Alleged iconoclasm and actual usurpation, now on the web

I meant to leap in quickly with another announcement about coins on the web, but then there was a need to write a Leeds paper and I really haven’t been able to get enough sleep lately and and… well, never mind. The short pause is over and here are some more coins. This time it is forty coins of the Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, and one of his one-time buddy Artabasdos, whose name I find very difficult to spell.

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Leo is a controversial figure, which is why Maria Vrij, who did the actual numismatic work behind this upload, identifying coins and tracing provenances and so on, is working on him, and in turn why she was doing the coins for me; many thanks to her. My part, merely laboriously to convert from an old non-relational database format designed for coins to a new relational one designed for things where one description makes more sense than obverse and reverse, and… yes, well, I can put it down, I can. Back to Leo. He is controversial because of being the emperor under whom the movement known as Iconoclasm, a prohibition of images of heavenly persons and objects, is supposed to have started. That may be true but there are big questions about the extent to which he himself started it or was unfriendly towards images, as opposed to being concerned that people might worship rather than merely venerate them. The detailed sources are largely later and there’s no sign in what remains of what he built or ordered made—of which there is very little—that he thought that images of holy persons were evil per se. But this is much debated, so I’m going to step lightly over it, observing only that, if the written sources for Leo’s reign are awkwardly late and therefore deformed by later disputes, the coins should be all the more vital as an exactly contemporary primary source for his rule and self-portrayal, and what they demonstrate seems mainly to be continuity and dynasticism, making them quite unhelpful for the Iconoclast case.1

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521. And yes, look, there are no images of the human form here, but there were on the gold (above) and bronze (below), plus which, Leo was later remembered as having removed images of the Cross also, which makes it odd how it’s on his coins, no? But the Cross had been on the miliaresion since it was first struck, in the seventh century, so it doesn’t really mean anything except that Leo didn’t change things here.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741 (the date on the coin being immobilised), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534. This was a change Leo did make, putting his son and heir on the coin with him, but that too was nothing that had not been done long before… This coin is much more fun, in fact, because of being overstruck onto an older one, of whose design traces can still be seen around the new one, especially a ghost head and patriarchal cross above the ‘M’ that signals the denomination on the reverse. Resource-saving, or just a really low-effort minting operation?

There are other things Leo was remembered for: he issued new law for the Roman Empire for the first time since Justinian had codified it all, and in 717-718 successfully defended Constantinople against everything the Caliphate could throw at it, among other deeds. But it’s for his Iconoclasm or lack of it that we will continue to know him today, because no-one comes to eighth-century Byzantium except via a course of study and since this is a controversy we’ll teach it…

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople, probably between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

So instead, I just want to bring out a nice little irony in the fact that we put these two rulers’ uploads together.2 Leo first appears in the second reign of Justinian II, who used him as an undercover secret agent against the Caucasus-dwelling people known as the Alans. He came through that and a subsequent emperor, Anastasios II, put him in charge of the miltary in Anatolia, and so when Anastasios was deposed in 715, Leo refused to accept it, and his commander-next-door in Armenia, a chap called Artabasdos. Yup, that one. So Leo now marched on the capital, but predictably, once he had arrived there and forced Emperor Theodosios III to abdicate, he did not haul Anastasios out of the monastery but instead took power himself. In fact, he then had to quell a revolt in Sicily intended to restore Anastasios against him! Artabasdos remained a very senior commander in all of this, and Leo married his daughter Anna to him, so there was some sort of understanding between them at the very least.

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578. Here, I suppose, you could argue that Leo had in fact replaced the canonical image of the Cross with one of his son, but since they’re both holding Crosses, again in perfectly traditional style, it’s a difficult case to make that that was for theological reasons!

That may explain what happened at the end of Leo’s long reign, by which time he had had another child, and indeed crowned him co-emperor in 720 as Constantine V. By 741 Constantine was fully grown and so when his father died he succeeded fairly naturally. But Artabasdos seems not to have liked this, and when Constantine went on campaign in 742 Artabasdos seized control in the capital and raised those bits of the army loyal to him to keep Constantine out. Artabasdos followed this by proclaiming himself and his son Nikephoros emperors, and his wife, Constantine’s sister, empress. There followed a year or so of fighting which Constantine ultimately won, and he duly had both his uncle-in-law and his nephew executed. Noblesse oblige, huh? I don’t know what happened to Anna.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544. This image has the obverse and reverse transposed, sorry. There’s an argument about which they should be, in fact, but maybe that’s too much for a caption…

