existence, so they probably had several rôles over that time. There is, however, a shift towards building rectangular forts after 800, at the edge of their enclosures unlike the central circular ones of 500-800, and the univallate ones begin to disappear over the ninth century in a matching fashion.

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Some of the forts that were rebuilt have been found to have deliberately-incorporated prehistoric material buried under their new floors, which presumably had an apotropaic rôle; Dr O’Sullivan wisely said, “Don’t call it pagan, call it ‘customary’”…. This kind of reference to the past was part of the everyday assemblages of tools and utensils that have also been recovered in perfectly normal places and ways. It also shows up in burial of people, where despite the fact of Ireland’s indubitable conversion to Christianity in the early Middle Ages family cemeteries run right through the period in continuous operation from fifth century to twelfth, in some cases; Dr O’Sullivan suggested that people were buried with their land, or their family, and that this didn’t change because of the change of religion; a comment made by someone I didn’t know at the end pointed out that burial of ancestors was one kind of claim that one could mount to landed property in Irish law, which fits with that. Dr O’Sullivan also mentioned a small but significant number of late graves that contained iron-working deposits, which if he could explain them, I have no notes on it. But one of the good things about this paper was Dr O’Sullivan’s willingness to give space to other explanations than his own or to admit that there wasn’t yet one; he was extremely even-handed.

Skeleton being unearthed at early medieval site at Moneygall, County Offaly

After all, it's been a while since we had any dead bodies on the blog. This one was being unearthed at Moneygall, County Offaly, making it a potential ancestor of Barack Obama *so we are told* (see link)

We are also often told to accept that Ireland, where no money was in use, basically paid for everything and counted anything of importance in cattle. The archæology does indeed show a lot of cattle, but also, even from as early as the fifth century, a lot of arable farming too, even in the fields actually around Tara for example, so this needs to be in our picture of the average Irish farmstead too. By the tenth century cattle was actually a lot less important in the deposits than it had been and mills are more and more commonly found from the same time or even earlier.3

A Kerry cow (historic breed)

A Kerry cow, which is a historic breed though I don't know if it's historic enough. Certainly this one is contemporary!

There is also about the idea that the only things in early medieval Ireland that you could call towns were Church sites, with developed craft production and specialisation, markets, and so on. Now the Church is actually under-represented in this new data, because typically people don’t put roads through church sites. From what we know, however, this complexity is certainly the case for some sites, like Clonmacnoise (pictured above) which shows a street plan and so on, but some, even those where we know craft production was going on like Clonfert which was famous as a bell foundry, were largely empty enclosures. Not every monastery was therefore a town or town-like site; this is important as it means that those that were must be considered the exception not the rule. It is true, though, that even at the end of the period, nucleated settlement had basically yet to arise: no villages yet, and certainly nothing like a town as we’d recognise it elsewhere.4 There were a very few exceptions to this, the famous Viking cities of Dublin and Limerick primarily, and the east side of the country was dragged into their economic gravitation to an extent, but the west remained much as it had been much earlier, and would do till the thirteenth century. It’s obviously not, as Kenneth Jackson once called this period, “a window on the Iron Age”, given that there was a lot of change in the eighth and ninth centuries (and had probably been quite a lot in the third as well), but the lack of being bothered with the big changes of the period that other areas take for granted is worth pondering all the same. As with much else that was said here!5

Aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands

I've used it once, I'll use it again: aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands


1. That synthesis to be Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, T. Kerr and L. Harney, Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2004 (Dublin forthcoming). If you want stuff that’s already out there, the project report that that will be based on is online here.

2. That synthesis being Matthew Stout, The Irish Ringfort (Dublin 2000), with which, shall we say, Dr O’Sullivan respectfully but merrily disagreed. You may find his take in “Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling spaces” in Peritia Vol. 20 (Dublin 2008), pp. 225-256, and even if not (I haven’t checked, I admit), it’ll be interesting. N. B. Oxford readers this is currently on the new periodicals racks in the Bodleian Upper Reserve. Now whose fault is it that we’re two years behind?

