Tag Archives: Wales

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In which Chris Lewis tells it better

A lightweight one, to get the wheels back on the road! I’d like to dedicate this post to Ted Buttrey, who knows what I mean when I say this: there’s a particular form of academic achievement that is not often recognised as highly as it should be, which is the joke in the footnote. This is a special achievement, not just because one is always up against a word-count and it has to survive, fitter than some other reference you might have put, but also because it then has to satisfy the referees and editors that it’s worth leaving even though academia r srs bizniz and so on. If it does, though, it’s one of the few things where endnotes rather than footnotes are preferable, because it adds distance between feedline and pay-off. For example, when I was putting this virtual exhibition together, I was reading quite a lot because as you can see it’s not about something I really know much on myself, and when I found in Dick Doty’s history of the Soho mint a sentence saying that a whole history could be written from what Matthew Boulton’s correspondence revealed about the world of eighteenth-century art production, with a reference, the faff of having to find my way to the right place two hundred pages further on actually made it funnier when I found that the reference was merely, “But not by me.”1 And on the morning of the day when I first drafted this post I had just found Chris Lewis doing similar, and the passage in question is Quite Interesting so I thought I’d just quote it all.2 You don’t mind, right? The pay-off is in the second footnote, so you have to read to the end.

The origin of the name Englefield… has to be sought… in an English adaptation of the territory’s Welsh name, Tegeingl…. The processes by which ‘Tegeingl’ was Anglicized as ‘Englefield’ are perhaps illuminated by Gerald of Wales in the course of recounting a laboured joke which he alleged illustrated the witticisms of the Welsh. The joke hinged on the coincidence that Tegeingl was also the name of a woman who had slept with each of the two princes, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother, who ruled the territory of Tegeingl in turn. Its punchline was a supposed saying from that time that Dafydd succeeded his brother as prince: ‘I don’t think Dafydd should have Tegeingl. His brother’s had her already.28 At first sight Gerald’s shaping of the story seems to be directed against the Welsh (dirty-minded, not funny), but it also acts in a more sophisticated way to score points off the English too. Teg was the Welsh for ‘beautiful’, and Teg-engl might be (deliberately) mistaken by a quick-witted Anglo-Welsh bilingual, such as Gerald, as meaning ‘the beautiful English(woman)’. Read like that, Gerald’s unfunny joke may have concealed a clever dig at the English: by ruling successively over the province of Tegeingl the two princely brothers had taken turns with a beautiful Englishwoman.29 When English speakers first reached north-east Wales, they may well have heard the Welsh name of of the territory as Gerald later would, as teg eingl, and understood its proper name to be Eingl, particularly appropriate (if misunderstood as a homophone) when they settled in part of it.

28  Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae in Works, ed. J. S. Brewer, James F. Dimock and George F. Warner, 8 vols, RS 21 (1861-91) VI, 153-227, at pp. 190-1.

29  Walter Map would have told the same joke better.

How true those words are, even today. More serious content shortly I hope!

1. Richard Doty, The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London 1998).

2. C. P. Lewis, “Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 130-143 at p. 138.

Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England

I’m sorry, did I say ‘the next week‘? Apparently I meant ‘the next month’. Wow, that’s never happened to the blog before, I do apologise. I have, for what it’s worth, been trying to secure the short-term future of my sanity and balance by actually seeing some bands, the medium-term future of history at my college by marking admissions tests and the long-term future of your humble blogger by offering myself as employee to people, and of course if anything comes of that you will hear in due course. But in the meantime, this is the only evening at home I shall have for a while even now so I should put some blog up, and that blog should be seminar reports. Given how immensely behind I am with these, I will skip one that I’ve no useful expertise with, Robert Hoyland speaking to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research on 7th March 2012 to the title, “Theophilus of Edessa and the Historiography of the 7th-8th-Century Near East”—sorry, Byzantinists and early Islamists—because although it had certain detective elements to it as Professor Hoyland was on the trail of a lost source, I knew almost none of the names involved and don’t read any of the languages and I have no means of evaluating how significant what he was saying was. Cool stemma diagram though! If you’re eager to know more I can revisit it, but otherwise I’ll move on to stuff I do have opinions about, those being my erstwhile colleague Emma Cavell, addressing the Late Medieval Seminar at the I. H. R. on the 9th March with the title, “Did Women Cause The Fall of Native Wales?” and Stephen Baxter, Chris Lewis and Duncan Probert addressing the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there on the 14th March with the title, “Profile of a Doomed Élite: the structure of English landed society in 1066″.

View of Clun Castle

Clun Castle: capital of intrigue circa 1281!