Artabasdos doesn’t seem to have issued any bronze coin: there is only gold and silver known for him, and not that much of that. This adds to the impression that precious-metal coin and small change were for very different things in the Byzantine Empire, and forms part of the reassessment of the coinage in the Byzantine economy that we probably still need.3 But it’s also a reminder that the machinery of this immense government didn’t rely on any given ruler to make it go; if you held Constantinople, you could get bits of metal out into the world that proclaimed you as emperor to anyone who knew how to read them. And again, with Artabasdos as with Justinian II, we see that although people did this, doing it didn’t necessarily keep you in that position.

Some maybe-interesting searches:

How long do you have to rule after taking power by force for history not to call you a usurper? Longer than Artabasdos, anyway, even if maybe less long than Leo… More soon, anyway; till then, back to the backlog!


This post was written with the aid of Pray for a Good Harvest by Das Ludicroix, which I haven’t played for far too long but is still the oddest thing they recorded.

1. See on all this Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 69-155, which sets a very high evidential standard of proof but certainly has enough to find wanting.

2. I’m here basically following Walter E. Kaegi Jr, “Leo III”, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-III, last modified 19th May 2014 as of 2nd July 2015, but more detail is to be found in Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 70-79.

3. Despite the existence of Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage (London 1902), Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985, repr. 2009) and Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine money: its production and circulation” in Angeliki Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the seventh through the fifteenth century, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39 (Washington DC 2002), 3 vols, online here, III, pp. 909-966. In fact, at least partly because of Hendy…

Big News VI: Leeds for the future

So, I promised something about the hiatus and what was going on in it and this is that post. I made a serious attempt to get back up to date with the blog from July 2014 to Christmas 2014, but then Christmas happened and in that time someone heard me saying that if I was going to get another job after this one I probably needed to heed one academic’s advice and get myself a second book. That someone pointed out that I had been going on about the one I’d write for ages, and would probably be both happier and more successful if I actually got on with it, and they were right, of course, but really the only time I could free up for that was the time I was using for blogging. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that I would still be able to blog on some days, but as you will have seen, that didn’t really work. In any given day I was trying to write a thousand words or so, put in a day at work or teaching, deal with at least the minimum of housework and e-mail and get through the three most immediate three things on my to-do list and, if there was time, read or blog, and basically I never got beyond the three things before midnight. From January to March I was also teaching the fourteenth century for the first time in my life and trying to keep up with the same basic reading I’d set my students. There wasn’t much time spare.

Folie Charles VI forêt du Mans

That said, I did rather enjoy meeting Froissart properly for the first time...He goes on my list of medieval figures I'd like to have a drink with.

Also, I had committed myself to heroic levels of over-achievement rather than fall out of the machine, so that even once there were two sample chapters out for review with a press (about which process I will write separately), I also submitted two articles to journals, went to Catalonia again, then had to consider what I was presenting at Kalamazoo and organise my parts of the travel, and then I was in the USA and then I was giving a paper in Oxford and then it was time to start on the work for Leeds, during which time there was also a big funding bid going in of which I was part. And once I’m done on the Leeds paper, indeed, I’ll be needing to put together one for the week after and then I’m not committed to speaking before an academic audience until September but I do have two chapter-length pieces to write on coins at the Barber… So it’s been pretty busy (and there’s lots to write about).

Jonathan Jarrett standing atop the Castell de Gurb

Me standing on the Castell de Gurb, vainly trying to convey a sense of scale, image used by permission

But also in that time, as you may have noticed if you’re inside the Academy on the British side of the pond, in late January the government’s Research Excellence Framework published its initial results, allowing everyone in the top 30 universities in the UK to claim to be in the top 10 but also allowing them all to guess roughly how much money they might have for the next five years, and there was a consequent deluge of academic vacancies the like of which I have never seen before in this country, pretty much all permanent. So I was also applying for more or less a job a week after that started, and that lasted for two months. In total I applied for seven, I think, and had got some of the way with three other applications when, as it turned out, the first one of all offered me first an interview and then, to my surprise and delight, the post. And thus the real news of this post, already known to many it seems but very much worth announcing even so, is that as of September I will be moving to the University of Leeds to become a Lecturer in Early Medieval History, making up in some way for the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, and that will be my base and job for the foreseeable future!