3. Here you can see the work of Dr O’Sullivan’s colleague Finbar McCormack, “The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland”, ibid. pp. 210-225. I shall expect to see you all at the rack on Monday.

4. See, for example, Ann Hamlin, “The archaeology of the early Irish churches in the eighth century” in Peritia Vol. 4 (Dublin 1985), pp. 279-299 and Wendy Davies, “Economic change in Early Medieval Ireland: the case for growth” in L’Irlanda e gli Irlandesi nell’alto medioevo, Settimane de Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 57 (Spoleto 2010), pp. 111-134, neither of which have particular dogs in the fight but give good accounts of it.

5. If you are hungry for more, Dr O’Sullivan has lately published a related paper with one T. Nicholl, “Early medieval settlement enclosures in Ireland: dwellings, daily life and social identity” in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 111C (Dublin 2010), pp. 59-90. The Jackson reference is to Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: a window on the Iron Age (Cambridge 1964, repr. Llanerch 1999 & Cambridge 2011). I feel slightly ashamed that my alma mater are still willing to find a market for this but am fortified by Professor Jackson’s truly immortal middle name.

Seminars LXXXVI-LXXXIX: four for the price of one

(Written offline between approximately Andorra and the Isle of Wight, courtesy of British Airways, 12/04/11)

Front Court, All Soul's College

Front Court, All Soul's College (the Medieval History Seminar is up the last staircase on the right)

By the time I can post this I’ll be back, and with loads to write, but of course I already had loads to write so something must be done. By a happy coincidence, however, the next few seminars I wanted to write up, all Oxford ones, were one where I had less than usual to say, in each case for a different reason, so I’m going to rattle through them quickly, without prejudice to the speakers I hope, and then move on to the more recent matters.

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing

Fourteenth-century illustration of Einhard writing, from Wikimedia Commons

In the first of these cases, when none other than Steffen Patzold spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on the 14th February 2011, the reason I have little to say is that his paper was all around one core point, argued elegantly and persuasively, but which is if he is right bad news for Carolingianists. His title, belying this rake in the grass with its innocuousness, was “Einhard’s First Readers”, and what he was doing was studying early reception of the most famous work of the eponymous biographer of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli. By early I mean really early, in one case contemporary; the two readers he looked at were Lupus of Ferrières and Walahfrid Strabo, the former of whom corresponded with Einhard, including flattering him about the biography in order to wheedle books out of him.1 Walahfrid, too late to have known Einhard himself, wrote a shiny new preface for the Vita emphasising how reliable Einhard’s testimony was since he had known the emperor himself, and so on. Lupus on the other hand paid little attention to the contents but lauded the Ciceronian style, including completing a quotation of Cicero that Einhard had used in the Vita in his letter of self-introduction.

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard

The current state of the church at Seligenstadt founded by Einhard, image from Wikimedia Commons

Steffen’s contention was, basically, that Lupus understood what Einhard had intended better than did Walahfrid, that the Vita, which is as Steffen showed heavily larded with Ciceronian references, was mainly intended to demonstrate Einhard’s skill with Latin, perhaps by way of engineering a renewal of his importance at court. Steffen even argued that from what the scholars of the time knew of Cicero, especially that he had written his Tusculan Disputations when similarly removed from court on the Classical equivalent of garden leave, Einhard would have probably felt keenly similar to Cicero (and, we established in questions, would not have known about the great rhetor’s rather unpleasant end). It all added up very neatly. The reason that this is bad news for Carolingianists, who have been trying to date the Vita by reference to its contents and their potential contemporary allusions for many years now (a debate I have even seen conducted in filk) is that it makes it likely that the actual content of Einhard’s Vita Karoli is similarly bent to a rhetorical end first and foremost, with the actual historical accuracy we have all hoped for possibly rather less important. In other words, it may just sound good, and never mind the facts. Walahfrid, of course, tells us otherwise, but if Steffen’s right Walahfrid must have been wrong, which is not something one often gets to say.

