Tag Archives: St Andrews

Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church

Maintaining this hectic momentum is obviously difficult but I thought it might be time to try and eat in a tiny bit more to my backlog of seminar reports. This one is slightly unusual, as it involved going back to Cambridge and returning to Oxford in the course of a day, something I’d usually try and avoid, but the cause was Alex Woolf of St Andrews giving the Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture on 30th April 2012 in Hughes Hall (no relation), and as an often-acclaimed Alex Woolf fan I might have tried to make that even if he hadn’t been speaking to the title, “The Churches of Pictavia”. Since he was, I was there, and therefore, despite a recent run of hostile comments about my daring to study Scotland with my mere one-eighth Scots blood, I’m going to write about it.

Slide from lecture by J. Jarrett, "The Kingdoms of the North", British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Slide from my lecture, “The Kingdoms of the North”, British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Now, I have views on the Pictish Church, as you might expect, I’ve even explained them in lecture theatres myself albeit to a rather less exalted audience as you can see above, but my views are not very deep-seated. On the other hand they are not traditional, either. The traditional view of the Pictish Church would be that Bede knew what he was talking about and that half of Pictland was converted by missions from St Columba’s Iona and the other half by missions from St Nynia’s Whithorn, but that the southern half was more or less grabbed by Anglian Northumbria, to whom the Pictish king Nechtan map Der-Ilei entrusted the task of resourcing his new royal Church after he expelled the Columban monks around 717, whereafter the Church in Pictland seems to have remained roughly under royal control, with perhaps a centre at St Andrews (then Kilrymont), maybe later moved to Dunkeld, where its maybe-single bishop was based when not visiting the various monasteries that actually handled what passed for a ministry here.1 You can doubtless see a rather colonial narrative developed there in which the inhabitants of Scotland would be godless heathens but for foreign intervention, and predictably things seem to have been a bit more complex than that. Thanks to James Fraser we now have some doubts about where the Columban missions actually went, thanks to Thomas Owen Clancy we have doubts that St Nynia existed at all, and there’s a whole variety of older work pointing out other churches and founders around the edges of early Christian Pictland: Maelrubi at Applecross, Ethernan on the Black Isle (edit: of May), a Brigidine cult later claimed for Abernethy that might, if its association with the Pictish king-list has anything behind it, be the first `royal’ church centre….2 One could add more. Also, thanks to Thomas, it’s not clear that King Nechtan was actually in control of all of Pictland when he made his suit to Wearmouth-Jarrow, or that the expulsion of the Ionan monks was fully effective or durable, so I think that we have to think of several churches in Pictland: an Ionan one perhaps with a brief pause when they were subsumed into royal charge, an Anglian one that may likewise have later been combined with a royal one maybe based on Abernethy or St Andrews or both, whatever the grouping was that Whithorn apparently claimed in the south and a bunch of other smaller ones, single cells or clumps with their own founder legends.3 Mappings like that of James Fraser below thus seem to me a bit hopeful in their coherence, even when so unambitious.4 All of these groups were probably getting their episcopal ministry from outside quite often, I suspect, from Whithorn, from Anglian Abercorn while that lasted, from Gaelic Lismore, maybe even from Iona, though St Andrews and Dunkeld both have intermittent records of bishops in the Irish Annals in the tenth century so by then the united kingship may have been keener on centralising the Pictish or Alban epispocate near their new centres at St Andrews and Forteviot.5 It’s all so hypothetical, though, and I learnt much of this so long ago and may remember it so badly that I’d happily change any of this for a better-argued point of view; after all, it’s not so long ago that I saw Thomas Owen Clancy confront the questions, “when, where and what for were the churches of the Picts?” and conclude that the only safe answers were “during the Pictish period”, “in Pictland”, and “for the Picts to worship in”, and if anyone knows it’s him.

Map of Columban influences in seventh-century Pictland, from James Fraser's Caledonia to Pictland