Jonathan Jarrett plus contract from the University of Leeds

Incontrovertible evidence!

This is obviously really great news. Leeds is a brilliant place to wind up, with many colleagues of like interests and a great deal happening, and I’m really looking forward to it. I now have quite a lot to finish very quickly at the Barber, of course, and I’ve very much enjoyed Birmingham generally in academic terms, it’s been extremely supportive and very good for me as a scholar as well, broadening my comparative range and encouraging me to try for things I wouldn’t have before, as well as much improving certain other crucial details of my life. Still, it’s hard to see what a better outcome could be than this. Neither am I entirely leaving coins behind, not just because of various publication projects ongoing but because of local coin collections whose curators are willing to let me use them for teaching. So it all looks very much like development and success and that all-important security of knowing where one lives for long enough actually to put down roots. Mind you, it also looks like finishing that book, ideally an article or two and starting three new courses all of my own all at the same time; but actually that sounds pretty great too. It has already been suggested to me that I won’t have time to blog any more, of course, by someone who presumably hadn’t checked in in a while and realised I’d stopped already, but I have great hopes of managing it, you know. I may not in fact have blogged last year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress before this one again, I admit. But stay tuned anyway, I’ll be catching up. And now we know what the future holds, who knows what that will cause to happen!

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The most obvious face of the University of Leeds, the Parkinson Building. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


This post was written with the aid of Clandestino by Manu Chao and Maui by Kava Kava.

Coins of an emperor about to lose some face

One of the very many things that needed doing when I arrived in post at the Barber Institute, as you may recall, was to see about getting its coin collection onto the Internet. Some attempt had been made at this by Jonathan Shea in 2008, a representative selection of our holdings, but although that was a start it was only 200-odd coins out of 16,000, so still a little way to go. It took me some time to improve upon it, though; quite some time just to work out what needed to be done, still longer to work out how to do it, and by that time I’d already started putting volunteers to work on it and had to deal with the consequences of setting workflows before I knew what was best to do. The result was that it was March already before stuff finally started to appear online. But when it did, what stuff!

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Because I was reliant on volunteer labour to a great extent, I was also guided very much by what those volunteers wanted to work on. As it happens, though, quite a lot of people wanted to see or teach with coins of Emperor Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), so it was just as well that one volunteer also needed to work on them for their undergraduate dissertation. They went through all our existing records for the coins of Justinian’s first reign, correcting them against what was in the trays and reference catalogues, and then typed those corrections into a spreadsheet. Then I proofed the spreadsheet, converted it laboriously into upload format and navigated the whole upload process until it was done. And the results are here!

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395; from the sublime to the seriously heavily-used… Also not to scale, this is a good bit bigger than the solidi.

Justinian II is famous among early medieval historians principally for getting deposed in 695 and having his nose cut off, so as to disqualify him from returning to the throne. It wasn’t enough, since, allegedly adorned with a false nose made of gold (because why would you settle for less?), he came back anyway, executed his supplanter Leontius and the man who had since supplanted him, Tiberius Apsimar, in the Hippodrome and managed six more years of rule before his enemies finally decided to finish the job.1 There are various ways one can view this career, more and less favourable, but even this essentially laudatory write-up concludes, justifiably I feel, that “Emperor Justinian II of Byzantium wasn’t a brilliant military strategist, a capable ruler, a benevolent dictator, or even a… half-decent human being” (and the ellipsis is over obscene language, so if you’re bothered by such, don’t click the link, you won’t like it). For numismatists, though, Justinian II has a more particular importance, because in about 692, he seems to have decided to remove his own portrait from the obverse, ‘heads’ side of his biggest gold coins and replace it with one of Christ, relegating himself to the reverse, where he hung determinedly on to the Cross and was named not as emperor but as Christ’s servant.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381. Its siblings B4380 and B4383 are currently on display in Inheriting Rome, so come and see for yourself!

