Tag Archives: sex

More cheese than adultery

A page from the thirteenth-century Tumbo of the monastery of Sobrado de los Monges, Galicia

A page from the thirteenth-century Tumbo of the monastery of Sobrado de los Monges, Galicia, preservation context of today’s featured charter and sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Happy New Year! I’m afraid my seminar reports are still queued awaiting certain vital feedback before the next one can go up, so instead here’s something I’ve had ready to write for ages. The subject header is, perhaps sadly for our societies, not a phrase one hears often, but happily for you my readers, it is completely appropriate to the subject of this post. That subject is a charter that I read while pulling together a comparative section for my chapter in the volume Allan Scott McKinley and I are editing from the Leeds conference sessions we used to run, now in press.1 The chapter has a substantial section setting pre-Catalan documentary phraseology against that used in its contemporary Asturias-León. This, of course, takes me into the territory inhabited by the expertise of Wendy Davies and Graham Barrett, and in fact I’d heard Graham talk about this charter at Kalamazoo some time ago and then again more locally and recently, as it forms one of a group of documents that tell us that certain counts of the Leonese court took it upon themselves to start bringing public suits against adulterers, adulterers who then often had to pay off the quite unpayable fines by giving lands to the counts. Kalamazoo papers are short, and one has to be selective about what one includes, and that is the only reason I can imagine why Graham would not have told this story himself then—and he may have done in his thesis, even now nearing completion—but, there is more than he told and that more is substantially CHEESE. What do I mean? Well, read this translation.2 It’s a bit rough, because the original is not the smoothest, and I’ve only modernised a few of the names where I’m sure what modern forms would be, but you’ll get the idea.

In the name of the Lord. I, Letasia, am infamous to many, indeed it is most well-known to many people that I mixed myself up in adultery with a slave of Hermenegildo, Ataulfo by name, who was holding a tenement of his, and we ate four cows of the animals there and sixty cheeses in secret and they led me before the judge, namely Bishop Froarengo. And the selfsame judge decided that I should pay for those same cows and cheeses twofold, and I was to make over eight acceptable cows and a hundred and twenty cheeses, the which judgement left me well-pleased. On this account it has pleased me, Letasia, for all of this crime which I have professed before the selfsame judge, and thus I pay to you Hermenegildo the whole inheritance I have in the villa where my father Cristobal or my grandparents Abolino, Deodatis and Violicus lived, in the territory of Tamara, that is, land, fruit-trees and all kinds of fruits, meadows, pastures, water-meadows, waters with all buildings or whatever is for the use of men. Thus, so that from this day and time today it be erased from my right and handed over and conceded to your right and you may have power fully in God’s name. If, however, any man, what I do not believe shall be brought about, should come against this my act to disrupt it, let him pay you two pounds of gold, and you have it in perpetuity. This little charter of payment or agreement made the 8th Kalends of September, Era 896. Letasia, in this testamentary or judicial scripture, have made the sign of my hand. Sisibert, witness. Savarigo, witness. Assiulfo, witness. Daco, witness. Ebregulfo, witness. Mirello, witness. Ostouredo, witness. Quirico, witness. Ermorico, witness.

I mean, I grant you there are all kinds of interesting implications of language and social practice here. It’s more or less built out of formulary phrases without much attempt to get them joined up into sense, but obviously they have been chosen for the job even so. Letasia’s husband is not mentioned; one might expect him to be, really, if there were one, which suggests that there wasn’t, but the crime is still adultery. Nonetheless, she was not actually required to compensate for the adultery, which was presumably not considered worth punishing; it would have been hard to argue, perhaps, that it had cost Hermenegildo anything except a few hours of his slave’s labour (ahem) but for the, well, inconspicuous consumption of four head of cattle and sixty cheeses. I mean, how long was this going on? It’s not a one-off, is it, and even a four-off involves enough cheese per person that they would have been pretty easy to catch. Letasia may indeed have been pleased by the judgement, as she could according to the Visigothic Law that still ran here have been put to death or enslaved herself, although not to Hermenegildo but to her own heirs.3 Nonetheless, though she had got away lightly, she had eaten more than she cared to pay back four times over, which gives us some idea how much of a hit Hermenegildo had been able to take without, apparently, noticing. In other words, we’re looking here at lifestyles of the rich and infamous in ninth-century Galicia, and those lifestyles on this occasion included a certain amount of sexual impropriety and some seriously big amounts of cheese. We have proof!