Hardly an ambitious set of claims and yet still I quarrel…

That said, Alex has this habit of making long-vexed questions look unexpectedly simple, so you might wonder whether this was one of those occasions. And I will rediscover this with you, my readers, because though I remember being gobsmacked by this lecture, I was also somewhat blind-sided by a professional faux pas I later realised I’d made and besides it was ten months ago now, I just don’t remember what was said. BUT I HAVE NOTES. So, if they can be trusted, it went something like this. Alex spent some time setting up Pictland for us as a basically-British polity, using the analogy of the carrion and hooded crow which are actually the same species but differently identified in highland and lowland Britain because of a varied colouring more common in the north. This works on many levels, I love it. Pictland’s not some weird alien space, in other words, but a joined-up part of northern Britain. Alex suggested that parallels might be found between the stone sculpture of Iona and that of Dunkeld, fitting nicely with the putative royal take-over of a Columban start but suggesting much more of a Columban reach than I’d have allowed for; he added another founder saint (I told you one could) at St Vigeans, where there is of course yet more sculpture; and he stressed that despite its various possible divisions this Church shared the same literate and artistic culture as its Irish and Saxon brethren, something that Martin Carver’s excavations at Portmahomack also pointed towards by turning up a Pictish symbol stone and styli and possible evidence for parchment-making on the same site.6 These guys may not all have been singing off the same hymn-sheet or singing the same hymns at the same time (Alex elected not to talk about the reckoning of Easter…) but the books out of which they read their hymns would have been decorated much like those anywhere else in Northern Britain. It’s a while ago that the late Julian Brown observed that we may only think we have no Pictish manuscripts because we don’t think there are any but it remains true; there are a good few possible contendors.7

Book of Kells, fo. 27v, showing the four evangelists in their animal significations

Pictish beasts? Brown’s controversial contendor was none other than the Book of Kells, of which this is fol. 27v, from Wikimedia Commons

So far so much nuance; more characteristically iconoclastic in their problem-solving ability were a number of references to later Scottish churches associated with mounds, prompting the suggestion that we have few churches evidenced because worship was done outdoors at old meeting sites, though it is also true that the archæology of early possible church sites in Scotland is basically unknown bar Forteviot and that the one guaranteedly Pictish church site we have, Portmahomack, has no such forebear, at least not very nearby though it’s an area busy with Pictish stones. (I note, though, that the recently-discovered probable monastic site at Fortingall shares its location with a very very old yew tree…) In other respects, however, the Pictish Church probably shouldn’t have been very different from those northern formations with whom it shared artistic tendencies and likely therefore liturgy (since they would be in the same books). The resource concentrations that implies, however, must have taken time to amass, and so the whole realisation of this may have been late, later than Columba, later than Nynia, still in formation perhaps under Adomnán, Columba’s biographer who signally did not claim Columba as apostle of the Pictish kingdom.8 The Church’s ability to do intensive lordship probably attracted the attention of the kings (and here one can find a very similar argument in John Blair’s theory about the decline of minster churches in Anglo-Saxon England) and thus after the take-over we might think of German-style Klosterpfälze, albeit on a lesser scale.9 The chronology of this seems a little uncertain to me in retrospect: I’m sure I’ve heard Alex argue that the Pictish symbol stones are post-conversion so if it signifies that Portmahomack is in an area rich with them must there not be some kind of church structure before it? Isn’t that already really very close to the supposed take-over period? It is likely that I have failed to record the full subtlety of what was being suggested here. In any case, there was evidently so much variety in this ecclesiastical set-up that it is, alas, quite possible that our nice, new and all-but-unique type-site may actually have been unusual.

Three-quarter view of the St Andrews sarcophagus as diplayed in 2006

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives, as displayed in 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

You may be forgiven for thinking that it would take a somewhat impressionable cast of mind to depart from this basically-reasonable and plausible-sounding lecture `gobsmacked’, and OK, that is perhaps true. This is because what I haven’t told you is that in the final minutes Alex brought in the St Andrews Sarcophagus.10 One of the enigmas about this fine article of Pictish sculpture is that its iconography appears to be partly Persian, which takes some explaining. There have been explanations, largely involving motives transmitted in textile, which is sort of fair enough but what’s it doing here? Alex has what must be the answer. But because the Hughes lectures are published, and I’ve already here anticipated half a dozen of the things you might want your copy for, though hopefully only so much as to sharpen your Pictophile appetites, I will leave this one secret so that you have to get hold of it. It’ll be worth it….


1. One might seek such a view in works such as Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A. D. 80-1000 (London 1984), J. MacQueen, St. Nynia (Edinburgh 1961, rev. edn. 1991), or Alan MacQuarrie, The Saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish Church history A. D. 450-1093 (Edinburgh 1997). Perhaps the key introduction would be Kathleen Hughes, Early Christianity in Pictland, Jarrow Lecture 1970 (Jarrow 1970), repr. in eadem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 38-52, which was of course the prompt for Alex’s lecture subject.

2. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-115; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The real Saint Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; P. A. Yeoman, “Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 75-91; Sally Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display” in eadem (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 36-62 at pp. 42-50; and Abernethy and Dunkeld I have from Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967), pp. 84-90; there must be better references but I found it there in my notes and don’t fancy hunting for more.

3. Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (2004), pp. 125-149.

4. Fraser, Caledonia to Pictland, p. 110, though to be fair he does also observe, pp. 108 & 109: “It is a leap of faith to conclude from such scattered notices [as those he has just gathered] that Nér and Banchory were Columban monasteries in seventh-century Pictland….”

5. Henderson as in n. 2 above; for Forteviot, see Leslie Alcock, “Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal church and palace” in Susan Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 211-239, though there must by now be something more given recent digs. Ah yes: websearching reveals Nicholas Aitchison, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal centre (Stroud 2006), though I’ve not seen this myself.

6. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Jarrow 2008); for wider context see Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 297-398.

7. Julian Brown, Northumbria and the Book of Kells, Jarrow Lecture 1971 (Jarrow 1972), rev. as “Northumbria and the Book of Kells” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 1 (Cambridge 1972), pp. 219-246; repr. in Brown, A Palaeographer’s View: the selected writings of Julian Brown, edd. Janet Bately, Michelle Brown and J. Roberts (London 1993), pp. 141-178.

8. Adomnán, Vita Columbae, edd. & transl. Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Anderson as Adomnán’s Life of Columba (London 1961), rev. M. Anderson as Adomnán: Life of Columba (Oxford 1991), II.32-35.

9. John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 323-341; for Klosterpfälze see John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in early medieval Germany, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series, 21 (Cambridge 1993).

10. Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus.

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (3 of 3)

The second evening of the St Andrews conference I’ve been reporting, Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, held the conference dinner, which was really rather good (though we paid separately for it), and then the next day was the last. I packed at some speed before the papers started, and as a result, it subsequently became clear, left my phone charger plugged into a wall—bet you were beginning to wonder about that—though I didn’t notice this till the battery actually ran out on the last day of Leeds, by which time it was a little late to do much about it.

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

Anyway, the third day was only a half day and in that half, Ann Williams discussed the alleged predatoriness of Earl Godwine upon the late Anglo-Saxon Church and found the evidence somewhat thin—apparently she plans to rehabilitate Archbishop Stigand next—and Rosemary Morris took us though the considerable intricacies of the tax evasion, or avoidance—when you can get the Byzantine Emperor to sign off your tax reduction, much to the annoyance of his own officials who are trying to enforce payment, the legality of your tactics are fairly moot—practised by the monasteries of Mt Athos in the eleventh century. She challenged the Western diplomatists to come up with anything as impressive as the chrysobull of Alexios Comenos; give me time… Then in the second and last session Matthew Zimmern told us about Stavelot-Malmédy, a house which developed a split personality to match its dual site in the ninth century, for reasons that once more could be apportioned on the one side to royal interests and on the other to those of the familia of Columbanus.

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The conference and that session were closed out, saving the summary, by Leanne Good who was presenting on the foundation of the Bavarian (now Austrian) monastery of Kremsmunster. It only occurred to me some time after I’d left the town that although I’d been talking to her avidly about the edition of the place’s charters, which I met through Lay Archives, she may have been confused as I had jumbled it in my head with that of Kaufungen, which is a rather different place. Sorry, Leanne! Anyway, because Kremsmunster was a frontier foundation on a border with ill-defined territories owing notional loyalty to a non-Christian polity there were lots of things that leapt out at me from this paper that sounded like my area; granted, her non-Christians were Slavs and Avars and mine were, well, if only I knew but in some cases at least Muslim, but there are parallels. Not least, Tassilo of Bavaria was doing this exercise partly so as to pitch himself as a mission leader and Christian ruler in the face of Carolingian pressure on his independence; the situation isn’t quite the same with Guifré the Hairy, who is basically free of such pressure, but the parallel still gave me some added perspective on what Guifré may have been trying to do with his monastic foundations.

It also involved some interesting speculation on the audience for the foundation document, presumably the court, which in turn raised questions about what kind of pressures Tassilo was trying to deal with among his own nobility. It is as we were later to hear in Leeds; sometimes, the strange things that people do tell you most about them. Of all the papers we heard this was the one I most wanted a copy of, for my own purposes, and I must in fact mail and beg one. Warren Brown summed up, reminding us how much we’d heard about how the sources themselves interfere in the history they record, but also reminding us that so do our own interpretations. Should we really be surprised when we hear of cleric-kings, of family monasteries or monasteries with no monks, or is it just our modern perspectives messing up our expectations? And of course, though we had seen monasteries several times as political tools here we had also seen powerful communities asserting their own agendas, and ideally our pictures of how monasteries and secular powers interacted in the early Middle Ages would always remember that both parties to the interaction had some input.