There are various views about what was going on here, which I don’t think is obvious (or rather, several equally obvious interpretations spring to mind), and I will write about that a little way down the line, but a teaching point I like to make with these coins is that, whatever public image Justinian was trying to project with these coins, it wasn’t effective enough, as he was deposed and eventually killed anyway. I think this should make us think about the idea that coinage was somehow propaganda. But what should make us think about this still more is that this change only took place on the gold and silver coinage, and only at Constantinople.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422. Again, not to scale, this thing is about the size of a small fingernail…

So, on the bronze coinage that was the stuff anyone would actually have used in the cities every day, although Justinian’s coins did have some innovations (and we may have a unique one of them in the Barber collection) this changed policy of representation wasn’t reflected at all. Who was the audience for this propaganda supposed to be, exactly? To answer that, we would need to understand what the solidus was actually for and how it circulated better than we do, but for the time being, I like to think that it helps if you can look at the coinage as a whole.2 In which spirit, here are some links to particular searches for your enjoyment:

It’s all quite like actual numismatics, isn’t it? Thanks need to be added to this post to Emily Hancock, who did the spadework with printouts, catalogues and coins, and to Jan Starnes, wherever she may be, who did the original photography many years hence. Without them, it would have been a lot longer coming about!


1. Although I’ve never seen it, there is apparently a book-length study of the reign of Justinian, Constance Head, Justinian II of Byzantium (Madison 1972); some coverage can be found in John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: transformation of a culture, revised edn. (Cambridge 1997), pp. 70-78, but my immediate reference here was Paul A. Hollingsworth, “Justinian II” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II, pp. 1084-1085.

2. The most thorough guide to his coinage is Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 84-149 esp. pp. 97-99, but a recent contribution has been made by Michael Humphreys, “The ‘War of Images’ Revisited: Justinian’s Coinage Reform and the Caliphate” in The Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 173 (London 2013), pp. 229–244.

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

Name in Print XVI

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.

fsmasbbovo

No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!


Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…


The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

Name in Print XV

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Second of the 2014 outputs now! In 2011, as you may remember, I went to a conference in Naples about digital study of charter material. It’s been a long time coming but the proceedings of that conference are now published, in the Beihefte of the Archiv für Diplomatik, and my paper is in there, the last in the volume indeed. It’s called “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” and it’s about database techniques that try not to over-determine structure. Let me put that another way by exemplifying with a paragraph. Taking a data search from the Casserres material as an example, I write:

“I think that, where I have been prepared to deduce here, the deductions are all reasonable, but of course they are not certain. This is not a failing of the database, however; it is an accurate result. There is not enough information to make those judgements, and the data returned from the query accurately reflects that. This design is set up to require the human user to make the final decision, or not. This subset is small enough that I can, even without a computer, establish accurately that we cannot tell which of these [homonymous people] are the same on a logical basis, and I ought not, therefore, to entertain data schemas that would make me do so. We do not, in fact, have to make technical solutions for these problems, because the historian can do as much with the information presented this way as he or she can with it anchored to look-up tables and so on.”

This is coming out of the problem of building a structured database whose purpose is to allow one to identify people without having to identify them to build the database. If this sounds like a problem you too have faced, or expect to, I may have something to say to you! It’s probably as close to a publication of ‘my’ database method as there will be, and on a first read-through possibly actually free of typos, which I have never before managed. I humbly put it before you all.

Grim statistics: this was written in September 2011, revised and submitted in November 2011 and revised after editor’s comments in March 2012 and then again in April 2013. Proofs arrived in December 2013 and it’s taken 9 months to come to press, not what I expect from the Archiv which, last time I dealt with it, went through the whole submission process in that time. From first submission to press would thus be 2 years 11 months, rather below even my long average. But, fortunately indeed for a technical paper, my methods are so low-tech that they remain useful I think…


Full citation: J. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with. The human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Archiv für Diplomatik Beihefte 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 291-302.

Name in Lights X

Cover of Josep María Salrach's Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l'any mil (Vic 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013)

The 2014 outputs have begun to appear at last! Though thankfully this is already not the last of them, it is the first, a review by me of Josep María Salrach’s new book as you see above for The Medieval Review; it is online here. The final version of this went off at the end of June, it was up some time earlier this month, not too bad; sometimes online publishing actually does live up to its promise for quick delivery. The book, by the way, is rather good, but if you want to know why I think so, well, read the review, it’s open-access… Some of the points I make there in a sentence or so will turn up here as worked-up blog posts in due course. Stay tuned also, however, for more publications news!


Full citation: J. Jarrett, review of Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013) in The Medieval Review 14.09.16, online at http://hdl.handle.net/2022/18731, last modified 15 September 2014 as of 27 September 2014.

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. Since August 2014, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one


Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.

Gallery

Dead scholars’ books II

This gallery contains 4 photos.