1. To my current understanding this can be cited as J. Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & A. S. McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. I’m quoting this from Antonio Cumbreño Floriano (ed.), Diplomática española del periodo Astur. Estudio de las fuentes documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910), 2 vols (Oviedo 1949), doc. no. 68, but it has been more recently edited in Pilar Loscertales de Valdeavellano (ed.), Tumbos de Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes, 2 vols (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 75. The text as Floriano gave it is: “In Dei nomine. Ego Letasia manifesta quidem sum multis, set et multis manet notissimum, eo quod commiscui me in adulterio cum servo Hermenegildi, nomine Ataulfo, qui eius bustum tenebat, et comedimus de ipsis animalis IIIIor vaccas Lxa caseos furtim et adduxerunt me ante iudicem nomine Froarengum episcopum. Et ipse iudex iudicavit ut parierem ipsas vaccas et ipsos caseos in duplum, et facerem octo vaccas placibiles, et centum viginti caseos, quod Iudicum bene mihi complacuit. Ob inde placuit mihi Letasia, ut pro omni ipso furto, quod ante ipsum iudicem manifestavi, pariarem tibi Hermenegildo omnem meam hereditatem integram quam habeo in villa ubi pater meus Christovalus habitavit sive tionis mei Abolinus, Deodatis et Violicus habitaverunt, in territorio tamarense, id est, terras, pumares et omnia genera pomorum, pratis, pascuis, paludibus, aquas cum omnibus edificiis vel quicquid ad prestitum hominis est. Ita ut de hodie die et tempore de meo iure abrasa et tuo iuri sit tradita atque concessa et plenam in Dei nomine habeas potestatem. Si quis tamen homo, quod fieri non credo contra hunc meum factum ad irrumpendum venerit pariat tibi auri libras duas, et tibi perpetim habituram. Facta cartula pariationis vel placiti viiio Kalendas Septembris, era DCCCa LXXXX VIa. Letasia in hac scriptura testamenti vel placiti manu mea signum feci (signum). Sisibertus testis (signum). Savarigus testis (signum). Assiulfus testis (signum). Daco testis (Signum). Ebregulfus testis (signum). Mirellus testis (signum). Ostouredus testis (signum). Quiricus testis (signum). Ermoricus testis (signum).”

3. That said, Letasia’s case, as an apparently-freeborn woman with no husband messing with somebody else’s slave but clearly at her will and with no intent to marry him, is hard to find an exact ruling for in the Law. The closest fit, whence I get the enslavement idea, seems to be Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), online here, transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code, 2nd edn. (Boston 1922), online here, Book III Title IV cap. xiv.

Leeds 2010 report I

Since I’ve already been to one other conference that I’m already opining about on other people’s blogs, and since I there plugged all heck out of this blog (not that this seems to have brought any great slough of visitors) it’s probably time I wrote something about Leeds. This year’s was a good Leeds despite the weather; I’ve said before now that bad weather can ruin Leeds because everyone is crammed inside small overheated rooms and can’t find each other, but although it bucketed down for much of the conference I didn’t find that to be the case this year. I had the impression that there were fewer people there than usual, in fact, although there were as many sessions as far as I can tell so I guess it was non-presenters who decided they couldn’t spare the money this year. Fair enough I suppose, but those who were there had a good time I think.