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

All of this, anyway, will go some way to explaining why I got so much out of this conference. I ordinarily avoid themed conferences, partly because one of the things conferences do for me is tell me about stuff that I otherwise had no idea about, but I think that this one genuinely pushed all participants to think new things about their material and its possibilities, so I shall reconsider this policy now. I also got to meet a number of people of importance for my own work and, I hope, several new friends, and any excuse to go to St Andrews is a good one. So I came down on the train quite cheerful (though if Roy Flechner is reading, I should like to say once more: that bus would have got us there in plenty of time). As soon as I was back near a computer, however, I had to send literally twenty different e-mails as upshots or in preparation for the next conference, as a result of which my home and so on hardly saw any of me before I was off again, with the blog running on automatic and a suitcase with room for spare books as I headed for Leeds. The blog of that will follow in due course, but first, some light historiographical reflection… (Stay posted.)

P. S. Also, Sarah Tatum would like me to encourage you all to submit your work to the European Review of History, which is apparently short of medieval material at the moment. And, you know, there are worse places to be seen…

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (2 of 3)

The island of Noirmoutier, first site of the community of St Philibert; perfect for isolation, sea breeze and Viking raiders...

The island of Noirmoutier, first site of the community of St Philibert; perfect for isolation, sea breeze and Viking raiders...

The second day of the St Andrews conference just mentioned dawned comparatively kindly since proceedings didn’t start till the civilised hour of 10 o’clock, which suits me very well, leaving time between closing time and breakfast time for enough sleep and then for enough reading and tea to become coherent by the time anyone tries to talk to me. And the way the programme unrolled, it was a while before I thought of anything to say anyway, but Christian Harding‘s study of the peregrinations of the monks of St Philibert, who once they were shifted from their original coastal house at Noirmoutier during the Viking Age went through about six more locations before finally settling at Tournus many decades later, did raise some questions. He was seeing the monks and the gifts from the kings by which they were able to move as political tools in the rivalry between the Carolingian kingdoms, starting as a loyal outpost in the Breton march where, as we’d heard yesterday, Carolingian control was never as tight as might be wished, and then being competed for between Charles the Bald and Pippin II of Aquitaine his nephew on that border. This raised questions about whether you could really shunt a community around like that, or whether they had serious problems settling and begged more and more land, where, in short, the initiative was in all these translations, questions that could have been argued for much longer than we had.

St Edgwads Llanegwad, Wales, 10th or early 11th century structure with later modifications

St Edgwad's Llanegwad, Wales, 10th or early 11th century structure with later modifications

In the second session Thomas Owen Clancy talked about the leadership of the familia of Columba (not Columbanus this time) and Alex Woolf addressed the question of how the Welsh Church ran before the Normans got to it, focusing on the secular nature of its church communities, who seem to have operated by dividing the church property between them in private tenure. This is something that, though the Normans saw it as something in need of reform, I could easily recognise from the way that the pre-Catalan Church uses deacons and priests as unofficial managers operating from mother churches, and which Anglo-Saxonists might recognise as a bit like the `minster hypothesis’. As I said to him, Alex has a particular talent for taking a tangled argument and suggesting a brilliantly simple solution, and here again he had chosen one good way of doing this, which is to wonder if the situation was really weird or if what’s going on was what was going on in other places under different words. He also raised the important point that we often identify church sites with enclosures as monasteries, but the fact that there was a monastery at a site doesn’t necessarily imply that the site is a monastery.

The modern church of San Vincenzo al Volturno seen through the ruins of the Carolingian abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

The modern church of San Vincenzo al Volturno seen through the ruins of the Carolingian abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

In the session after that Federico Marazzi, who is leading the continuing dig at the huge Italian monastic site of San Vicenzo al Volturno, gave us an extensive introduction to the site, which raised among other things the peculiarity that the huge abbey church appears to have been accessible only via the cloister, and therefore to the monks and those they admitted; the locals, such as they may have been, must have worshipped elsewhere on the site. Melanie Maddox then told us about how Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, used not just force of arms but forces of clerics in her reconquest of the North-West from the Danes and Norse, by translating saints’ relics into new churches she’d set up, not least St Peter’s at what might have become a new Mercian capital at Chester.

The Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, one of the establishments local sources consider a 'monastery', from Wikimedia Commons

The Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, one of the establishments local sources consider a 'monastery', from Wikimedia Commons

In the last session that day, all certainties were temporarily dissolved. We had begun the conference, most of us, reasonably certain that we knew what a monastery was and that, fundamentally, there was a Benedictine ideal in play for most of our period to which places either conformed or did not. Now, Tom Brown told us (more) about Ravenna, where drawing the line between monastery and not-monastery is made harder by a plethora of tiny little private cells with a population of maybe one or two who really lived elsewhere, more like Egyptian hermits’ cells than Benedictine abbeys except for the fact of their urban location. Monasticism can, as he said, mean a lot of things. But this was nothing compared to what Albrecht Diem unleashed by what started as an innocuous comparison of Gregory of Tours’s Vita Patrum to Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of Columbanus (told you we’d be back there). He stressed that almost all our sources operate by asserting some kind of continuity with the time of writing, even if it’s only a recognisable location, and that the present therefore shapes the past in its reporting, but then brought out specifically how Gregory’s and Jonas’s times and agendas bent some of our primary established facts about the ecclesiastical set-ups of their times. Gregory has a range of ascetics from all walks of life doing their various things, but the noble bishop is still the boss; but Jonas makes the ascetic the boss, even telling kings what to do and immune from their attack (both legally and by miraculous intervention), and the interesting thing is that he’s using Gregory as he does it; the parallels Albrecht drew were pretty damning. Someone out there can tell me where the maxim about not dismantling your master’s house with his own tools comes from (yes, OK, so can Google, it’s Audre Lorde), but here is Jonas at the very least rebuilding his master’s house with exactly the same equipment. Take that, Loltheorists!* The upshot is that we really don’t know a lot about the politics of these people’s times even though it seems as if we do. If the Vita Columbani is at least partly literary construction, how much do we really know about how Merovingian kings operated? Almost only what’s in Gregory, who makes them seem like illiterate buffoons because of his basic “trust the educated bishop” message. And for an encore, in questions, Albrecht went on to question the historical existence of Saint Benedict of Nursia and whether the Rule of Benedict even existed as a text before the Carolingians asked for a copy. I’m not joking. Piotr Górecki summed up with the air of a man slightly shellshocked, and urged that a book should come of all these papers; I later gathered that this is indeed the plan. If so Albrecht’s paper will be the kind of reading that makes the floor seem worryingly flimsy beneath us.

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king


* Yes, I know that’s nothing like what Lorde meant, I’ve even read the original essay, and I will willingly admit that I am inappropriately using it to describe a contest of wits between two privileged members of a white male élite; but nonetheless they are politically opposed over where the control of monastic life lies, and one of them is repurposing the literary work of the other to completely invert his point. I think it stands up.

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (1 of 3)

Right! I’m really back now. And I used up all my buffer while I was away so had to actually write stuff. To help me with this, the world broke my catch-up lie-in with two early morning doorbells, the second of which woke me from a dream about how I’d forgotten to get up in time and had lost the whole day and not fed the child yet (the child gets his own breakfast quite happily but my subconscious is not satisfied with dull facts), and this left me deeply confused about what time it actually was. I could wish I’d been feeling cleverer when I wrote this, because there are agendas to be considered in the reportage. Quite apart from the basic complications of saying things about others in public, one person I’ve met wanted not to be reported without seeing it first, which is quite understandable but not my usual practice, and it will be difficult to write anything at all without endangering other bloggers’ anonymities. So if any of the below is incoherent all that’s why. Anyway. I think I have about eight posts I have to write. This is the first, and is about a conference I went to in St Andrews. Before I got very far trying to write this up short it became clear that it wouldn’t stay that way, so instead of one Leviathan this is the first of three posts, one for each day with the last half-day also having a round-up and the shout-outs. Okay!

View of St Andrews from St Rules Tower, by Joel Afferty

View of St Andrews from St Rule's Tower, by Joel Afferty

St Andrews is one of my favourite towns, to visit at least; I might find it a bit slow to live there, but I keep hoping to try anyway. I have friends there, some of the people in the profession I would consider friends even if they weren’t colleagues and some others not in the profession, and I always find stuff there to make me think. This time the stuff mainly came from a conference organised by two postgraduates under the name of Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, and it must be said that they did an awesome job. Maps, programme, equipment, accommodation and free-flowing socialisation all just seemed to unroll without any major problems, and these guys could surely be making better money as PAs somewhere, though I hope that they don’t take it. The whole programme was full of good stuff. You can read it at that link so I won’t replicate it here but just remark on a few of the papers that really made me think.