In very late August 2014 I found myself the recipient of a slightly morbid parcel of books that had once been in the library of Professor Nicholas Brooks. His academic library was sold off via Amazon to raise money for … Continue reading

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading

Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected

[I wrote the first draft of this post in August 2014, pretty much all in one go, and queued it. This is even more ridiculous than usual, as since then I’ve actually been to the relevant archive and answered the question it poses. But it’s still a good question, I still wrote the post and I feel very strongly about queues, so I’m putting it up anyway, and you’ll just have to wait for the answer…]

After months, nay years, I have finally found the time to finish Michel Zimmermann’s immense two-volume book Écrire et lire en Catalogne. There are 28 appendices – 28! – and the very last of them is a set of commented plates that include some really interesting documents. And one of them, sitting starkly against one of the things I have most often observed about this complex book, is this one:

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b, as presented in Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

Now this dates from 1044, which is later than I usually run. So, although it is from Vic, my favourite archive, I’ve never seen the real thing. I really want to now, though, and it must go on the list. What Zimmermann thinks is important about it is the scribe, whose name was Alba, which is of course feminine in any Romance language you’d like to name.1 She was, therefore, a female scribe, and by the look of the charter, perfectly regular despite its unpleasant state of preservation, she knew what she was doing. (Some of the look of it must just be the photography, in any case. I have another picture of the same charter that isn’t half as bad, though black and white, so I guess that this one has been treated for increased visibility; I’ve applied nothing more than a bit of extra contrast myself.2) We only have the one document signed by Alba, but that may just be because she wrote for laypeople, although it could instead be that she was one of the literate women the sources occasionally show us, whom Zimmermann almost always prefers to deny, and got called in to write where others could not. It’s a neat and perfectly normal if quite thick charter hand, though, so I doubt that.

A second Riuprimer charter of 1044

Witness this very similar-looking document by the scribe Arnau in the same place a couple of months earlier, it being Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. no. 1026 and lámina 95.

All the same, it bothers me. Look at the left margin of the first document and you will quickly see that this is an example of something I have seen before at Vic, where two documents are written transverse on the same long strip of parchment.3 In the other case I have, the same scribe wrote both, which helps to explain why the same parchment was available to two different sets of transactors (and raises serious but unanswerable questions about archiving—were these people storing their documents with the scribes that made them, like later Italian notaries?4) And it looks, from what very little we can see of the script of the left-hand document, as if it’s the same hand here as well. But Zimmermann, and perhaps more significantly given that author’s tendency to push women out of his account, the index of scribes in the Vic edition of their eleventh-century charters both maintain that Alba wrote only one known document, so I’m willing to bet there’s another scribal signature on the left-hand one. Obviously I need to see it to be sure, but if so, as Mark Knopfler once sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of ’em must be wrong”: either one of the scribal attributions is fictive, or there’s some really similar handwriting around Riuprimer in the 1040s.5 I can’t say any more without seeing it, but which would you guess?

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243 in happy union, click through for (slightly) bigger

Also worth thinking about: if one of the names is fictive, why? When this happened at Sant Joan de Ripoll (that is, when a scribe can be seen to have written a document that has someone else’s name at the bottom) it’s because the person whose name goes at the bottom was the abbey’s apparent chief scribe.6 But that doesn’t really work when they’re both on the same parchment, and whether we see here a woman asserting her right to have writing that she had done and never mind the lazy notary (perhaps her father? I’m not sure if an unmarried woman would sign as femina, I’ve never quite figured out what that appelation means when it’s used), or rather a notary with a narky female client who wanted it noted that she could have written the document even if she hadn’t, we also need to explain the fact that this was not apparently rendered daft bu the other scribe’s signature. OK, if there is one. I think I have now hypothesized as far as my lack of evidence can take me…


The final version of this post was brought to you with the aid of Krankschaft, III, which is excellent.

1. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. 1031 and lám. 96.

3. Arxiu Capitular de Vic, cal. 6 nums 242 & 243, printed most recently in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1718 & 1719.

4. See Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Wien 2011), pp. 163-171.

5. Dire Straits, “Industrial Disease” on Love over Gold (Vertigo 1982).

6. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 29-30; Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205.