Emma’s area of expertise is the March of Wales in the time of the Norman kings of England, and the Marcher lords who made their fortunes there, and even more specifically, the women in the Marcher lords’ families.1 What she had for us on this occasion was that, while becoming yet more expert on these people, she’d come across a number of letters to such women, Maud de Braose wife of Roger Mortimer (the first one) particularly, from local lords on the other side of the frontier, and what these letters were reporting was nothing less than military intelligence about the composition and motions of the army of Prince Llewellyn of Wales. This comes from a time in 1281 when Roger was out on campaign on that frontier because Llewellyn had just fortified it. Maud, meanwhile, was at Clun Castle and apparently running the command post, this information presumably going back out to Roger and the lords getting information back and so on. Unlike my period, we only have the letters in here, whereas I’m more used to having letters out, but nonetheless there she was at the centre of a fifth-column spy ring and she wasn’t the only one; Howys leStrange (good name madam!) is apparently reported commanding the defence of Welshpool when Llewellyn attacked, and the text that tells us this also tells us that while she was doing that she took care to hide all the documents in the castle. Yeah, I’ll bet! That is a relatively rare mention of such activity in the chronicles of the time, but the letters make it clear that there is more to tell. Emma has been working this up since, including details of a juicy family conspiracy between these groups, and I believe it’s now in some kind of print process, so you may be able to find out more soon!

Now, I thought this was pretty exciting myself, spies, spymistresses, treacherous compacts made on battlefields between mutually-cautious relatives and the last-but-one flash of Welsh independence briefly burning bright in the pan, but Emma got quite a grilling from Judith Bennett, no less, about the role her title had given the women and whether it was fair, and whether this evidence told us anything the Paston Letters don’t, and various others likewise sang up saying such behaviour wasn’t unusual in their area. I’ve had these questions (the ‘it’s not unusual’ sort) myself and I’m never sure what they’re supposed to achieve other than perhaps to imply that the questioner’s area of expertise is somehow more developed than the speaker’s.2 Well, great, but the paper isn’t about that area, so, can we talk about what was actually said perhaps? Anyway, you will see from my description that I thought it was good stuff and maybe you also think it sounds like that too.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

Then the next week I was back in the same building to hear about a different native population being subjugated by the Norman yoke (MAYBE), slightly earlier, as Stephen Baxter and his team told us about the first results from the Profile of a Doomed Elite project that he is running at King’s College London. What they are trying to do is to properly, scientifically, electronically and most of all accurately count, identify, locate and describe the landholders of England in 1066 and work out what had happened to them in 1086 via the magic window of Domesday Book. This has, of course, been attempted before, but never so thoroughly, and in work that Stephen described as “riddled with mistakes” and “methodologically flawed”.3 There is a lot to do here, and it’s not easy: starting estimates are 27,000 pieces of property assigned to 1200 different personal names, only a very few of whom have titles and very many of whom might therefore be people with the same names. I am very familiar with that problem, as of course are they from the PASE Domesday project that Stephen also ran, and the digital solutions they were working out here were consequently of a lot of interest to me.4 They involve combining maps and tables of data, frequencies of names, their predecessors on the estates, their wealth and using all this stuff to arrive, not at solid identifications, but at confidence measures for possible identifications. I like this a lot because it avoids the two common problems with prosopographical databases where identification is uncertain, of either the database format forcing the user to decide where someone belongs before they have the full picture of the database completed, thus not actually allowing that database to help with the identification, or else that format not giving a way of assessing or making links at all, so that the identification always has to be done real-time by eye, and therefore not necessarily with consistency.5 Better still, it does not resolve this problem by having the computer do black-box identifications whose basis isn’t flexible. When our data is as variable as the Domesday data, pretending that we won’t sometimes get garbage out when we put it in is just unrealistic. This solution lets one measure how garbagey each result is, and as Stephen explained it’s solid enough to start doing statistics with, because adequate statistical methods can factor in things like confidence and make them part of the measurements. This should allow them to ask questions like: how long is the tail of small free independent English landholders left after the big guys whom we know lose out? how much of English wealth is actually peasant-held? How does the Church compare, how do women do compared to men? (A preliminary take at that last from 1066 suggests, apparently, that ninety per cent of lay wealth then was held by men and half the rest by Queen Edith! Lucky her?)

After Stephen had talked us through that in taut and dynamic style, Duncan and Chris filled in some texture. Duncan talked about the greater accuracy of micro-studies in this method because of small landholders pretty certainly not holding anywhere else so we see all their stuff; but most of a nation’s worth of micro-studies and a big enough computer of course equals one very detailed macro-study, so it will all add up. Chris, on the other hand, focused on the big identifiable people, not least Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury, who now emerges as the third largest landholder in England tempus rex Eadwardi (I presume after Earl Harold and the king?), and actually least, weirdly, Harold’s sister Gunnhild, although she was a professed nun apparently living on her own estates; nonetheless, they were only 30 hides, which makes her the smallest landholder the team can place in a secure family connection. Chris also showed us Danes settled in Wessex (described as such), mixed-name families, northern king’s thegns taking service with Norman earls and many other possibilities. I’m sure some of these have been spotted before, probably largely by Ann Williams, but of course they’re going to catch all that are reasonably catchable through this project and there seems no question that that will give them new things to say about how Normans became Anglo-Normans, how English dealt with or were dealt with by Normans and how that varied from place to place. There were questions, all the same, including a marvellously Heisenbergian one by Susan Reynolds pointing out that since the king’s commissioners themselves didn’t know the answers they were soliciting from the jurors at the inquests that made up the Domesday data, the enquiry was itself presumably changing the data; but, there wasn’t anything that the team didn’t have some means of testing for and trapping via the statistical analyses. It can’t be rock-solid accurate, of course, it just can’t, because of factors like Susan’s but also because of the variable data quality and so on, and also of course because of the large chunks of England not included in Domesday Book, but it might be as close as we can get…

1. For example the widows, as studied in Emma Cavell, “Aristocratic widows and the medieval Welsh frontier: The Shropshire evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 57-82.