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

The first session was on the existence or not of the town in early medieval Ireland. It is widely argued that there was nothing in Ireland that scholars of other areas would recognise as a town until the Vikings fortified Dublin, and the debate isn’t even about that, really. The question is whether, until then, monasteries fulfil a similar function as centres of population, production and exchange. It seems to me that this is essentially subjective. A Roman villa could fit that description. Is Clonmacnoise up there any bigger than a Roman villa site? How large does a place like that have to get before it stops just being a farm with a religious function and perhaps some legal jurisdiction? This is a semantic field really and I prefer to deal in the archaeology of what was there, which is why I prefer the approach Martin Carver et al. have taken with Portmahomack in Scotland where such questions have essentially been secondary. Anyway. There’s some useful introduction at the link under that image if you want to know more. Charles Doherty argued that the important churches of Armagh and Kildare had political jurisdictions by virtue of being associated with kings and particular kingdoms from early on, but they eventually had to settle for essentially spiritual jurisdictions as politics left them behind. Against this Colmán Etchingham argued that a lot of the evidence for non-agricultural activity, especially assemblies, at these places is based on faulty equivalences between modern Irish and Old Irish terms that have shifted their meaning. Agreement was not general with either speaker, but these two have apparently been sparring for a long time and were able to disagree like gentlemen and be friendly to all, which is exemplary. It did make me think, however, that by their criteria any of my subject monasteries are towns, which makes no sense in a landscape with cities in it such as I have. I just don’t think it makes any more sense in a landscape where the cities are missing; there’s just a sort of social articulation that doesn’t happen in Ireland till later, though it’s worth saying that Dr Etchingham thought that the paper I mainly have this idea from was all kinds of wrong.

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

In the second session Roy Flechner introduced us to the questions around Irish kings who were clerics, clerics who fought in war, monasteries that went to war against each other and in general a rather different attitude to war and its combination with the life spiritual than we usually think of even for the Middle Ages. Then David Dumville gave a paper about the monastery at Landévennec in Britanny. I suppose many people know that I have old personal issues with Professor Dumville but this was he at his best, sharply discriminating with the evidence and imaginative with its solutions, as well as crystal clear in delivery. Landévennec is important because so much that we know about early medieval Brittany comes from the abbey of Redon, which is right on the border with Francia and very much a colonising enterprise, whereas Landévennec is right on the western coast in the Celtic-speaking zone. Unfortunately it also got trashed by the Vikings several times, its monks became fugitives and the documentation from it is basically missing, so it also contrasts with Redon by mainly being an archæological site. Professor Dumville looked dubiously at the precept that the monastery later claimed to have got from Louis the Pious via an abbot whose name appears merely to be Breton for `good monk’, and which has been used to argue that Louis put Brittany under Benedictine observance, his doubt largely because it’s simply unproven that the Carolingians ever controlled that far into Brittany. He suggested that any such success was instead driven from the bishopric of Tours, and that the best division to make in Brittany might not be Frankish/Celtic, native/incomer, or whatever, but pro- or anti-Tours. I think that has something going for it but obviously the fact that sometimes there were dukes or kings opposing the Carolingian kings needs to be in there too, though we don’t really know how much they controlled either.1 The other thing that came up in this paper was the fact that there is, despite the social dislocation that they caused, very little Viking settlement evidenced in Brittany, except right up in the north-east near Coutances. This caught my ear because Coutances is very near Bayeux, where we were discussing Viking settlement only a short while ago, and Alex Woolf later informed me that the Norse names in that area are in fact predominantly Hiberno-Norse, suggesting that the invaders came from Ireland. This may be where the Benjamin Hudson theory one commentator on the previous post mentioned is coming from.

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The third session opened what was going to become something of a theme of the conference, the monastic family of houses left scattered across Europe by Saint Columbanus. Opening the theme was Sarah Tatum, who argued that the Vita Sadalbergae, ostensibly the saint’s life of the foundress of Langres and Laon, should really be seen as a piece of writing intended to stress their connection to the Columban familia, as opposed to the foundress’s own family who only get the endeavour into trouble. I have to say that I thought she made her point pretty convincingly. The other paper in that session was given by Alex O’Hara, who was looking at conflict between Columbanus’s house at Bobbio and local aristocracy in the tenth century (which is, as I’ve said to many people these two weeks, where it’s at). Here the interest for me came in the questions when Federico Marazzi suggested that the real deal here might not have been the landownership exactly, but who had the lordship of lands that had been public within the monastery’s endowment. As the royal ability to control the fisc waned, that is, this might have come up for competition in a way that it hadn’t before. This of course entails knowing more about the fisc… but I think there’s something in it, even if only one case of many. Damn, that makes this a feudal transformation post