1. Keynote Lectures 2010

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea, c. 1200

The theme of this year’s Leeds was travel and exploration, and I did as usual and basically entirely avoided the theme except for the keynote lectures. These were also about the only point when I didn’t have timetable clashes, too; for some reason the early medieval sessions were unusually conflictual this year, which I think may also reflect that there were an awful lot of them. Anyway. The keynotes were both good, and the first of them was Patrick Gautier-Dalché speaking to the title “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages”. What he was addressing here was the fact that to us, often, a medieval map looks worse than useless, used as we are to measurable scales and Mercator’s Projection. In fact, he argued, although maps were largely representational rather than scientific in the Middle Ages, they were far from useless. Some might be just for looking at, in the old picture worth a thousand words scenario, because a map, even a distorted one, is still a very good way of encoding geographical information.1 Then, they could even be useful for actually getting to places, if you approached them in the right way. The Map of the Atlantic Sea by Gerald of Wales above, M. Gautier-Dalché claimed though if the image above really is it I see no sign of this, is marked up with not just the pilgrimage routes through Western Europe, but the distances between their various stopping points. As long as you could find someone to put you on the road to the next destination, therefore, you would still be able to use the map to budget your provisions and journey time and maybe carry some very basic local information. In cases where precision navigation was a bit more essential, to wit at sea, maps perhaps served as aides-mémoire more than literal graphical information; a reminder of what a certain coastline looked like when you approached it, what the hills round the port are like, and so on. Not much use for doing it first time, but perhaps quite useful for doing it first time in say, ten years. The last example was maps’ use in judicial cases; unlikely, you might think, but apparently Columbus’s maps were produced in court in 1535 to prove that he had actually discovered, and indeed drawn, the coasts of South America. So a map might be a teaching tool, a contemplative resource, a planning aid, a piece of judicial proof, and was above all an interpretation, but Mercator has perhaps spoiled us to their possibilities.

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

The second keynote was given by Dionysius Agius, and was entitled, “‘In these Seas Horrors beyond Count Befell [Us]: travel in medieval Islam”. This was less of an argument and more of a tour of the evidence for medieval Islamic travel, which was fine by me as I know very little of it beyond the names of Ibn Battuta and al-Mas’Udi, and it was also accompanied with some fabulous, and indeed very presentist pictures, illustrating continuities of construction technique, goods trafficked, routes and so on, not least the stitched boats of which an older example is shown above. He talked us through the trade routes, both overland and overseas, without leaving much time for detail on any of them, just telling us a good story or two, and you know, this too is a skill, especially for a keynote on a specialised theme before a general audience. I did sort of know, for example, that the ends of trade routes across desert zones (and indeed the middle of them) tend to shift according to where the nomads who run the entry-points to them have currently got their shops set up, but it was as well to be reminded in the same few minutes as having the seasonal cycle of the currents of the Indian Ocean explained, there being a large part of the year when it’s far easier to go one way than the other, which is then reversed for another equally large part. After all, some people were plotting to get goods all the way along both routes. The other thing that I technically knew but which was well linked up here was that, at the period when Islamic ships were breaking out into the Indian Ocean (and indeed further) they were far from the only ships sailing it; indeed, as Professor Agius pointed out, they were sufficiently outsized and outnumbered by Indian and Chinese vessels that sometimes those groups were induced to provide warship escorts to keep away fleets of cannibal pirates (or so the travel narratives earnestly tell us, anyway). Whether the stories of Sindbad the Sailor really have a medieval context may, as we have said here before, be doubted, but Professor Agius happily brought them in anyway to illustrate the sort of stories that were probably told. So, not afraid to indulge in anachronism, and perhaps even Orientalism, but not to a bad purpose I thought and an entertaining lecture to attend.

105. Texts and Identities, I: Merovingian Queens – Narratives and Politics

Fifteenth-century illuminatiion of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

Fifteenth-century illumination of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

This was where the clashes started. I probably wanted, in retrospect, to go to 104. Popular Politics and Resistance in East and West but I hadn’t fully absorbed what I’d be missing (Robert Moore insisting there was no popular heresy that counts in early medieval Europe, Andrew Marsham saying what were apparently really interesting things about rebellion against the Umayyads and Bernard Gowers, whom I already needed to meet, talking about peasants, which I am very sorry I missed but may at least be able to get a copy of) until I’d run into one of the speakers from 105 and assured her I’d be at her paper. A man of my word, therefore, I was there for the following:

  • Julia Hofmann, “Betrayal or Portrayal? The Depiction of Fredegund and Clovis in Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum V. 39-49″. I mainly attended this so as to have seen Julia Hofmann and Julie Hofmann in the same room, in fact. Here the argument was that whereas Gregory of Tours was usually hopelessly partial in his depictions of Merovingian court politics, which is an obvious problem for working out whether he can be trusted to tells us about them, in this particular bloody and skulduggerous episode of family in-fighting he appears to have loathed both protagonists about equally, which suggests that it may even be a fair depiction. I’m not convinced we’d think the same if it were Liutprand of Cremona, myself, though I do understand the great emotional need not to write off so much of our evidence for the sixth century as Gregory represents.
  • Erin T. Dailey, “Merovingian Polygamy”, a title that drew me in but disappointed rather as it largely concluded that there probably wasn’t really any Merovingian polygamy per se, and did so largely by refusing to nuance the category of concubine, which as a couple of people pointed out to me afterwards needs doing because sometimes concubines’ children become kings. So, while marriage may be an important distinction (and valuable security for the wife, as long as the mother-in-law wasn’t Brunhild) it isn’t a total one, and the fact that there’s only ever one queen at a time doesn’t remove the need to ask how far queens are different. Only twenty minutes, I know, but he was pressed on the matter in questions and didn’t get much further with it.
  • Linda Dohmen, “The Adulterous Queen in Early Frankish Historiography”. Full disclosure requires that I admit that I’ve known Linda for ages and it was her I’d promised to come and see, but I thought this genuinely was a good paper, carefully balanced between spice and analysis. It also did something useful by balancing Gregory of Tours out with other sources covering the same era, in their equally biased ways, the Liber Historiae Francorum and ‘Fredegar’.2 What stories like the classic one about King Chilperic, coming home early to Queen Fredegund fresh out of the bath, catching her unawares with a slap on the rear and she telling off the lover she assumed it was rather than the husband it actually was, illustrate, other than in some ways there’s not much difference between a sixth-century court and a twentieth-century soap opera in terms of plot, is that a lot of people were prepared to get into risky situations for a chance to get with the queen, and not, we presume, simply because Merovingian kings selected irresistible brides Balthild not withstanding,3 but because it was a position of power; queens could bring legitimacy to a pretender or an arriviste, could be grounds for launching a coup or mounting a rebellion and could, also, be vital tokens of continuity when those events were unrolling for other reasons. Here as often happens we need a way to express this sort of position of power often occupied by women in the Middle Ages, power which is not the same as agency, which they often didn’t enjoy (Fredegund as with so much else an exception here), being unfortunate prizes to be contested between men who certainly did, but still incredible focuses of… what? One almost wants to use ancient anthropological terms like tabu, did I not know that modern-day anthropologists of my acquaintance (and indeed modern-day feminists) would probably kick me in the constructs for it. But the word ‘power’ doesn’t really get there, and it’s very hard to discuss without accepting the sources’ language of objectification. So yes, this one is still making me think.

209. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: reassessing politics and culture in the 10th century

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

My colleague Rory Naismith and I have been at the same conferences several times now, and at Kalamazoo we were somehow scheduled against each other, which has happened before too. This not being the case this time, I told Rory I would go to his session (221. The Anglo-Saxons and Rome, II: routes, coins and manuscripts) and then gathered that one of its speakers had pulled out and that this one was on in the same time-slot… I think I’ve still seen more of his papers than he has of mine but he definitely has the moral high ground for now. However, I struggled to find the session I was going to instead and so arrived in a terribly full room slightly after the beginning of…