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774

Gold mancus of King Offa of Mercia, imitating an Arabian issue of 774, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on 16th February, Vivien Prigent addressed the Oxford Byzantine History Seminar to the title, “The Myth of the Mancus and The Origins of the European Economy“. Here he was addressing a very old numismatic dispute about what, exactly, the coins that the sources of the European eighth to tenth centuries call mancusi actually were. They occur first of all in Italy, and were plainly gold and apparently Eastern in some sense but within those brackets many possibilities exist: Byzantine solidi, Muslim dinars, and so on, In 1959 Philip Grierson published an article called “The Myth of the Mancus” that tried to settle this, which he subsequently had to admit was wrong, arguing that the word should be understood to mean ‘defective’ and that they were just low-weight solidi; others subsequently argued that in fact the word derived from the Arabic ‘manqush’, ‘engraved’, and that it referred to dinars struck by the Caliphate after the reform of the Islamic coinage that stopped the use of figural representation on the coins.2 There are to my mind a bunch of reasons that looks convincing: that coins that would fit the explanation exist and have been found in the right places, that this is what King Offa of Mercia apparently strikes at about the time that the term is first seen in England (seen above), and the negative argument that the standard coin in Europe at the time was called denarius in Latin so that the term ‘dinar’ would have been effectively indistinguishable by ear for many – they would have had to have another name and we do have Arabic sources calling these things ‘dinara manqushi’ (forgive dodgy Arabic, or indeed correct it if you like), albeit not till later on.

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Imitative gold mancus of Barcelona struck by Bonhom after 1018

Vivien however argued that everyone has been wrong, and that the metrology and the early Italian instances can only really be explained by reference to Sicilian-minted Byzantine solidi. This certainly does seem to fit the Italian finds evidence, and at least fits the (Italian) metrology better than full-weight dinars, but to my mind still has two problems. One is that he was arguing his weights of coins by taking a mid-point between an ideal weight and a mean weight of finds; coins are of course almost always found worn and so the real mint weight is a matter of assumption, but the ideal standard is thus itself derived from the surviving specimens so this is only slightly more rigorous than the kind of `rounding up’ I have decried in this game before. The other obvious problem is that the term ‘mancus‘ is much more widely used than the distribution of the Sicilian coins, not least in Catalonia where it certainly does refer to dinars, something that we know because in 1018 a Barcelona Jew called Bonhom was contracted to produce them locally and some of his signed coins exist (pictured above).3 If, therefore, Vivien is to be right, and on his own ground he looks convincing, it means that we have to assume that the word quickly got out of Italy, where it meant something quite specific, and then was almost immediately used to mean pretty much any foreign gold coin, everywhere except Italy. That might be arguable (and indeed Vivien argued it), but, nonetheless, in other contexts there is no similar alternative to the dinar theory and fairly incontrovertible evidence for it (some of which I’ve given above). There are ways in which Vivien’s more complicated answer might be more realistic, and we can probably all think of a historian who would caution us against assuming that words always mean the same thing, but Occam’s Razor vibrates like an electro-magnet when brought near this theory even so and I for one am tempted to cut.