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

The last two papers were perhaps the most challenging for me specifically. They were given by two of the people involved in the Lay Archives Project, of which I have oft-times spoke, and first up was Warren Brown who was emphasising again what he has said before, that the formula or model documents that we have lurking about in various early medieval collections tell us about a much wider range of things than those documents that usually survive, which are naturally enough usually about land (because that, too, survives longer than most other goods).2 The formulae preserve all kinds of unusual operations a scribe might have to record, but it is often argued that they are relics of an age when document use was different. One set that’s definitely not, as Warren was here emphasising, was that written up by Notker Balbulus, the Stammerer, monk of St Gall and biographer of Charlemagne, d. c. 912, which Warren therefore used to explore how lay people were using documents in Notker’s time.

One of the things that came out of this, among much else that might be of interest to few, was that one of the things Notker thought his pupils might need was a document whereby an old or infirm person made a donation in exchange for his upkeep for life, not to a monastery or cathedral necessarily (which are of course the ones we have) but to a layman. This is one of the things which, counter-intuitively, the Lay Archives project has repeatedly come up against, that really when we can see laymen using documents, they do just the same things as ecclesiastics do with them, albeit here saving body rather than soul.3

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The second paper in that session was given by Hans Hummer, who was looking at monasteries as centres of lordship. The interesting thing there for me was his pointing out that really, though churches do not die in usual circumstances and are indeed not vulnerable to the divisions of inheritance, you still don’t necessarily want to try and shunt all your family lands into a church you control so as to keep them together, as has been suggested people did, because churches are vulnerable to other authorities, kings, bishops, reformers, and so on. You never wholly own a church, because it has a place in some wider hierarchy that’s outside your control. (Unless, as in the Catalan case, the bishops are all your cousins…) Because there is a body of work that contends that Merovingian- and Carolingian-period nobility, among others, did just this, the counter-perspective was useful.4 I wouldn’t like to guess which is more predominant but I like to have people considering alternatives.

The papers were given a closing review by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was erudite as ever, and then we dispersed to various locations for dinner that, St Andrews being the size it is, all wound up being the same one. I got drinking with Anglo-Saxonists, which can be dangerous, but lived to tell the tale and here I have been telling it. More will follow…


1. The top-down version of this story is told, as Professor Dumville graciously conceded, about as well as it can be told in Julia Smith’s Province and Empire: Brittany under the Carolingians, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 18 (Cambridge 1992).

2. Warren has said this where others can read him in Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366.

3. See for Catalonia this case put in Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74.

4. The place I was most convinced by the original argument was Régine le Jan, “Convents, Violence and Competition for Power in Seventh-Century Francia”, transl. Jinty Nelson in Mayke de Jong & Franz Theuws with Carine van Rijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 243-269, where the case is argued specifically for nunneries, but I was told at this very same conference by the estimable and charmingly irreverent Sarah Tatum that her thesis has thrown up a number of problems with le Jan’s examples, so that while the theory itself remains plausible actual evidence of it happening is somewhat lacking.

Leeds report 1: Monday 7th

I’ve been thinking about this series. I want to say what I did, saw and learnt, even if only briefly, but I also want to give a very general idea of what it’s like to ‘do Leeds’, some of which would not be related to this year; for example, in previous years one of the best things about Leeds has been having a seriously substantial portion of European medieval studies sprawled on the same lawn sunning themselves and whomever you might want to ask about something in your material being right there if you know what they look like. This year, it mainly rained and so the canonical lawn-sprawling wasn’t an option, and yet it definitely belongs in any general post of Leedsness. So what I will do is I will save that one till last, and do the detailed reportage on IMC 2008 in a post for each day here first.

I came up to Leeds from London on Sunday night, carrying far more books than I actually had time to read and one that I intended to sell which was the heaviest single thing I took either way except for my bicycle, which I have over the years found a damn sight more convenient and less frustrating than relying on the city’s buses. It’s not that they’re irregular or unreliable, it’s just that in Leeds the whole traffic system seems to be set up to drip-feed the vehicle flow through its traffic lights in sections of fifty yards, so you actually spend more time sitting at lights than you do moving. This also applies to bikes of course (yes, I believe that, I’m aware many don’t, they will be first against the tarmac when the truckers go berserk), but it still places one’s journey under one’s own control and so on. On the other hand, the route up to the IMC venue is almost entirely uphill, and is quite easy to get confused about in witching-hour mist.