  • Theo Riches, “Once Upon an Iron Age: telling the story of the long 10th century between Carolingians and ecclesiastical reform”. Some day I hope Theo will write a follow-up to Tim Reuter’s contribution to the feudal transformation debate; I’ve heard Theo discuss this and his Germanist’s perspectives are really interesting.4 However, he keeps letting some excuse about that not being his actual subject get in the way, and so this was not that paper but instead a likewise interesting one about bishops and ritual. He was picking up on a recent piece of Steffen Patzold‘s about the use of ritual in Ottonian court society, as propounded by Gerd Althoff, which makes the very useful distinction between the rules of the game and manœuvres in the game, and the need to be aware which the evidence is showing us.5 This fits well with my objections to some of the French school of dispute scholarship that emphasies competing norms; sometimes, I like to point out, people are actually abnormal, and this was implicit in Theo’s discussion.6 Theo also wanted us to remember the audience, and that it is not necessarily passive; these rituals may be worked out beforehand, but they are pointless unless they are seen, which means that they are also open to interpretation. Patzold sees a change in bishops’ rôles in these contexts in the 820s, from potestas to ministerium, moving from being in charge of their own subjects to the whole of God’s people, with a consequent distancing from politics in detail. Theo suggested seeing this as move from being a player of the ‘game’ to being an umpire, and that the 820s are the point when episcopal lordship starts to become qualitatively different. This was music to my ears as my very first Leeds paper suggested that bishops in my area were lay lords plus, with extra means of recourse and a few corresponding restrictions, but essentially doing the same things;7 Theo’s take here, and Steffen’s behind it, may give me the means to nuance this. I also really liked Theo’s statement in questions that “Canossa breaks deditio, you can’t use it any more” (deditio being a ritual of simulated self-abasement to demand forgiveness from a ruler for disobeying him). This is one of many ways in which the contest between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII overdrives medieval politics, he’s right, things do break in that contest, and arguably not least the Holy Roman Empire…
  • Steven Robbie, “The Duchy of Alemannia in the Early Tenth Century: an ethnic community?” followed Theo, which is hard enough to do, but Theo speaks quite loudly and Steven speaks quite softly; also, it was after lunch and the room was hot and stuffy. I fear Steven may have lost some of the attention of his audience for what was quite a subtle take on the question of the Stamme, the core ‘ethnic’ territories that are supposed to underlie German duchies in a certain old-fashioned sort of historiography. Steven illustrated that this won’t work for Alemannia, which is reconstructed pretty much as needed in the political circumstances of each age and only maps to later Swabia in fairly transient ways. When all of Alemans, Thuringians and Swabians are supposed to be the same ancestral community, you realise that ethnogenesis is a game that many can play.
  • Simon Williams, “Playing to the Gallery: reinterpreting Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis in its contemporary context”, did indeed play to the gallery in as much while I may some day hear a Liutprand paper in which the speaker does not tell the story everyone’s favourite Italian scandalmonger reports about Queen Guilla hiding a valuable belt where only a woman could, this was not it (and neither, of course, is my report of it). However, he did do some interesting stuff pointing out how quickly Liutprand’s work circulated, well within his lifetime too, so even if he was initially writing for a small audience that wasn’t what he revised for. Simon in fact suggested that the target audience was Bishop Abraham of Freising and perhaps Bishop Dietrich of Metz as well as Bishop Rather of Verona, and that we underestimate Liutprand if we see him as a marginal player. Liutprand writing about you, in other words, was something like being mentioned in Tatler; probably unpleasant and trivial but unfortunately read by people whose good opinion of you may be important some day…

Coffee break next but I find it combines badly with adrenalin, so I didn’t, because next was nothing less than my paper!

301. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” is actually one of my better pieces of work, I think, and compares three contemporary Catalan counts’ reactions to what I’m now arguing is a resurgent Carolingian royal self-assertion by King Lothar III. This is kind of part two of my Haskins paper from 2008 and I hope to have them both in process soon so I’ll say no more here unless people are curious enough to ask.
Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

  • Levi Roach, “The Voice of Æthelred?” explored the group of lengthy royal charters of King Æthelred the Unready in which he apologises for the misdeeds of his youth and makes compensation gifts. Levi was arguing that the imagery employed here is sufficiently consistent, across several archives and many scribes, that these documents must represent an actual statement of sorts by the king, even if he probably didn’t choose the actual written phrasing. Charles Insley, who gave a not dissimilar paper a few years ago,8 was generous enough not to point this out in questions, but Levi rallied to what I think is actually new ground in reaction to a question from Steven Robbie about how long it can possibly take to be sorry; these documents after all span most of a decade. Levi’s response was that the only way it all makes sense is a rather paranoid policy of penitence till the bad stuff stops happening, which after these charters stopped was shifted onto the whole kingdom under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan; in other words, this court’s response to crisis is to escalate repentance until the handles come off and it all goes to Hell… Which, even if it’s overstated, gives one to wonder how neutral a perspective on things anyone at Æthelred’s court could possibly have maintained… What price groupthink? and so on.
  • David Woodman, “The Rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon Past: a Middle English Rhyming Charter of King Æthelstan and the Beverley Cartulary (BL, MS Additional 61901) in context”, lastly, dealt with a rather lovely piece of Middle English fabrication in which Beverley Minster tried to claim foundation by the selfsame rex totius Britanniae in the fourteenth century. The result looks and reads nothing like an Anglo-Saxon charter, and nor does much of the stuff it’s put into a beautiful cartulary with, but it still won them several cases. David set out exactly who the enemies were in this case, and explained the success of the claim not in terms of the cluelessness of the panel judging but of opposition between the abbey, Archbishop Neville of York and Richard, Second of That Name, Kynge, but one was still left with echoes of the story in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the eponymous publication’s lawyers successfully argue that beauty is truth so the prettier story is automatically true, as one would like rather like Æthelstan to have been one of those congenial souls

Now. I want to talk to you, Internet, about the Problems and Possibilities strand and what’s happening with it, but this is long enough already. I’ll do it in a separate post later on. Instead let it be noted that I managed to miss two separate receptions where free wine was available, somehow, mainly to get lightly drunk with such fine upstanding members of the Internet as Another Damned Medievalist and Ealuscerwen, in the same place but not with Gesta, which seems to be the usual way of things, and a few people who have real names, and I went to bed merry and exhausted.