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch

19th-century portrait of Bishop Severus of Antioch, from Wikimedia Commons

The very next day I then went to a paper at the Oxford Late Roman Seminar, by one Simon Ford to the title, “Take Us To Your Leader’: the mechanics of ecclesiastical authority in the exilic Monophysite Church (AD 518-638)”. I confess that I did this under a misapprehension brought on by ignorance: I’ve got more and more interested in the Christian sects that began to leave the Byzantine Empire in the era after the Council of Chalcedon after teaching them this term gone, and I understood `exilic’ to mean groups outside the Empire whereas Mr Ford was actually talking about the disenfranchised Church inside the Empire. That’s one reason I have little to say, the other is that the presenter was painfully nervous and had to basically restart every sentence at least once. The effect of this was that as the end of his hour approached he had only got halfway through his text, which had probably seemed a completely reasonable length in front of the mirror, and had to skip to the end missing what seemed as if it was the interesting bit, in which rather than plotting the decline in the status of the kind of patrons that the clergy of the Monophysite Church were able to attract after 518, when they were ruled against (as evidenced basically in the letters of Bishop Severus of Antioch, who seems to be Mr Ford’s main subject), he would have talked about the way that this counter-intuitively forced the exilic Church into the arms of the Emperor, as no lesser patrons remained who might help. The Byzantine double-think involved here, where the clerics of a sect whom you, as Emperor, have removed from office are still important men whose dignity you respect and whose protection you order when necessary, would have been very interesting to hear more about, and it was a pity the paper wound up the way it did.

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Foundations of a hall in the royal palace site at Jelling, Denmark

Then last in this batch, I arrived late by reason of idiocy to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 21st February when Anne Pedersen was presenting to the title “New Discoveries at the Royal Site of Jelling, Denmark”, a site that she has more information on than is yet published and which I wish I’d been sharp enough to hear more about. By the end of the paper I’d managed to gather a picture of a diamond-shaped walled palace complex with one, maybe two entrances, neither on the obvious approach road, with a massive ship-setting of stones from point to point of the diamond. My natural inclination is to be sceptical about monumental alignments but this one is hard to ignore. Jelling fits into a hierarchy of similar sites in Denmark, and is predictably at the top (in a 1-2-3 size ratio with Trelleborg and Aggersborg). It also experienced conversion, as its famous rune-stone (there’s a 3D visualisation behind that link) more or less informs us: Dr Pedersen was not able to end the speculation about what might have happened to King Harald Bluetooth’s illustrious forebears who should, presumably, be in the site’s burial mounds but aren’t—one is empty, one emptied—but the church is hardly central and exactly how the site was articulated and how people moved through it may be the next thing to start trying to work out so as to solve questions like these. Whatever the answer is, it can be unusually short-term; the fixtures at all three of these sites appear never to have been repaired or replaced, we’re looking at a single generation in which power was expressed through a new form of building that then apparently became redundant. While they were up and running, though, there were people there: Dr Pedersen had emphasised the almost total absence of finds in the palace precinct, and as Rosamund Faith pointed out in questions, this must imply management of the site, unless no-one ever came there. So there’s lots still to work out, even after lots of digging.


1. My abiding impression of reading Lupus’s letters (in the translation of Graydon W. Regenos as The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966)) is that this was the key motive behind all of Lupus’s letters, and that his correspondence can be divided into three phases, (early) you’re so great and I hear you have a copy of [x] I’d like to borrow, (middle) your copy of [x] is quite safe with me and will soon be sent back, honest, and (late) wah no-one will lend me books why is the world so cruel? I may do him the injustice of rapid reading though, it was a while ago I formed this impression. I assume that you know Einhard’s work, but in case not the translation of resort is now that of David Ganz, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), replacing the older one of the same title by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1969, repr. 1984 and often thereafter). The still older one of Samuel Turner is online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook here.

2. Philip Grierson, “Carolingian Europe and the Arabs: the myth of the mancus” in Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire vol. 31 (Bruxelles 1954), pp. 1059-1074; repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), III with important addenda. Cf. among others Anna M. Balaguer, “Parias and Myth of the Mancus” in Mario Gomes Marques & D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area, 3: a symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 499-543.

3 On these and other imitative mancusi see now Lutz Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. `Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit” in Reinhard Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Klüßendorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hannover 2004), pp. 91-106, a reference for which I must thank Dr Marcus Phillips.