2. One would like, generously, to suppose that it was to offer scope for Tom Jones filks, but if so no-one grasped that nettle.

3. I guess that by this was implied Robin Fleming’s Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991), not least because esteemed commentator Levi warned us some time ago that Stephen makes criticisms of this work in his The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2007) but I don’t know if Stephen would also have meant Ann Williams’s The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge 1995).

4. Cf. Chris Lewis, “Joining the Dots: a methodology for identifying the English in Domesday Book” in Katherine Keats-Rohan (ed.), Family Trees and the Roots of Politics. The prosopography of Britain and France from the tenth to the twelfth century (Woodbridge 1997), pp. 69-87; Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), p. 19.

5. I have actually spoken in public about this, at the Digital Diplomatics conference in Naples that I blogged some time ago, and my paper there, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” is, I believe, still under review for possible publication at this time, though it’s possible that it’s in press and no-one’s told me. Now I’ve said this, proofs will probably arrive in my INBOX just as I head out of town this week…

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.

Seminary XXVI: how to make enemies and mutilate people in twelfth-century Wales

What with various things and stuff, and also the peculiarly High nature of the programme this term, it’s been a while since I’ve attended the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar, but this week just gone it was Charles Insley, and although he works now on high medieval Wales, because he is one of the other people out there who knows that charters are not simple I tend to try and catch up with him when I can. So on 7 May I was there listening to him speak to the title, “Kings, Lords, Charters and the Political Culture of Twelfth-Century Wales”.

Cathedral of St David\'s, Wales

Charles was here mainly addressing an idea that he atrributed mainly to Robert Bartlett, that over the High Middle Ages a certain kind of European culture expands from centre to peripheries until medieval Europe is basically a cultural homogene. Charles was not so much disputing that this happened, but that it happened evenly, unwittingly or in a linear fashion. The examples he made most of were some extremely bloody feuds in the succession to the kingdoms of Powys and Deheubarth in the twelfth century, or some lesser kingdoms I don’t think I could adequately pronounce. There was a great deal of murder, bloodshed, castration and blinding, and complicated charts showing exactly who killed whom, from which the feud might just be reconstructed. Most of this story comes from an unusually verbose section of the rather complicated Brut y Tywysogyon (Chronicle of the Princes), and may therefore be unusual in itself (or possibly, I thought, it’s happening all the time but isn’t normally recorded…). Anyway, the point is that by the thirteenth century succession in Wales doesn’t look like that any more, it has `civilised’ and use is instead made of exile or negotiation. Now that used to be seen as Anglo-Norman influence, but firstly as Charles pointed out the Anglo-Normans can be pretty nasty to their rivals: the story that inevitably came up was the time that Henry I summons all his moneyers to court at Winchester, in 1124, and has most of them castrated and lose their right hand. And on the Welsh border nasty messes like this still happen quite a lot. The second odd thing is that these changes are happening off the border, that is it’s the areas not in direct contact with the English that seem to be cleaning up their act.

This led to a variety of interesting questions and it became one of those seminars that are fun to be at but would be horrible to give, albeit useful, where the audience start working out what it is that you meant to say. The conversation eventually settled on agency as the key concept, and one that Charles had, to be fair, started with, arguing that this cultural transformation was not one that was passively sucked up but actively adopted by people choosing from a kind of political menu of self-representation. Powys and Deheubarth and wherever were cleaning up their act so as to raise their political game to behave more like big kings elsewhere, not like all their neighbours. And this is, we seemed to conclude, how `Europe’ as Bartlett sees it spreads. Only not where you might expect, or when…

Charles was mainly using charters for this, working on the evidence of royal styles, titles and the claims they seemed to make, but as he admitted there are certainly other ways you could get at court culture in Wales in this period. In one of those happy coincidences of the Internet, I more or less logged on the next day to find the Naked Philologist, no less, linking to someone doing just that with the court poetry, and if the name Taliesin means anything to you, and especially if you think it does but you aren’t quite sure what, I do recommend having a look at that also.

(I’m not quite sure that that sentence runs as I’d like it. Something in it wants to be “I logged in next day to find a naked philologist!” But my work browser would, I’m pretty sure, block such things and I assure you that the relevant blogs are all perfectly safe for work and indeed educational in a clothed way.)