1. Something that all of us who were in Siena and now also commenting at In The Medieval Middle seem to be agreeing on; a conceptual map of that city might be a lot more use than a strictly geographical one.

2. Pronounced, as I once heard Roger Collins say in a paper he was giving on the author in question, “with the inverted commas silent, like the P in Psmith”.

3. In fact, it surprises me that in a session about Merovingian queens not only did Balthild only get a passing mention, but her supposed seal was completely omitted. It’s got to be part of any discussion about how queenship is visualised, hasn’t it, especially since if it is what is claimed, it’s actually a source generated by or at least for the queen. I begin to wonder if there’s a perhaps a case for asking medieval historians to ask themselves, “is there a good reason your paper is entirely text-based?” And I am not just saying this because it’s lewd, I am saying this because I think we were already dancing near the lewd and it would have been a way to let it in without risking sounding as if one actually wanted to talk about sex.

4. Referring to T. Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Referring here to Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997) and S. Patzold, Konflikte im Kloster. Studien zu Auseinandersetzungen in monastischen Gemeinschaften des ottonisch-salischen Reichs, Historische Studien 463 (Husum 2000).

6. See, if you should really want to, my review of Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005) in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2006), pp. 124-125.

7. J. Jarrett, “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What to Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, available to you as J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), pp. 289-313, online here.

8. His webpages mention a chapter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in P. Barnwell and M. Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Brepols 2009), which will probably be worth consulting on this if it’s actually out; a rapid web-search reveals publication dates of 2008, 2009 and ‘in preparation 2008-2009′, but the publishers seem less sanguine. In fact, damn, I need that book even though I heard half the papers…

Seminary LI: `brothers’ in Byzantium

Due to reasons of travel idiocy I missed the antepenultimate Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this term, and although I made it to the penultimate one on 3rd June, Professor Claudia Rapp presenting on “Ritual brotherhood in Byzantium: origins and context”, so did Magistra and it it is very much more her thing than mine. One could say, eruditely, that complex questions of masculinities and historians’ attitudes to them were involved which she is far better educated in teasing apart than I am, or you could say, as she put it when we discussed it later, that she is the Internet’s go-to person for gay monks. I’m not about to argue with someone who can claim that sort of status, I tell you. And therefore she has done a proper write-up of it, which you should go and read, and I will therefore only do a summary so that you know roughly what was at issue.

Icon from St Catherines Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

Icon from St Catherine's Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

There is in Byzantine liturgical texts, 62 of them in fact, a rite called `adelphopoiesis‘ for allowing two men to become spiritual brothers, supporting each other above all others, cohabiting and sharing their property. It basically established an artificial kinship tie, but unlike the other two ways of doing this, marriage and sponsorship of baptism (that is, godparenthood), it doesn’t preclude marriage to others and doesn’t give any inheritance rights so doesn’t disenfranchise the family. (This latter, it should be said, came into question in the latter part of the paper.) Professor Rapp has written about this before, but was returning to it after some time away.1 One of the reasons it’s an issue is that the controversial John Boswell included adelphopoiesis in his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York 1994) as a cover for gay marriage, or at least a marriage-like arrangement. (Hello Byzantium? This is the 21st-century UK and California calling, we need to talk to you about wording… ) I haven’t read Boswell’s book so I don’t know if he suggests that this is what it was invented for or merely that it was allowed to perform this function, but this is what Professor Rapp was initially writing against. (You can find Paul Halsall, no less, speaking for Boswell’s defence with due respect to Professor Rapp, online here with an account of Boswell’s wider controversy and the sometimes vicious reaction it has engendered.)