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing some really big-hitting speakers but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty': Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

Metablog X: academics and the blogosphere

Returning to the blog after a long absence means contemplating viewing figures that are a fraction of what they once were, my own fault really, and some of the peculiar questions about audience that I have explored in print.1 In particular, the blog now has more followers than it gets views per day, a new and rather odd development, given how few of the followers seem to have medieval interests. But is this blog confined to medievalists? Well, evidently not; even from the commenting population we see—and that is all we can see, really—that there are people of many fields reading here, and that’s great, I love it. But there are some medievalists too, challenging me both to write for them and for the untrained but interested who presumably make up most of the readership.

Picture of a WordPress comment box

This is not an actual comment box, this is just a picture of a comment box. I’m sure it won’t be confusing at all.

The other side of this coin, however, is that I know that many more medievalists read this than ever comment, because they’ve told me so, either in person or by e-mail (usually with corrections…). Only a very few leave comments. I struggle to profile them, but they are much outweighed by those who do not. Now, this puzzles me to an extent. It’s an open forum, after all, you only need to enter an e-mail address to comment and it doesn’t have to be real, so I’d expect the old Usenet rule to work and to be corrected in the open pretty much every time I make a mistake.2 I’d welcome that, except for the bit where I make mistakes, but I’d also think that there are conversations here in which people could usefully participate, either by demonstrating their own expertise or by helping in our greater mission of outreach and the modelling of scholarship to an interested but untrained audience, which anyone who has a blog that has run long enough to get an audience knows we have.

My pet example, showing both sides, is the argument that blew up about my attitude to Alcuin in this post. Probably rightly telling me off for being dismissive of the character and work of Charlemagne’s own teacher, the scholar commenting told me I should have read a piece of theirs in Peritia, which is not an easy journal to get. After a few exchanges this conversation went to e-mail, in which among other things I tried to persuade the scholar to put it back on the blog and explain to people who could not get at a copy of Peritia, which is to say, all but maybe two per cent of the readership, what they had said in this article and why it mattered for the argument. I could not persuade them—I guess because I was essentially declining to do the work of reading them while asking them to do the work of free writing for my blog, kind of fair enough—and eventually—most of a year later—I read the article and tried to fill in the gap. But we could have kept the conversation going here, and I think people would have been interested.

Beyond my guesses, I’ve heard three sorts of explanation for non-participation on this blog, but each from one person only and there must be more. One, the most obvious, is that it’s my blog, and that people feel they need some kind of permission to participate. (I had one person even ask me if I minded if they read it, and this was not someone new to the Internet.) And yes, I do exercise some kind of control here; I’ve only ever deleted one comment that wasn’t plainly automated spam, for explicit racist attack on another commentator, but I’ve warned a few people and I argue back. But on the other hand anyone can comment and sometimes this produces wonderful meetings of minds that could never happen in real life (though if I ever could get Joan Vilaseca and Alex Woolf together in a bar that would be a grand gathering indeed). I don’t know how I would make it more appealing for such persons to join in. Then secondly there is the old time argument, ‘I just don’t have time to do more than read’, which is also very hard to argue with given I don’t even have time to read others’ blogs any more myself. And thirdly there is the answer I got from one very senior scholar, that they felt that their participation might intimidate other people from joining in, more thoughtful, if bewildering when one knows how approachable the scholar in question is in real life, but understandable, although I hope misjudged. I have no idea which of these might be more common more widely.

But I could suspect especially also, that people fear that, like blogging themselves, an exercise that even now it’s de rigeur for project outreach most scholars leave to their department’s or project’s postgraduates, it makes them look unserious. Yet this is, I do believe, one of the easiest and most important ways to be out there among the wider world, our notional public, showing what we do and how and why it might be fun or even worth supporting. So I also suspect a basic discomfort with doing that, with somehow being answerable to a demand to explain one’s work. We do, after all, get paid to teach, so in some ways this is pro bono labour. But the fear of explaining and demystifying what we do leaves us vulnerable to charges of living in ivory towers, unable to contend with pop historians who tell people what they remember from school dressed up as research, and in general making a poor impression, as well as depriving the audience of the value of your contribution. So, please, if you’re a scholar and reading, and your interest is piqued by a post, do consider leaving a comment on it; and if your interest was piqued and you’re not a scholar or don’t think of yourself as such, don’t let that stop you doing so too. This is all a conversation worth having!


1. J. Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991-995, doi: 10.1111/lic3.12016.

2. Though if you are using a fake address, I do hope you are Internet-savvy enough to use <nothing@example.com>, the only e-mail address guaranteed never to exist.