I tell you all this, not as part of the general detail I just claimed I was saving for elsewhere, but because it explains why I missed the keynote lecture this year. I was later up, and very tired, than I might have been, and this year unlike last year, they were not doing admission to the keynote by ticket. This meant that though I could have crossed the campus to get there in technical time, there was no guarantee that I would get in, and the theme didn’t really interest me, so I didn’t bother. Instead I milled around and met people as they arrived, including a very few of my session contributors, which was reassuring, and then got coffee and made my way to the second session.

I had had some trouble the previous night choosing what to go to this year. The conference has a special theme each year, and although there’s no requirement to conform there is an effort to focus by both contributors and programmers that means that that theme is strongly in evidence. This year’s was the Natural World, and this is problematic for me for two reasons, firstly that I am mainly a historian concerned with human endeavours and while you can’t separate that from the natural world, I’m still post-natural in focus (argh! I’ve been reading and listening to too much po-mo waffle) in as much as I’m interested in what happens to the natural world after man has been let in to ruin it. And what sources have we got where he hadn’t, anyway? That’s the other thing of course: for anything with such a strong component of thought-world and mentalités, you have to use at least high medieval sources because there’s so little to go on before, so most of the papers on these themes were focused too late to interest me. I did mean to make it to at least one session on-theme, but in the event more relevant or shiny things distracted me. By and large, however, I could tell that the programme was thinner than usual for me because I didn’t have to choose between two alternatives, not because there was nothing to do.

So I sold the book I’d meant to sell, then bought four more from the same guy which cost me all I’d gained and two fifty extra, but which were still lighter and more useful in combination than what I’d shed, and then for second session I went to this one. Here we got David Rollason saying how strange it was that scholars of Insular and Carolingian palaces respectively tended to ask different questions, the latter in particular seeing them very much as space controlled by the palace owner but Insular scholars tending to see them as meeting places where the king or whoever had to negotiate. Sarah Semple brought this out in the Insular context by relating palaces to settlement and pointing out that the link isn’t always immediate, and Alex Sanmark gave the paper with the best pictures talking about prehistoric sites in Norway which seem to have been seasonally-occupied meeting places. I can’t help wonder who kept them from falling apart the rest of the year though: if I was holding a big meeting of the local pre-Vikings, I’d want to be sure the hall was safe and impressive-looking before I arrived…

Then there was lunch, and then it was showtime. The first of my Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic went well, mainly because Wendy Davies, talking about the length and elaboration of her Spanish charters and whether that mapped to anything useful about the status of those involved (answer, roughly, yes, but apparently only in donations not sales), and Bernhard Zeller, talking about the way that the St Gall scriptorium was organised with the same scribes working not only on each others’ books but also each others’ charters, had a perspective on each other’s material that let them answer each other’s questions in a way that led to a very good discussion. Alaric Trousdale also did sterling work making what could have been a terribly narrow subject interesting (and amusing) to all and I was very pleased with the way that this one just sort of made itself. A good start. The second one I was less happy with, mainly because I was presenting in it. The laptop I’d brought had developed a new and exciting way of crashing, the paper proved to be too long and had to be cut on the fly, which is much more obvious with a presentation because you have to click through things, and I felt that I’d handwaved and not made my impact; I was very grateful to Simon MacLean for asking a question that I could basically answer with the conclusion I’d glossed in order to finish quicker. Charles Insley‘s paper was much better, as we have come to expect, and Allan Scott McKinley had me worried at first but eventually revealed what he was talking about in such a way as to leave us fascinated at the end, which I suppose is better than the other way round. Allan had also worried me by turning up only fifteen minutes beforehand; this, he claims, fails to beat his previous record of five minutes late for his own paper, and therefore I shouldn’t even have started getting worried yet… He claims he had to leave out a lot because we’d already said it, which only goes to show that circulating papers in advance can help; I was the only one this year who did… Anyway, there was again good discussion but I was quite glad it was over and rather annoyed with how much better I’d wanted my paper to be than how it actually turned out.

I had wanted to get along to the Gender round table, if only to see if Eileen Joy talks as she blogs, but inclement weather, distance and the proximity of friends and free wine all overcame me and I prowled bookstalls and gossiped instead. I have in any case been able to read about it instead, which is perhaps better than attending would have been for me. And so the evening ended drinking with St Andrews people, a theme that would develop over the week, largely because there were so many of them there: one St Andrews medievalist claimed they’d brought down eighty people, which can seriously not be true, but it was hard to avoid them if one had had any reason to; I didn’t, some of them are my friends and the others I was happy to meet. So yup. First day down, late to bed, not much sleep, lots of new inspiration, a few books, thick head in the morning, this is how it goes…