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

In this paper, however, Professor Rapp was expanding on something that she only touched on in that earlier paper, the monastic context in which she believes the rite developed. Certainly she had lots of evidence for this kind of association, between hermits and disciples, between pupils of such hermits, and generally quite a lot of formations with which one might have been led to believe that the Lives of the Desert Fathers is full once you start looking. She also looked at building layout (as shown by archæology of monastic sites like Pherme, above), shared burial and general lifelong friendships being recognised in sources and attempted to place the whole thing in a much wider context of male homosociality that none of us, I think, would deny were it not raised in this context. Speaking as one whose work is fundamentally based on the idea that the fact that some people in the Middle Ages got on with some other people but didn’t get on with still others has historically explanatory value, I am all for this, but I still didn’t quite think she’d bridged the gap between the desert and Constantinople five centuries later. Perhaps this is just because she had so much evidence from the desert that it swamped the rather thinner trail to the later centuries, but it seemed to me that there was room for other antecedents and not enough ways to distinguish the results of this ceremony from ordinary lifelong friendship. The liturgy is evidence of a serious thing, yes: but we can’t use other male-male life collaborations as evidence for that same thing because that same thing seems to be defined by the liturgy, you see. If you argue that the liturgy is only recognising a pre-existent thing you wind up having to explain the liturgy as aberrant and thus losing all your evidence for social recognition of whatever it is you think is going on. There is more that could be said here and Magistra says much of it: here is a taster.


1. Claudia Rapp, “Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium” in Traditio Vol. 52 (New York City 1997), pp. 285–326.

Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence?

Both a cry for help and a blatant attempt for more search hits, you may think, but this keeps coming up in Julia Smith’s book, and I thought some of you reading, probably Magistra but perhaps someone out there who hasn’t yet made themselves known, would know the answer.

Julia’s book is not ashamed to remind the reader, both in a focussed chapter and wherever else it comes up, that in the early Middle Ages women were the victims of a social order that made them inferior to men, both in philosophical terms and in terms of actual rights and capacities. This no-one would argue with and only a chauvinist would say it’s not necessary to mention it so much. I am not that man. But she also repeatedly says that female slaves and lower-class women generally were liable to the victims of sexual exploitation by those of higher rank. Similarly, she talks about young men being sexually active before marriage, and yet stresses female isolation from men before it; the implication that resolves this contradiction is that concubinage with slaves or peasant women is common. Is it? Where do we get that from? The book is constructed with only primary references, and some directed further reading at the end; this is not covered there as far as I can see. So what’s the evidence?

You see, it’s not that I think this didn’t happen, because it’s clearly possible; but I don’t know that we know it did. I remember reading Pierre Bonnassie’s essays on slavery and him saying that we must assume male slave-owners exploited their female slaves as sexual partners, and even that this could be a meaningful relationship, but he did say we must assume, implying that there is little evidence. And it begins to smell a bit like the all-men-are-potential-rapists paradigm. Again, I don’t doubt that this happened; but if the only evidence we have is penitentials setting penances for it, then it might be no more regular than bestiality, which many of them also pay a lot of attention to but which presumably wasn’t that common. And other work on slavery I’ve seen has tried to suggest that the slave was seen as a kind of animal anyway, so it would almost be the same thing to the medieval mind, though I agree with Pierre Bonnassie that Christianity recognising slave marriage and their right to worship must humanise them away from this. Also, I can’t imagine how people make the switch when someone they know has to become a slave for some reason or other, or when a slave is freed. They must always be people however disadvantaged, surely, and it’s not as if that prevents people being beastly (ha! do you see what I did there with my modernistic judgemental tendency?) to their fellow humans.

So, what’s the evidence for these sex slaves? Just penitentials and normative sources? Are we just going on Balthild’s success in being a slave queen (because there aren’t very many other examples like her, are there?) Or is this all just assumption and mirrors?

(No images in this post, because given what search terms I’d have to use, I really don’t want to do it at work…)


Works referred to here are Julia M. H. Smith, Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500-1000 (Oxford 2005), and Pierre Bonnassie, P., “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59. I think you could find the slaves-as-beast paradigm in Wendy Davies, “Servile Status in the Early Middle Ages” in M. Bush (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery: studies in legal bondage (Harlow 1996), pp. 225-246, but I don’t have my notes to hand to check and may be doing her a terrible disservice, which I shall attempt to repair by talking up last night’s paper as soon as possible…